Like its unsavoury cast of characters, and the pitfall-laden, multi-layered deathtraps that make up its various arenas, Twisted Metal at its very core is unmerciful and relentless. It concedes little that acknowledges the gulf of change that has overcome the gaming industry in the decade since its last home console appearance; harkening back to the very roots of the PlayStation itself, it sneers at newcomers, whilst welcoming back old friends.
From flame-headed psycho clown Sweet Tooth to figurative puppet-master Calypso there are familiar faces here in a new context, but the heart of Twisted Metal and its OTT car-combat remains very much intact. Your enjoyment of it therefore will largely depend on how much pleasure you derive from these core mechanics as they permeate every aspect of the game from its relatively short single player to the more robust online offerings. Twisted Metal feels old-fashioned in many ways, some good others more problematic, but it is its purity of concept that really seems to single it out.
With Sweet Tooth glaring out at you from the title screen and pounding guitars setting the mood you are quickly ushered into a new game. When selecting a difficulty it is impossible to go lower than Normal, David Jaffe has expunged Easy from his vocabulary. After the first of the game’s many extended cut scenes that mix comic-book style artistry with live action footage to often darkly humorous effect (though if these scenes were meant to indenture within the player any kind of character sympathy or recognition they fail miserably. The world of Twisted Metal is one of depravity and pain but tinted with just enough camp to prevent it becoming oppressive), you find yourself in a large arena full of buildings, shortcuts and secrets. Your opponents litter the streets (along with the occasional burst of traffic and pedestrians to help the levels feel less spare) and the purpose becomes clear: destroy everyone else to proceed.
Should you dive straight into the game, achieving this is not quite so straightforward, in part due to a lack of tutorial; there are no button prompts, no character to guide you through this world. You experiment with some buttons, eventually making your car move. You fire a missile, wildly spray bullets from your front-mounted minigun. The game’s smooth 60fps gives a sense of speed and control that betrays your large ice-cream truck of a vehicle. When the first opponent explodes into a husk of metal in front of you, the driver screaming in pain, it starts to click.
From the main menu of course there is a Tutorial mode that feels like concession that’s been reluctantly included, but for the game’s (possibly overly) complex controls it is necessary if you want to avoid frustration. Upon completion a trophy pops ‘Just Give me the Trophy Already’. If it could, the game would be flipping you off right about now.
Separated into three character arcs of six missions each the single player offering of Twisted Metal feels slight, though each campaign does shake up the core formula somewhat; there are race levels, arena battles where you have to stay within a moving grid to fight and (at the end of every chapter) some prolonged and tricky boss encounters. The basic gameplay never changes however and as the game progresses the law of diminishing returns starts to take hold. Add in the stubborn insistence on locking content away (each single player character is only available once their predecessor’s campaign has been completed) and you are left constantly with only one mission to select at any one time. When some of these are occasionally tricky or frustrating (especially the campaign ending boss encounters) you wind up with a game almost actively daring you to give up. There’s no option but to power through, no chance to unlock more cars or weapons and try again later. It’s indicative of the old-school mentality that permeates Twisted Metal but it also just feels antiquated in today’s modern gaming context. Couple this to the hectic pace and complex control scheme (every button on the controller is used in some capacity) and you have an experience very much aimed at a specific market and that is likely to leave newcomers puzzled, frustrated or just plain ostracised.
When everything clicks, you do get a glimpse at what Twisted Metal could be, what it aspires to be. When the screen becomes a blur of action, weapons firing, explosions and buildings collapsing the chaos feels organic, not manufactured. Compared to many of todays linear, highly constructed experiences it’s refreshing to have these battles that feel unique and unpredictable. The various levels themselves are at first impressive, in terms of their attention to detail and scale but like the basic mission structure these start to wane over time. By the time you reach your fourth of fifth variation on a small town community or wasteland complete with sewer tunnels the spark starts to fade.
The true heart of the game lies within its online competitive multiplayer, for which you are effectively trained throughout the single player campaign, and if that is what interests you then there is a lot to appreciate here. All the usual modes are present and correct with a robust unlock and levelling system, from team deathmatch style games, to free-for-all battles and adding in the element of human players elevates the core gameplay to new levels of insanity as you all vie for the top position. If, however, the multiplayer is not something that appeals then it’s difficult to recommend Twisted Metal as a worthwhile value proposition. There are medals to earn on each of the single player missions and even more punishing difficulty levels to endure, but for many the novelty of the gameplay may well wain long before these are breached.
As a package Twisted Metal stands very much as a singular vision of David Jaffe and Eat Sleep Play. It revels in its uncompromising nature and harkens back to the series’ roots, which go back as far the PlayStation itself. For some this will be enough; it mixes in enough new elements such as the fully functioned multiplayer modes and mixtures of new vehicles / weapons to keep fans happy for a long time, but for those outside the circle there is little that beckons you in. The game feels unsteady, unable to truly stride forwards with one of its feet stuck so firmly in the past. This isn’t Twisted Metal reinvented, this is Twisted Metal repackaged. There’s no denying the core concept remains fun, frantic and often enjoyable, but it feels slight and the game’s long ingrained mean streak and occasionally sneering tone only serves to highlight how far the industry has come in the last decade. Peek closely enough under that shiny new coat of paint and you’ll soon find evidence of rust.
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