Twisted Metal is a pretty fun game. I understand that statement is passively bland and opaque, but when examined closely it reveals more about Twisted Metal than one may first suspect. It’s actually a fun game in the sense that it doesn’t seem overly concerned with the gross artificiality and assumed necessities that have risen in popularity and become and staples of the current generation. This isn’t to imply Twisted Metal is mechanically dated or conceptually bankrupt, but rather that it feels like it was built from the ground up to grind fun out of learning and becoming proficient in its systems, rather than the modern positive reinforcement generator of racing toward the next unlock. Ask anyone would loved the original, its first sequel, or even the underappreciated Rogue Trip; car combat is literally a lost art, a genre abandoned by a progression in game design that we all assumed left its concept antiquated and irrelevant. How wonderful is it for Eat Sleep Play, a relatively small team which boasts members of the original Twisted Metal creators at Singletrac, to come along and show us their art can be just as vibrant, appealing, and, most importantly, viable in 2012 as it was in 1995?
Though Twisted Metal’s rebirth was originally thought to be an exclusively multiplayer affair, the campaign isn’t lacking in ideas or content. The diverse collection of stages probably could have brute forced their way into a series of vehicular deathmatches, however that wouldn’t have played as well in today as it did two generations ago. Those deathmatches are on the menu sometimes, but more often than not Eat Sleep Play had the confidence to play around with that formula. Endurance requires you to kill a set number of enemies whom respawn after defeated. Juggernaut battles summon a giant armored semi that keeps spawning new cars every couple of minutes. Zones create safe areas that constantly shift every few minutes, and suck away your health after certain “grace period” passes outside of those zones. None of these instances stray too far away from the classic formula, doing their best to both update an aged design while keeping the core of Twisted Metal close to heart.
The two biggest gambits lie with boss battles and races. Races position a series of gates all across a map and task the player with clearing each one in order before reaching a finishing point. In theory this sound a bit like Road Rash, except trading bikes for cars and baseball bats for insane firepower. In practice races didn’t go so smoothly. More often than not I found them in stark contrast to ideas of the rest of the game. Whereas the rest of Twisted Metal caters to intuition and invention, races seemed to favor the trial and error model of design. Combat and control worked well enough, but I never had a clear notion of where the next checkpoint would be. I found myself either going off in the wrong direction or holding back and following the AI drivers just to learn the course. This was particularly maddening on the last race, which requires a first place finish and involves a whole bunch of rooftops that pretty much require a restart if you happen to slip off one. I actually still enjoyed the races and found them immensely challenging, but they felt a bit out of place alongside the rest of the Twisted Metal’s vocation.
The aforementioned boss battles were crafted to be huge, multifaceted, and intimidating, all of which easily hit their mark. Each of the three are never exactly as they appear and seem delighted to continue their maniacal ride well past the point where most people would have assumed to step off. Twisted Metal is a hard game on normal (and, given that there are two difficulties ahead of normal and none below, that’s really saying something). However I never actually felt like it was outright impossible. I’ll not spoil the first and last boss battle, but the second versus a giant flying robot, Iron Maiden, was a lesson in adaptability. It began with a sequence that borrows from the multiplayer’s Nuke Mode, and then transitioned into Iron Maiden constantly moving a zone that tasks the player with zipping up and down Diablo Pass. Managing that all while dealing with a myriad of enemies and trying to collect weapon pickups and fire off shots was incredibly challenging – and even after that was finished it still wasn’t the end of the battle.
Twisted Metal’s narrative threads primarily follow the tales of three characters, Sweet Tooth, Mr. Grimm, and Doll Face. It’s the usual story, win the (increasingly nebulous) Twisted Metal tournament and Calypso will grant any wish the victor desires. Veterans of the older games will know Calypso is a huge fan of word play and traditionally further ruins the lives of all involved, but what they won’t expect are the context and literal technique involved letting these stories out of the box. Every cut scene is filmed with real actors, but usually against a green screen and always with that dreamy, quick-cut look made famous by Zack Snyder in 300 and Sucker Punch. What’s surprising is these scenes don’t come off as cheap or poorly directed, and by default their style looks unlike anything else in the videogame landscape (I just wish Calypso didn’t look like 2000 era Weird Al). The actual narrative content is considerably eff’d up, almost juvenilely so, but keeps with Twisted Metal Black’s theme of making a game about a bunch of mentally unstable bad guys. The relentless violence is kind of a weird layer on top of an otherwise gameplay focused affair, however their brevity and ultimate conclusion(s) were always satisfying if not a little predictable.
Twisted Metal’s basic single player deathmatch makes few concessions to the modern era. Most offer the ability to use a garage, usually located in some corner of the map, to switch out cars. Two other cars, and whatever weapons they may have picked up along the way, can be stored there. The garage also slowly restores a vehicle’s energy, making levels that feature one considerably easier. Health trucks are giant semis that stalk levels and reward vehicles that drive up their ramp with a full health recharge. That almost seemed too easy, or at least it did to me until a freak accident occurred when I had a sliver of health left and was actually killed by a collision with the health truck. It goes without saying that if you’re on your dying breath you’ll do almost anything to track one of those suckers down, creating a maddening pursuit that seems to end in either elation and/or screaming.
In fact, the chaos associated with the health truck is a microcosm of Twisted Metal as a whole. The game is always tasking the player with making sense of the surrounding melee, and half the fun is raising your personal skill high enough to trump that same chaos. Smashing into a pedestrian Santa Claus after getting thrown through a dinosaur bone filled museum and then trying to collect your bearings all while NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” is playing creates a distinct and all around crazy atmosphere, but then mechanics compliment context and, after you’ve got a handle on what you’re doing, fate is ultimately under your control. It can come off like a rationalization, but Twisted Metal hits this clear sweet spot where all of its systems begin to click and give the player an appreciation for just how far Eat Sleep Play went to keep their cornucopia of crazy systems from exploding out of the box.
Discovery, an aspect of games long lost to focus groups and other detrimental influences, plays a major role in enjoying Twisted Metal. Though the game does offer a basic training mode, I learned – and enjoyed learning – the majority of its intricacies through pure absorption. (With the exception of the races) Twisted Metal is not so much trial and error as it is trial and refinement. A good deal of this comes with the experimentation of each vehicle’s two special weapons. Some, like Crimson Fury’s flamethrower and Road Boat’s magnetic ode to Mr. Slam are fairly standard, but the nature or implementation of others arrives exclusively with experimentation or replicating a technique learned from watching someone else. I was shocked, for example, when Sweet Tooth’s alternate special transformed him into a giant terrifying mech, or when I was able to drive inside Juggernaut in a multiplayer match and operate one of two turrets. Furthermore, I still have no idea whose attack results in screaming bodies being hurled at my vehicle. Even regular weapons conceal alternate uses, like the remote bomb sticking to opponents or how the ricochet car increases in damage with every bounce off a wall.
At first control can feel unwieldy and alien; Twisted Metal is a game that features cars, but not cars with the typical physics systems we’ve gotten used to here on planet earth. Instead, control is closer to what it was back in the day; fast cars are custom tuned for zero to a hundred in less than a second along with constant abuse of the X button to turn on a dime, whereas larger vehicles are mayhem inducing land barrages capable of dishing out and receiving considerable punishment. It takes getting used to, and can arrive with a few cruel lessons in turn management and aiming precision. Honestly after an hour I was thoroughly pissed and mostly disenchanted, but frustration slowly started giving way to appreciation. I began to quick turn my car perfectly and line up my shots precisely. Following and trying to unload on other cars became more like a dogfight and less like a Mexican standoff. It was a beautiful transition, and one that only arrived after I tried to learn the Twisted Metal’s systems rather than exploit them.
In this way, and I know this is an odd comparison but stay with me, acclimating myself to Twisted Metal’s fast paced mayhem wasn’t all that different from learning how to play Platinum Games’ Vanquish and Bayonetta. The speed at which those games moved seemed incomprehensible and incapable of being performed by normal humans, and early on my time with Twisted Metal looked to follow the same path. Dodging incoming fire, let alone killing off the myriad of aggressors, was creating a sensory overload that resulted in aggravation and little else. Eventually, as its systems became familiar and appreciated, Twisted Metal revealed itself to be as calculated and refined as either Vanquish or Bayonetta, only with the added benefit of excelling and defining itself in a multiplayer arena (ironically both Bayonetta and Twisted Metal stumble when they step too far outside of what they’re good at, but that’s a topic for another day).
And while the single player prods the player into playing it at higher difficulties and earning gold medals all around, the reason to return to Twisted Metal is found in its multiplayer. Normal and Team Deathmatch are expected. Last Man Standing binds each player to a finite number of lives. Hunted is basically kill the man with the ball, where the Hunted gets points for each kill her or she picks off while everyone else tries to get a point by killing the Hunted. Hunted, in particular, is where I became acclimated with Twisted Metal’s finer techniques, like turbo’ing in reverse and shotgunning – at extremely close range – the dude who was following me.
By far the most inspired mode, so much that Sony was willing to show it off first at E3 nearly two years ago, is Nuke. Played over four innings where each team gets two shots at offense and defense, Nuke tasks the offensive team with retrieving one of a few sacrifices tucked somewhere in the level and then literally dragging them behind a missile truck before ultimately launching and guiding said missile into the opposing team’s giant statue. That’s a mouthful, but it’s easier to understand in practice than in concept. Nuke’s strengths spawn out of the numerous moments of desperation, either from protecting someone on your team or trying to utterly obliterate anyone on the opposing team whom was skilled enough to bag a sacrifice. Even after the nuke is launched it’s still possible for a person piloting Talon (the helicopter) to take out the nuke and prevent the other team from scoring a point. I sort of get the feeling that Nuke might be too involved for its own good and that most players will default to simpler modes, but if the community really picks up Nuke might be the most strategic card Twisted Metal’s hand.
With so many different vehicles, weapons, and various unlocks the last thing I expected multiplayer to be was evenly balanced. Whenever I selected Reaper I found myself dead in ten seconds and swore off ever using him again. Later I was in a death match in Metro Square and some dude was surgically annihilating everyone with Reaper’s flaming chainsaw special. He was still dying quite a bit, but he was racking up kills even faster. Even Talon, who as a helicopter seemingly has no place in a game with a bunch of cars, fits neatly inside Twisted Metal’s mold. Nearly every aspect seems tuned with the perspective of balance, and despite the few times where you’ll get gangbanged off a rooftop in or stuck against a wall in some unfortunate physics glitch, Twisted Metal feels appropriately intense and impartial.
The diverse collection of levels is another strong suite. Thrills and Spills Park is a fully fledged amusement park boasting a bunch of different themed areas and rides, including a giant Ferris wheel that, with a little help, can come crashing down. LA Skyline simultaneously references rooftop levels from both Twisted Metal and Twisted Metal 2 while managing to play several devious tricks of its own. Black Rock Stadium, with its giant swinging maces, electrified floors, and shifting platforms, is Eat Sleep Play having a field day with the concept of a gladiator arena. Every area feels massive, and seems jam packed with hidden areas and stylish little touches. Whether it’s Diesel City’s impromptu rooftop scrambles, Metro Square’s ice rink, or Sunspring’s movie theater, every single level, even when pared down to smaller maps, is loaded with detail.