Reviewed on PS3
I’d like to take you on a trip, back to the glorious year of 1995. Toy Story had just premiered in theatres; Gangsta’s Paradise was playing on a nation’s CD Walkmen; and the Sony Playstation was about to launch onto American shores. The Playstation was one of the first consoles to use the compact disc format and was technically very impressive. It was also saddled with the hefty price tag of $299, as well as competition from a collection of great new releases for the Super Nintendo, including Chrono Trigger, Earthbound, and Killer Instinct. Clearly, the Playstation needed some games to show off its superior tech; and I can think of none of these first-run games I liked more than Twisted Metal.
Twisted Metal was Sony’s answer to Mario Kart. A more “mature” game with the same core combat mechanics, emphasising the arena combat and eschewing the racing. It gave us “dark” characters, including Sweet Tooth, a crazy homicidal clown who drives an ice cream truck, Mister Ash, a truck driving demon (FROM HELL!), and a race car driver who also happens to be a ghost. It seems pretty ridiculous now, but it was designed to appeal to kids that felt they were more “grown up” and had matured beyond their cute little Mario and Yoshi games. I am only slightly embarrassed to admit I fell for it hook, line, and sinker.
Twisted Metal was all about ridiculous weapons, bizarre vehicles of death, and two-player destructiveness. It was also the first game for Sony by David Jaffe (of God of War fame), who would go on to direct the majority of the series. Though the graphics look rudimentary today, it was impressive at the time and ultimately helped the game sell a million copies, becoming one of the first Sony PS1 Greatest Hit games (The video game equivalent of going platinum). Sony would go on to make three sequels on the PS1 and a complete revamp on the PS2. Now, after 15 years, David Jaffe and Eat Sleep Play reanimate the franchise on PS3. Does it hold up? Can anyone still make a car combat game? Is 90s anti-hero darkness still relevant? It kind of does; they sure can; and oh god no, but the developers are in on the joke.
To start with, if there is anything to say of 2012’s Twisted Metal, it is that it remains extremely faithful to its source material. Like the original, the premise for the game is that the wealthy businessman, Calypso–who I promise you is definitely not Satan–is putting on the Mortal Car Kombat tournament. The winner will get any wish they desire and, just like in past games, should really enroll in Proper Wish-Making Grammar & Syntax 101, or they are liable to be very disappointed with their prize.
Unlike the previous games, in which you had a dozen or so characters, each with their own car and their own beginning and ending stories, Twisted Metal focuses on three core characters that get a large, collective stable of vehicles. This allows for more in-depth cut scenes of the characters, which are done as a stylish mix of live action and CG against a grindhouse cult movie motif. These story scenes are excellent, fleshing out our characters in interesting ways. When supplemented with the funny stage intro dialogue between Calypso and our three contestants, Twisted Metal tells a complete story for each of them in a small amount of time. It’s somewhat disappointing that the variety of crazy characters in the previous game isn’t coming back, but this change of focus allows them to make the series more believable and grounded for the modern audience, while keeping the spirit and some of the popular characters of the original game alive.
The actual game play is equally as excellent, and reminds me directly of the last game in the series, Twisted Metal: Black. I found myself familiar with the controls already, easily following old routines for how I used to play the previous games, even though I hadn’t played a Twisted Metal title in about 10 years. The single-player mode generally does a good job of varying up the stages and game play types so that you aren’t doing the same thing twice, and you are consistently challenged. The game also gives you a new story-related cut scene every few races and a boss fight to cap off each of the three characters’ stories.
Some of the modes, however–most notably the races and some of the boss fights–bring the action right into a brick wall. The race stages require you to come in first, and this forces you to confine your choices to the fastest car available. I also can’t stress enough that Twisted Metal is not a racing game and is at its best when you are shooting up your competition, so the more flexible driving and shooting controls don’t serve it well here. The last race has what, on paper, should seem like a great idea: a checkpoint race where you go up buildings, jump between parking garages, go up and down crazy ramps, and make insane jumps. The problem here is that even on normal difficulty, the AI is set to race very aggressively, and if you miss a single jump, or screw up a turn, you might as well restart (as I had to do about 40 times). Thus, you had best get used to enjoying the long loading screen and its many tool tips.
Speaking of the tool tips, it brings to mind another issue, which is that there is no hand-holding. Now, I consider myself a full-fledged member of the He-Man Old-School Gaming Club, but the difficulty in this game and the finer mechanics could have used a tutorial as part of the story. There is a training mode that will explain how to use your character, and this is great, but the game draws no attention to it, and it remains hidden behind menus. There are so many quick-use weapons and ideas, as well as vehicle-specific combos that are only really explained in the tool tips. This lack of hand-holding is also apparent in story mode: for example, in the second boss battle, your only hint about how to defeat the boss is an in-game sign saying “Sacrifice.” The solution involves killing a certain color of respawning bad guy, then dragging the people that pop out of that enemy car back to the map start–somewhat less than intuitive.
This leads to one of my more upsetting issues with the game, which was the play balancing. The vehicles all feel different and play differently (one even flies!), but unfortunately the cost of this diversity is an uneven experience. Some cars, especially the lighter ones, have some decent speed and offensive heft but seem as though they get destroyed almost immediately, giving you no time to bring your weapons to bear. On the other hand, cars like Sweet Tooth’s ice cream truck are basically tanks–they can be shot for minutes at a time without moving and still dish out heavy punishment.
The damage systems themselves are also all over the place. I favored the “Reaper” motorcycle, a glass cannon of a vehicle, which is pretty quick and able to fire chainsaws and rockets for 50 damage as its special. However, reading the tool tips let me know that if I just held down the dpad while moving before I threw, the chainsaw would then do three times the damage at 150 damage a shot. This is about seven and a half times the damage of an average missile and would destroy a lighter vehicle in one shot. It’s a special attack exclusively for the “Reaper” motorcycle, though, so none of the other lights have something even remotely comparable to the chainsaw (but they still share the Reaper’s propensity towards near-instant death in a fire fight).
This lack of balance is frustrating as multiplayer mode degenerates into players using these few trick vehicles that you can be strategic with, rather than the full, diverse mix of cars the game provides. This is somewhat mitigated by the game starting you off with only a few cars and then having you unlock more; but this, too, is frustratingly confining and just leaves you wanting to unlock the better cars. You then have to use the few earlier unlocks to try to kill the players who have already unlocked the gimmicky higher level cars, a process which is no fun at all.
The multiplayer itself is as I remember it: fast, but strategic and fun. The game has many different free-for-all multiplayer modes, including classic deathmatch and a set number of respawns mode. There are also multiple team-based modes, including team deathmatch and the interesting and well-advertised nuke mode, which I enjoyed the best out of the team options. Nuke mode is played in multiple teams, each with a leader that is one of the main characters of the game. The objective of the game is to destroy the enemy leader’s vehicle, then pull the leader themselves from the wreckage and throw them into a wood chipper that your team inexplicably possesses. This then enables you to launch a nuclear missile (a small one, I promise) at a statue of their leader that the other team has in what is a perfect microcosm of all the crazy wonderful stupid things about this game and the series.
Even with that great mode, I still couldn’t get away from my love of classic Twisted Metal deathmatch and preferred that mode the best…when I could connect, that is. There are persistent connection problems both getting into and staying in a match. Jaffe’s own YouTube announced a patch will hopefully will be helping out with this in the future, but when I played this relief was not yet present.
Twisted Metal is a curious game. Many aspects of it seem very polished, from the excellent level design, to the great art assets (especially the cutscenes), to the quick and responsive controls. Many of the other aspects of the game, however, seem like just a small amount of play testing and additional development could have fixed what are now frustrating, problematic bumps. It’s still very much the Twisted Metal series I enjoyed growing up, and fans of the series should dig right in. I have more caution in recommending it to new players, as the punishing difficulty, lack of hand holding, and high need to get down a strategy for your car to be competitive are significant barriers to entry. If you can get past all that, however, there is a very solid core game to find and enjoy here.