Twisted Metal Review

Twisted Metal (PS3)
Developer: Eat Sleep Play
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

Confession time: I have not played a single Twisted Metal game prior to this one. However, the chaotic vehicular mayhem that ensues upon start up is a strong indication that the series deserved a new installment. Tight controls, a huge variety of absurd weaponry, vehicles and characters, and massive yet intricate maps provide the necessary fuel to reignite this franchise. The core gameplay of blasting opponents while simultaneously evading them is consistently thrilling, but every additional idea, no matter how conceptually sound they may be, fails due to sloppy execution.

Story mode focuses on three Twisted Metal characters as they battle their way through a handful of challenges. The maniacally mental, ice cream truck-driving clown Sweet Tooth is the first character you play as, and his road to victory sets a dark and brutal tone for the ensuing cinematics. His transformation from ordinary family man to Sweet Tooth is brief yet introspective, garnering empathy even as he maims dozens of innocent lives in his relentless hunt to murder the only person to both put up a fight and escape his wrath – his daugther. You never root for Sweet Tooth, or the other two characters, but their emotions are intrinsically human, allowing for surprising complexity. Calypso, the man who holds these tournaments, grants the winner a single wish that, unbeknownst to them, twists their fates in unfortunate ways. His motivations for orchestrating elaborate scenarios only to punish the victor are poorly conveyed, making him too thinly characterized, even though he’s in a position to be quite interesting. In the end, he proves to be nothing more than an enigmatic asshole.

The bigger issue with the narrative is the use of live action cutscenes. While the acting is serviceable, the other aspects detract from the dark tone that makes these scenes instantly campy. The setpieces are obviously green-screened, the costumes look like something you would find in the sale section at iParty, and the editing is so over-the-top that it makes some of the cooler moments less satisfying. Even if this is how Eat Sleep Play wanted to convey its story, the style is at odds with the subject matter, in a way that could have been easily prevented.

Another issue pops up the moment you start playing the game – the controls. Without a tutorial, or even an option in the start menu (and since I got it from GameFly, referring to the instruction booklet was not a possibility), learning how to play the game takes longer than it should. It took me hours to figure out double-tapping accelerate triggered turbo, and several more hours to learn how to drive in reverse. The initially unintuitive controls prove to be exceptional, allowing for both quick 180° turns and slight axel pivots. The auto-aim can prove irritating though, as there is no way to cycle through available targets.

When Twisted Metal does what it is known for – deathmatch skirmishes – everything clicks together in a way that is immediately thrilling. Driving around the elaborate maps, collecting a bevy of missiles, napalms, sticky bombs, etc., to unleash upon unsuspecting foes is endlessly gripping. Chasing one car around the map, occasionally ramming into it, can quickly lead to a four-car brawl, filled with explosions, narrow escapes, and beautiful annihilation. It is a delicious combination of strategy and pandemonium that only starts to wear thin when the map is populated with fewer drivers.

That sweet concoction of gameplay mechanics turns sour whenever a new idea is introduced. One deathmatch variant, entitled Juggernaut, features a heavily armored truck (and occasionally two), equipped with devastating weaponry that spawns new enemies every couple of minutes. The most effective strategy is to preemptively choose a more durable vehicle to survive the onslaught of damage. Boiling down the strategy in this way is a real disservice to the large selection of available cars. Worse yet, killing the Juggernaut is not much fun, and the other competing cars have the tendency to focus solely on you, making this unstrategic mess needlessly infuriating.

The racing challenges suffer from even worse implementation. Maps are repurposed with gates that you must drive under – miss too many and you die. Gates are often obscured by surrounding architecture, and it is too easy to fall off an elaborate building or take a wrong turn and be instantly lost, forcing you to restart the race. Eat Sleep Play should have designed maps made specifically for races, rather than recycling content to save time. The more prominent issue with the races is that the physics, while perfectly bouncy and silly for deathmatches, are too imprecise. A simple nudge from an opponent can cause cataclysmic failure. Races end up feeling tacked on instead of thoughtfully incorporated into the game’s design.

Boss battles end up being highlights, even if their execution also leaves much to be desired. Objectives change as you progress through them – driving underneath a mega-truck to plant C4, grabbing a hostile to arm a missile, and playing a modified game of pinball – each requiring you to perform unique tasks. It is during these sections when Twisted Metal successfully breaks away from its deathmatch focus to provide an experience that is more tailored to single player action. The implementation is not always perfect, and the objectives are often poorly outlined, but their inclusion makes you wish that more of the campaign were more inspired and less conventional. Driving underneath a massive moving vehicle, collecting weaponry from between its wheels, and then shooting at a fire-breathing clown face is the kind of insanity I would have liked to see Eat Sleep Play embrace.

Instead, Twisted Metal plays it safe. It successfully reconstructs what made the series popular and then proceeds to throw in a bunch of ideas that do not mesh with the underlying mechanics. Sony granted Eat Sleep Play’s wish for a new Twisted Metal, but as Calypso teaches us, wishes can lead to unforeseen consequences.

 

 

 

Quick tidbits:

Twisted Metal requires an online pass to play multiplayer online, so I was unable to review that portion of the game. I imagine it is a pretty fun time though.

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