As I played through the first single-player mission of the new Twisted Metal I felt oddly disconnected from the previous games in the franchise. Perhaps my appreciation for the car combat genre had waned over the decade separating the latest title from PlayStation 2 classic Twisted Metal Black. Maybe I was just too old for this shit.
Then White Zombie's "More Human Than Human" kicked in, and it all came back to me.
The song instantly transported me back to the mid-90s, when the original Twisted Metal was a regular staple of my PlayStation rotation. I loved driving games, but I wasn't particularly good at them. I enjoyed shooters, but again, they weren't my strong suit. But this combination of driving and shooting? This I could do. Coupled with a warped storyline torn from the pages of a disaffected teenage outcast's notebook doodles and you had heavy metal come to life in video game form.
It's been ten years since we last visited Sweet Tooth and company (less if you count 2008's PS2 port of the PSP game Twisted Metal: Head On), and while the story has taken a much darker turn, that adolescent heavy metal spirit lives on.
Quest for the Clown: Twisted Metal lives up to its name in the game's story mode, filled with shocking live-action scenes of over-the-top evil and depravity straight out of a mid-90s horror flick. In the first act we're reintroduced to the murderous ice cream truck driver Sweet Tooth by way of a dead girl's body lying in the road. We see how he transformed from a mild-mannered family man into a ruthless butcher whose only request for wish-granting contest runner Calypso is to kill the one that got away. Slight spoiler here: At one point in his quest for revenge he murders an entire hospital.
It's completely ridiculous. I love it. I only wish there was more of it, as only three characters get this special story treatment.
Deceptively Complex: Driving and shooting seems like a pretty straightforward proposition, but in Twisted Metal it's not quite that simple. Every button of the Dualshock is in play here: switching weapons, charging special attacks, expending boost, cutting sharp turns, and kicking your vehicle into turbo reverse (a highly useful skill to master). They've even got the accelerometer in play here, with a quick forward jolt of the controller required to initiate a super boost move. This is a game that will give your fingers a workout.
The reward for familiarizing yourself with the complicated controls is a much more strategic means of killing cars with other cars, far deeper than simply charging at your opponent guns blazing. It's about which weapon to use in which situation, when to throw up your shield, when to drop a mine, and when to perform a quick 180 followed by a reverse boost to focus your guns on a pursuer. I've had it done to me. It was incredibly impressive.
Competitive Multiplayer for the Rest of Us: This is an online multiplayer game for those of us that spawn in a match of Modern Warfare 3 and die instantly. It's a game where simply running into another at high speed can cause significant damage; not everyone can shoot, but anyone can crash a car, right? Whether you choose to fly it solo in a free-for-all match or prefer to play with a team, it's easy to survive if you learn your maps and drive real fast. Excelling is another thing altogether, but at least you'll have fun.
And if you really want to polish up your skills Eat Sleep Play has seen fit to include a challenge mode where you can practice against bots before taking the fight online. Hell, they've even got split screen play so you can invite over friends you know will be easy kills. That's what friends are for.
Destroying All the Pretty Places: The first level of Twisted Metal's story mode sees you driving through beautiful suburban Sunsprings, California. Straight through it, houses and all. The game's eight maps (most of which can be played in sections or as a whole) are peppered with destructible buildings, destructible scenery, and especially destructible pedestrians. And while destruction for destruction's sake is lovely, taking out buildings and driving through storefronts has strategic value as well, opening up new paths and uncovering hidden weapons that could turn the tide of battle in your favor.
Plus it's pretty damn amazing to be driving down a street and get slammed into by an enemy that tore his way through a residential area just to get at you. It makes you feel all special.
Custom Soundtrack Support: The Twisted Metal soundtrack features two different Sammy Hagar songs. That is two more Sammy Hagar songs than anyone ever need hear. Of course that's my (and Van Halen fans') opinion, so instead of dropping Sammy into the hated category, I'll give the game props for allowing me to select my own music to crash and burn by. I highly suggest My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult's "Sex on Wheels", as it makes you completely invincible while it plays (no it does not).
Where Did Everybody Go?: Twisted Metal's usually large cast has been trimmed down to three characters: Sweet Tooth, Dollface, and Mr. Grimm. While this makes the story mode easier to digest, it strips away some of the character the franchise has built up over the years.
Trimming down the character fat also means that each character is no longer constrained to their signature ride, which while convenient detracts from the game's narrative, as it were. Sweet Tooth is a clown that drives a demonic ice cream truck. Why is he in a sports car? Because there's no one else to drive it, I suppose. I miss all my crazy friends *sniffle*.
Screw You, Checkpoint Races: There are distinct differences between combat racing and vehicle combat, one of the core ones being that one of them works in Twisted Metal, and the other one doesn't. As you progress through story mode you'll come up against levels where instead of simply killing everyone you meet you've got to race to the finish line before everyone else does. If you aren't in first, you're dead. This shifts the focus from combat to speed, from shooting missiles to dodging them as you desperately try to get there before everyone else. It's a disconnected experience, and a frustrating one to boot.
Hard and Complicated: Conquering the complicated controls of Twisted Metal has its rewards, as I previously mentioned, but it's also a chore than could put off the less dedicated player. It took me hours of play before I truly felt comfortable with what I was doing, and even now my fingers will get mixed up and push the wrong button at the wrong time.
The single-player difficulty level can be off-putting as well. After spending an hour trying to get past the first checkpoint race I spent another hour trying to best the game's first boss battle; a diabolical double-order of deadly enemies put your survival skills to the test. And it doesn't get any easier from there. If you're up for a challenge you'll find it here. If you're easily frustrated you might just want to stick to multiplayer.
It's been 17 years since the debut of the original Twisted Metal on the PlayStation, kicking open the door like a boisterous head-banging teenage rebel, spikes and unfettered rage bolstered by the devil-may-care energy of youth. In that time I, like many fans of the original, have transformed from angry youth to responsible adult, paying bills, taking care of my family, and maintaining a certain level of respectability. I've matured.
Twisted Metal has not. It's still that same angry teenager, fueled by metal and ready to kick ass at every turn. The stories may be darker, the competition fiercer, but at its heart Twisted Metal is still the wild child it always was, and with the controller gripped tight in white-knuckled hands while Rob Zombie growls in the background, so am I.