Twisted Metal doesn’t care much for first impressions: the game’s overarching heavy metal motif is about as dislikeable as the psychotic characters at the centre of its gratuitous plotline. But to dismiss Eat Sleep Play’s car combat reboot on the basis of first appearances would be a grave error, because beyond the title’s throwback aesthetic is one of the most mechanically dense and rewarding titles in PS3 history.
That the game exists at all is a testament to Sony’s faith in directors David Jaffe and Scott Campbell. Indeed, Twisted Metal doesn’t just rip up the rule book, it shreds it and then persists to pepper it with chain gun fire and homing rockets. If you’ve ever wondered what a game would look, feel and play like without the intervention of marketing teams, focus groups and intrusive executives then this is it. Eat Sleep Play’s complete disregard for standards is refreshing, and it results in a unique game borne out of an exceptionally well-realised vision.
At its heart, Twisted Metal is a fighting game. Invest in it and the comparisons to Street Fighter become clear, with each of the title’s vehicle types offering a unique set of personalities and traits that must be learned in order to be leveraged and countered.
Unlike previous releases, Eat Sleep Play’s reboot focuses on three of the series’ most popular characters (and a fourth for online play). The change not only gives the game a team driven feel – which helps contextualise some of the new faction-based multiplayer modes – but it also encourages experimentation. For example, Sweet Tooth – the franchise’s flame-haired antihero – is now no longer locked to his distinctive ice cream truck, and is able to experiment with the game’s full garage of rides instead. The tweak facilitates a slew of tactical enhancements, as each of the many vehicle types find purpose in different contexts.
The single player mode accentuates the dynamic the best. Throughout the four to five hour campaign you’ll experience a number of twists on the standard car combat format, with races, endurance matches and more all explored. In many of these scenarios you can select from three vehicles rather than one, allowing you to tag in different classes in order to cope with an array of situations. Smaller, nimble cars perform best when you need to move quickly around the map, whereas heavier vehicles encourage a slower, more defensive approach.
It’s impressive that, given the sheer wealth of vehicles in Twisted Metal, the developer found a way to make each one feel unique. Each car is equipped with a unique set of special weapons which is pivotal to dictating the way you play. For example, the Reaper – a motorcycle class with high speed attributes and low armour – may not seem particularly powerful at first, but learn how to leverage its unique characteristics and it becomes deadly. Its special weapon – which sees you tossing an operational chainsaw towards the nearest enemy – does medium damage on its own, but combine it with a wheelie (causing friction against the tarmac to set the chainsaw on fire) and it can result in an instant kill. Consider that each of the vehicle classes is endowed with similar technical strategies, and the scale of the learning curve becomes clear.
But Twisted Metal is accepting of all skills. Make no mistake, a confident player will utterly annihilate a newcomer online, but the learning curve is not so steep that a beginner can’t have fun and feel compelled to improve. Standard weapon pick-ups such as rockets, missiles and mines are all simple to deploy, and ensure that the moment-to-moment action is accessible despite the game’s more technical undertones.
That it’s easy to pick up and play is important given the series’ origins as a split-screen favourite. Naturally the local multiplayer returns for Eat Sleep Play’s reboot, with performance being notably smooth during our extensive tests. There's a keen understanding of target audience, with LAN support and co-op also included, as well as online split-screen, which is becoming more and more of a rarity in many multiplayer games.
It runs like butter in whichever mode you enjoy it in too. While it’s far from being one of the PlayStation 3’s most visually pleasing games, Eat Sleep Play’s opted to favour performance ahead of flare and it shows. Rarely does Twisted Metal’s framerate ever stutter, which is staggering considering the chaos likely to be happening on screen at any one time. This is most impressive in online multiplayer, where the game manages to maintain its fluidity even as 15 different vehicles fire weapons at each other in the centre of a map. It really is quite staggering how well the game runs.
It’s just a shame that such fluidity doesn’t transfuse into the matchmaking system. Given that it's designed mostly around its multiplayer component, the matchmaking feature is disappointingly basic and makes the act of getting into a game more convoluted than the core mechanics themselves. The developer deserves kudos for including a lobby system – allowing players to create their own rooms and manipulate the game settings as they see fit – but the Quick Match option feels hindered as a result. Unlike in modern multiplayer titles (such as Call of Duty), Twisted Metal requires a host to manually start each match, resulting in a lot of lobbies filling with players before emptying again as the host fails to start the game. Unless you’re playing with friends or a good host, you’ll spend as much time staring at menus as you do actually playing the game.
It doesn’t help that the user interface is horrific. It’s not necessarily complicated to navigate, but it looks decidedly amateur. Big fonts and shabby graphics give the game a low budget feel, and it contrasts unfairly against the quality of the gameplay within.
The only area where the game’s low budget presentation really pays off is in the single player campaign’s cut scenes. These use a combination of real actors and graphic effects to tell a trio of stories based on the game’s three main characters. The cut scenes have a gratuitous, grindhouse B-movie flavour to them, and while they are riddled with plot holes, they at least give context to the action. The underlying narrative deals with Calypso, the ghoulish figurehead of a shady corporation who is able to grant wishes to the winners of his sadistic Twisted Metal tournament. Each of the campaign’s main protagonists has a clear motivation for taking part in the tournament, and the payoffs at the conclusion of each story are brilliantly conceived.
There’s a good variety to the single player campaign too. Eat Sleep Play opts to introduce various new mechanics throughout the course of the mode’s relatively brief running time, with race and endurance formats bringing different flavours and strategies to the core mechanics.
The campaign includes a trio of interesting boss fights to boot. These push the very boundaries of what the engine can do, with tiered objectives giving the encounters epic length — the final boss fight, for example, took us a whopping two hours to complete. The game teeters on unfairly challenging at times, but it’s got just enough checkpoints to eschew frustration.
The variety doesn’t end in single player either, as the online multiplayer is packed with different options too. Naturally there are the obligatory Deathmatch and Last Man Standing modes, but these are complemented by new objective game types. Hunted, for example, sees a marked player earning points for taking out opponents, and is playable in standard and team formats. But Nuke is the real star of the show. Loosely inspired by capture the flag, the team-based game type sees players competing for faction leaders. Once these are captured they must be returned to a launcher in order to release a nuclear missile. The player that launched the nuke must manually guide the missile into the opponent faction’s statue while the opposing team attempts to shoot the rocket down. If the nuclear bomb hits the statue, the launching team score a point. While the mode’s needlessly complex, it’s brilliantly tense once you get your head around the rules. Merely setting off a missile feels like a mini-triumph, but scoring a point feels even better. It also best highlights the game’s numerous strategies, with Talon – the game’s helicopter class – being a wise choice for defending against missiles and so on.
The online is anchored by an upgrade system which sees you earning XP as you complete tasks in-game to progress through levels and earn unlock points. It’s from here that you can unlock additional vehicles for use online, as well as new skills. The upgrade system is hardly original, but it does reward investment and serves as good motivation for playing the game outside of the mechanics themselves.
The more you play Twisted Metal, the better you’ll get at it. Merely learning the layout of the maps can be a good way of improving your results, as you begin to remember the location of health and weapon pick-ups. Maps span sub-urban American towns, snowy cities and theme parks. Each is packed with detail and interesting locales, with the theme park including a rollercoaster, ghost train and haunted house — all accessible for combat. The visuals are never breathtaking, but the personality injected into each stage is what brings the game to life, and the sheer wealth of disparate locations helps to relieve the tedium you might otherwise experience when playing over a prolonged period. Hours in, we were still finding new environments and buildings to explore.
Twisted Metal can feel archaic, but it’s mostly by design. Look beyond the game’s aged aesthetic and you’ll be rewarded with one of the most balanced multiplayer titles ever to grace PS3. Eat Sleep Play might not be upfront about all of the game’s mechanics, but the joy is in discovery — it’s a game that encourages you to experiment and rewards you for doing so. A strong, if brief, single player campaign and stellar split-screen support headlines the package, but it’s the online multiplayer that will consume most of your time; while this could have been better implemented, the appeal of the mechanics will keep you coming back regardless.