Review / Twisted Metal (PS3)

If you switched on Twisted Metal Black back in 2001, you were greeted by the spine-chillingly brilliant opening of The Rolling Stone’s Paint if Black while the camera twirled round a snapshot of one of the game’s many chaotic battles before bringing you close up to a still image of Sweet Tooth the clown’s iconic mask. It made for an unforgettable opening to a game oozing with style, and that was before you even pressed start. Now, in 2012, Twisted Metal opens with genero-metal and that same image of Sweet Tooth only dimmed by capturing the in-game model instead of an artistic interpretation like in Black. It’s a disappointingly dull opening and, yeah, it’s only a menu; but it sets the tone for things to come.

To think of Twisted Metal as the longest running PlayStation franchise is a slightly odd affair. It’s true that the crazed car combat game shares the 17-year history of Sony’s brand, but it feels like it’s spent a good portion of that time lurking in the shadows while greats like Metal Gear Solid, Shadow of the Colossus and Uncharted have gone on to define each system.

It’s a series that has found an audience among the PlayStation elite, highlighted by two fan favorites – PSOne’s World Tour and PS2’s Twisted Metal Black. Black in particular held a stylish cult classic feel to its mayhem. But that was over 10 years ago, and – until now – little has been seen of the series since, besides a PSP gamee which developed into a PS2 expansion.

Enter the plainly titled Twisted Metal, bringing the series PS3 for the first time. It makes no apologies for its late-to-the-party entrance, thrusting players back into its ultra-violent, gritty world of blackly slapstick vehicular deathmatches.

There’s no denying that much of what’s kept the series going for nearly two decades is still intact here; huge environments with buildings that seemingly disappear into thin air as lorries smash through them mix with special moves that range from clown head missiles to lobbing taxis through the air. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that something’s been lost in the eleven years since the last main game, and harder still to rid the thought that it’s working a little too hard (in the wrong areas) to get it back.

At its core, Twisted Metal delivers on the same thrills it always has. A range of vehicles are at your disposal, allowing for speed freaks to make hit-and-run sweeps while heavy hitters can get stuck in and destroy anything in their path. Some of the new additions like Talon, a helicopter with enough machine guns fitted to it to take down a small army provide a fresh take on battles. It’s fun to come at the game in a light-hearted sense, jump online and take part in the mayhem and there’s little to compare it to on the market today.

Its control scheme raises a few initial question marks but there’s nothing there that will cause any issues after solid practise. Then it’s a case of selecting the best death machine and firing as many homing missiles as possible before the game is up. If it all feels a little shallow that’s because it is, but its desire to please gamers on that most simple of carnage-based levels works to its credit more than anything else. There’s depth to be found in experimenting with vehicles of course, but it all provides that basic yet oh so brilliant satisfaction. This is a throwback to commitment-free gaming, an iOS title given AAA form, almost. But when we’re looking to get the most out of online progression in most multiplayer games in this day and age it’s understandable that this puts some people off.

This is, of course, Twisted Metal’s first serious online multiplayer debut (a TM Black multiplayer expansion was available on PS2) and it does make for somewhat of a transformation for the series. Traditionally Twisted Metal matches have been wars of attrition; slowly grinding down the enemy’s health bar while navigating maps that offered as much fun in exploring and destroying as the combat itself.

Here things have been cut down a bit, which is a necessity to keep the pace in 16 player matches. It’s easier to score kills than it ever has been and maps cater more to shovelling people into arenas to fight rather than try and establish their own identities. There’s nothing here that seems as memorable as World Tour’s Paris map, for example.

From an online angle this is Twisted Metal as you’ve never seen it before and it works well. The hectic battles have an inviting experimental feel to them, be it in a classic deathmatch where cars circle round each other, guns blazing or in unique objective-based modes like Nuke where teams must co-operate in a race to fire a missile at the opposing team.

But as fun as these matches can be at any given time they never escape the empty, underwhelming feel that the whole game carries. With its surprisingly bland art style and visual display, Twisted Metal loses something that’s pivotal to the gameplay experience; it just doesn’t feel all that stylish, relevant or even cool anymore.

Take the game’s campaign, which has seen a radical change in format since Black. No longer do you choose your favourite character and take them through a series of battles leading you to an often haunting end game cinematic in which said character has one twisted wish come true. Instead there are three much more structured, narrative-driven campaigns featuring just three different characters.

The story of each character is told through live-action cutscenes that feel like a step backwards from the dark, gothic comics of World Tour. For example, Sweet Tooth, the first character you take control of, is on the search for the only person to ever escape his mindless slaughtering. Between every few matches cutscenes fill you in on more of the backstory. But the live-action delivery grounds the Twisted Metal universe in a more realistic tone. As such, they feel somewhat muted and dim, and shocking scenes involving scissor-to-eye stabs and sign-to-head throws feel like they’re being violent just for the sake of being violent. It feels like it’s trying too hard to be edgy, something that’s extremely off-putting. What made past TM stories so good was how effortlessly they pulled off their simple stories for their many characters. This latest game tries too much with too little, and ends up feeling clumsy in execution.

The lacking level design only serves to further these issues. Some maps have that sparkle of Twisted Metal genius; a small town dwarfed by the canyon it rests in makes for close-quaters scraps mixed with far-off sniper fire, while a holiday-themed city puts the heavy metal soundtrack on hold in favour for Jingle Bells every time you slide out onto the ice. But for every winner there’s another bland town or uninspired ‘killosseaum’ to put a downer on any given match.

With a little bit of perspective of where the series is coming from, it’s easy to simply appreciate Twisted Metal for what it is. But perhaps this would have made more of an impact, more or a triumphant return as a cheaper PSN offering that ditched the campaigns. At a cheaper price tag on a format that doesn’t enforce the expectations of a disc-based product, Twisted Metal could have been a real hit.

Instead it ends up being an underwhelming entry into a great PlayStation franchise. Rest assured that this is a fun car combat game, and one that I’ll certainly continue to play after posting this review, but where others Twisted Metals have gone the extra mile to deliver something truly special, this one falls short.