Here at PALGN, we always look at things in a very objective manner, taking into account all aspects of a title and discussing what we believe - as a collective - are the highest and lowest points of each game. It's important, then, that I as a games journalist make one thing very clear to you, my dear reader: I am a wrestling fan. I've watched wrestling for as long as I can remember, and cannot live without my weekly dose of over-the-top muscly men growling at each other mixed in with the occasionally random yet always welcome bikini contest or cat-fight. Whenever a wrestling game is released, there is a special type of personal excitement that I get which is probably unexplainable to anybody who isn't a wrestling fan. A new roster, new match modes, different story lines, new finishing moves and more are always the order of the day, and with the yearly editions of WWE Smackdown vs. Raw hogging the entire market for almost 10 years now, many of us were keen for a change.
TNA Impact! is stepping in at just the right time, where the WWE games are getting a bit past their prime and another franchise could swoop in and give them a run for their money, possibly going as far as to force the guys at Yukes to finally give Smackdown vs. Raw the overhaul that it truly needs.
At least, that's the dream.
Kurt Angle (aka Mr. 'I left WWE to go to TNA, woo!') mentioned that this game would play a major part in giving TNA the push it needs to fight toe-to-toe with the WWE, because it's just that good. Someone should seriously sit down with the Olympic gold medallist and let him know a thing or two about videogames, then, because TNA Impact! is still, unfortunately, many miles behind that of the WWE Smackdown vs. Raw games. The biggest issue with the game is one that may not have been such a shortcoming in the past, and that issue is that everything just feels a little underwhelming. We've been spoiled by the Smackdown series in past years because they have had so many features and options that it's almost impossible to experience everything the game has to offer, and while TNA Impact! is not a bad first attempt at a wrestling game, it can't compare to the vast amount of options that the WWE games have to offer.
Before talking about what's wrong with it though, let's talk about what's right with it. I have no shame in admitting as a hardcore WWE fan that when I had my first match in TNA Impact!, I was incredibly impressed. The gameplay flowed seamlessly, counters to my moves looked inventive and natural, and the match was competitive with my AI opponent. Many ooh's and aah's took place as I giggled at a few of the more dramatic and stylish moves on offer, and I thought to myself that this could actually be the wrestling game to dethrone the almighty Smackdown series. The gameplay was designed to be fast-paced and simplistic so that it could be exciting and easy to pick up and play, and on that incredibly basic level of gaming, it succeeds with flying colours. It's when you delve a bit deeper however that you start to realise where the title is lacking in polish, and the gameplay, while fun at first, is actually incredibly shallow and somewhat juvenile in its execution.
For starters, there is only one counter button for your grapples and strikes, which makes said countering system a little less about trying to predict your opponents actions and more about just pressing it at the right time, regardless of what move they're trying to pull off. The major downfall with the gameplay though is that there isn't much variety in the moves themselves. After only a couple of matches we were seeing different wrestlers of different shapes and sizes doing the exact same monotonous animations, and considering there are not many moves available to each wrestler in the first place, the lack of variety is certainly disappointing. Submission holds are also lacking in variety, all of them requiring you to have your opponent lying on their back to begin with, and there are no moves that can be achieved from standing behind your opponent. Sure, you can pull off German suplexes and the like, but they all begin as a front grapple and then shift during the animation, so your options are certainly limited when it comes to smashing your opponent to the point of the 1-2-3.
There are some nice additions to the gameplay however that give us a glimmer of hope. First, submission holds (while there may not be that many of them) have a simple mini game that goes along with them. A three button combination comes up on screen under each HUD, and the player that presses them the fastest gets the advantage. The person applying the submission can keep the hold going for longer if they are the quickest, and the person in the actual hold can break it by tapping the buttons faster than the other player. It's simple, but it works quite well and rarely feels unfair. When being pinned, another mini game of sorts begins where you must simply move the analog sticks as much as possible to get out of the predicament. It may be basic, but the on-screen indicator at least lets you know how close you are depending on how much damage you've taken, which is better than not knowing your chances at all and mashing every button imaginable.
One thing that is also noticeably lacking from the game is the sheer amount of things to do; while we understand that the TNA roster is smaller than that of WWE, there simply isn't enough variety, and the omission of any female wrestlers to play as is a sore one, considering the large amount of female talent in the company itself. As well as this, there aren't too many game modes to choose from; single, tag-team, fatal four-way and a few slight variations on these are all the game has to offer, except for the one positive addition which is unique to TNA Impact!, and that's the Ultimate X Match, which has competitors climbing the turnbuckle and then navigating a structure to the point where they are hanging above the ring, trying to retrieve big red X by successfully pressing a button at the right time in a mini game before their opponent drags them back down to the mat. It's not necessarily a dramatic change in core design from say, a ladder or cage match, but at least it's something different, cosmetically speaking, and can be a bit more competitive than your standard match to be decided by pin-fall or submission.
The story mode on offer here is a bit of a novelty, but unfortunately is made a necessity if you wish to unlock the other wrestlers on the roster along with other arenas and more unlockables. Like most narratives of this type within gaming, you start off as an unknown and have to work your way up from the bottom of the roster to become the best in the business. There are all kinds of twists and turns along the way, and eventually when all is said and done, you'll be the number one guy in the company. It's not an appalling effort, but you'll need to create a wrestler of your own for this mode, being unable to use anyone from the existing roster. The kicker here is that there aren't that many moves on offer for your created character, considering many of them are unlocked by experiencing success in exhibition matches. So the moves your character will inevitably have are fairly weak and unimpressive compared to that of your foes, unless you spend a considerable amount of time outside the career mode first. This might not be a problem for some, but people keen to jump straight into the story will be left with a harsh handicap to say the least.
One thing that we must applaud the developers of TNA Impact! for is that the wrestlers themselves all look pretty good, and they animate realistically as well. As we said earlier, the matches generally have a flow to them from counter to counter, and this is attributed heavily to the fact that the animations look so impressive. The character models look good and you can see them sweat as matches go on, and the arenas generally look good as well (apart from the crowd, which thankfully are in the shadowy background so that you won't notice them too much). Entrances are unfortunately cut short for reasons unknown to us, and the commentary seems to input random thoughts rather sporadically rather than being a constant chatter, which sounds kind of strange at times. Some people may also be a bit confused as to why there is no referee in the game, along with no rope breaks. Steel chairs are also the only available weapon in the game, and there are no disqualifications for any matches, but perhaps the fan in me is just being a bit too nit-picky.
When it comes down to it, TNA Impact! is coming in as a fresh gaming franchise and is inevitably being pitted up against the WWE Smackdown vs. Raw series, which already has had numerous yearly attempts to refine itself and beef up to be the jam-packed wrestling game monster that it is today. While we've been fairly judgmental in this review in comparing TNA Impact! to its competition, we honestly do so with the best intentions; at its core, this is not a terrible wrestling game, but is perhaps a bit mild considering what's already available. The foundations have been laid out for a high-quality wrestling franchise that even this WWE fan admits could indeed be some serious competition for the Smackdown games in the future. When all is said and done, however, TNA Impact! just doesn't have enough variety or options to keep you coming back for more, and some fundamental design decisions prevent the gameplay from being good enough to classify this title as a must-purchase on any level.