Twisted Metal Hands-on, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love 'Nuke' ModeS

David Jaffe, co-creator of the 16-year-old Twisted Metal series, has an entertaining way of describing the things about his new game, a new Twisted Metal for the PlayStation 3. One was his description of the game's new Juggernaut vehicle, a semi-truck that can load teammates into its armored bed "Spy Hunter or Knight Rider style." I like references like that.

The other was how he described the newly revealed Axel, the two-wheeled vehicle familiar to anyone who's played a Twisted Metal game. That vehicle has a special attack called Warwheel, which compresses its wheels together into a protective shell, projecting deadly spikes designed to pierce other cars up close. Jaffe called it a "violent Oreo cookie" of a vehicle.

He also says that this new Twisted Metal, due October 4, is the "distilled essence of Twisted Metal."

"We were able to, I feel, really get close to that initial vision of Twisted Metal from '95," Jaffe said at a preview event in Los Angeles. "It feels right, the spirit, heart, voice and soul of it is still beating loud and clear."

Twisted Metal is the longest running franchise for the PlayStation, Jaffe noted at last night's event. His team's latest effort feels like a mix of something old and familiar mixed with new conventions, a game that pays attention to what popular first-person shooters and fighting games are doing in the online multiplayer space. There a feeling of classic and modern in this Twisted Metal, which Jaffe says is "not so much a reboot" as it is a fresh start.

"We hadn't had a big, console Twisted Metal since 2001," Jaffe told me, "so calling this Twisted Metal 8 would have confused a whole new generation of gamers and sent the wrong message, like 'You're not welcome here.'"

But players will likely feel welcome with Twisted Metal's familiar mechanics and now-expected multiplayer features, like persistent player progression.

"You don't do an online shooter today without a persistent experience system," Jaffe said. "There are some things I love about it, there are some things I hate about the fact that that's sort of what gamers demand. But it is a good meta system."

"We have it, we like it, it does add to the meta game."

While Jaffe couldn't confirm specific details about the game's experience system and how it rewarded players, he explained that "Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter are heavy influences on this game" when trying to convey how that experience would be spent.

"Balance is key, so it's not going to be like, if you're at level 12 and I'm at level 1, I don't stand a chance," he added. "If you're level 12, because you've been playing a long time, but I'm a good Twisted Metal player, I can wipe the floor with you."

"It's more about more content, but it's still balanced content."

Jaffe was there to deliver news about Twisted Metal and give us more time with three of the game's multiplayer modes, so let's talk about that.

The Vehicles

We were introduced to the Juggernaut, a massive tractor trailer that's slow-moving, but heavily armored. As already mentioned, teammates can enter the truck, should the driver of the Juggernaut open its doors, and turn the vehicle into a terrifying weapon. In addition to its standard weapon set, two players can hop into the Juggernaut and man its two powerful mounted turrets.

The Juggernaut is also capable of deploying these huge spiked rolling balls from its flanks, deadly for any vehicles tailing it or riding too close.

We also got a look at some of the tricks other vehicles are capable of. We've seen the Talon, the game's lone helicopter before, but we got a chance to go hands-on with its most interesting capability, a magnetized tow cable that can lift allies and enemies off the battlefield. While the Talon is inherently weak, the ability to pick up a foe, lift him into the sky, the drop him to his death is so very rewarding.

Other vehicles were on hand, like the exterminator's truck, the Vermin. It has a mounted missile that can be deployed and controlled remotely for maximum damage. There was the Death Warrant, a muscle car that can launch a charged up volley of "Blood Missiles." The Junkyard Dog, the medic/tow truck of the group can launch taxis as its special attack. You may have already seen the Reaper, a motorcycle that outfits your player with a bazooka, a chainsaw, a flaming chainsaw and the ability to launch propane bombs.

The Spectre, the Roadboat, the Meatwagon, and Axel rounded out the selectable vehicles. The Outlaw, an SUV, was not playable but visible. Here's where you'll play with them...

The Arenas

Our demo started with a few rounds of deathmatch in the familiar town of Sunsprings, complete with malls, gas stations and other suburban amenities. We'd played it at E3 last year and found it largely unchanged, with the exception of new, more believable level destruction.

More interesting was the Black Rock Stadium level, which introduced level dangers like a lava pit and swinging spike pendulums. It was also a level that dynamically changed its architecture during battle, with platforms rising and falling, offering access to and cutting off access to the power-ups scattered around your typical Twisted Metal level.

The level also contains an homage to Twisted Metal 2 fan favorite map Suicide Slide, borrowing some of its architecture for a portion of this much larger level.

Black Rock Stadium also features level support items, like a floating health orbiter, which repairs your vehicle if you can track it down. Jaffe showed another level support feature, which lets you ensnare members of the audience watching the Twisted Metal carnage, launch them into the battlefield, then run them over for health and power-ups.

Then there was Harbor City, a hazy, industrial map on which we played Nuke. It was dirty, polluted and bisected by a dried up river basin.

Deathmatch, Last Man Standing & Nuke

Twisted Metal has the requisite "meat and potatoes mode" Deathmatch, which we played as Team Deathmatch in Sunsprings. More interesting, however, was the Team Last Man Standing variant, in which players draw from a shared pool of lives.

But most interesting was the mode that David Jaffe showed onstage at E3 last year, Nuke. This is the initially complex team-base mode that puts a spin on Capture The Flag. Players are required to snatch the opposing team's Faction Leader, drive their flopping body to the nearest launcher, lob them into that device for a "sacrifice," then guide a remote controlled missile in the giant, neon effigy of the enemy faction. When I saw this displayed at E3 2010, it felt too chaotic, too confusing and too complicated to work. Even Jaffe called it "the deep end of the pool" of the new Twisted Metal.

But my initial impressions of Nuke were wrong. Nuke not only works, it's potentially the most compelling thing about the new Twisted Metal. Previously, Nuke had both teams competing to capture the other's Faction Leader at the same time. Now, Nuke rounds are split into innings, with opponents going back and forth, capturing enemy leaders or defending their own.

David Jaffe says he has his own concerns about the reaction and reception to Nuke mode, saying "It could go one of two ways."

"Either no one gives it enough time to really learn it and it's this kind of failed experiment in game design," Jaffe told me. "Yeah, you might get some hardcores, but most people play team deathmatch. My fantasy is that it really does become this kind of evergreen mode that slowly begins to build an audience of Twisted Metal fans that go 'That mode is deep and rich and fresh.'"

Jaffe touched on Nuke mode's emergent gameplay, as he described it, showcasing some of the tactics being employed by Eat Sleep Play's testers, tactics that could make this Twisted Metal's best mode. Now, the most straightforward way to win at Nuke is to sprint to the Faction Leader, pick him or her up, then sprint to the nearest missile launcher. Wait for the sacrifice to complete, then steer your missile.

But more creative players may want to employ smarter methods. For example, a Talon helicopter pilot may want to pick up the car that has captured the Faction Leader and fly him to the missile launcher faster. Or, perhaps, a player who has ensnared the Faction Leader may want to take shelter in a Juggernaut's trailer and be safely escorted to the missile launcher.

On the defending side, players may want to camp those launchers, waiting for the delivery vehicle to park before attacking. Or they may want to team up to take down the enemy missile with, say, the remote controlled rocket of the Vermin.

From the reception at last night's Twisted Metal event, it seemed that Nuke might have been the highlight for many who were cool on the game's Deathmatch-focused modes. It was certainly my favorite experience from the event and easier to understand once I'd gotten my hands dirty with it.

Twisted Metal is currently dated for October 4, 2011 for the PS3.