Will Sony strangle potential wunderkind Twisted Metal in the crib?

, | Game reviews

There is no game quite like Twisted Metal. Except, of course, for games already called Twisted Metal. This superfast, superdeep, superskill-based series has been dormant for ten years for a reason: if people want to play deathmatches, they tend to pick up a shooter in which dudes run around shooting each other. But the Twisted Metals are shooters in which cars — or “cars”, given the loose approximation of driving — zip around like greased lightning while they’re shooting each other. Well, trying to shoot each other. It’s never a given that you can keep your sights lined up on your target. If you thought Quake was too slow, Twisted Metal is the shooter for you.

Is there an audience for a game like this? For an odd turbodeathmatch game with no meaningful singleplayer content, a needlessly steep learning curve, questionable online integration, and the sort of launch woes that Sony should have figured out how to avoid by now? These connectivity issues will be ironed out eventually, but in a game as niche as Twisted Metal, the most effective way to prevent a community from forming is to botch the launch. I don’t have much faith that Twisted Metal will have any sort of online presence in a month beyond a handful of dedicated players who are too good for you. As I said, Twisted Metal is oh-so-skill-based, with a mandatory unlocking system to boot.

So why bother? I’ll tell you, after the jump.

It’s nice to see a Twisted Metal on the Playstation 3, which looks considerably better than any Twisted Metal has ever looked. Which isn’t saying much. The priority is clearly on speed over beauty, but at least there’s a fair amount of detail and even atmosphere in the game.

A hallmark of the series is the in-your-face grim psycho-killer horror cutscene storyline. Here it’s as ill-fitting and ridiculous as ever. But this time, there’s not much of it and it’s hardly worth getting. It’s spaced out over a truly wretched series of single-player missions, which involve you trying to work your way out from under a dogpile of AI cars who have nothing to do but shoot at you, ram you, freeze your car, and get you killed in some really cheap modes designed to stack the odds against you. If you like reading the words “pound buttons to restart engine”, Twisted Metal’s single-player storyline is for you! Also, terrible boss fights. “Must like terrible bossfights” is a prerequisite for the single-player.

If you want to appreciate Twisted Metal’s actual gameplay, stick to online multiplayer, which is the best way to experience the variety and rich interaction among vehicles and weapons. This is the greatest strength of this Twisted Metal, and it’s truer here than it’s been in any Twisted Metal.

Most of the vehicles have distinct handling characteristics, which substitute neatly for anything resembling driving physics. It’s a joy to drive around the generously sized and intricate levels, exploring nooks and crannies and scooping up weapons. Twisted Metal is a bit like Unreal Tournament, in that when you spawn, the first order of business is to get strong by gathering weapons. Only then are you ready to jump into the fray.

But learning to drive — “drive” — is just the start. Beyond that, the barrier to entry is steep. All of the vehicles have two superweapons, some of which are entirely new ways to drive. For instance, the evil clown in the ice cream truck — Sweet Tooth to Twisted Metal fans — can fire a homing missile. Which seems like no big deal if you don’t realize that the homing missile can move through obstacles, making it utterly unique among homing missiles. However, you can toggle the superweapon so that Sweet Tooth instead turns into a flying robot. Now you have to figure out how to fly, as well as what attacks you can launch while you’re in flight, as well as how to do your superslam attack. All the while collecting and mastering about a dozen different weapons. The game is terrible at helping you with this stuff. You’re entirely on your own. There is no single-player campaign that encourages you to use the ice cream truck, there are no tutorials about its unique abilities, there is nothing in the manual, there are no weapon demos. There are, instead, browsable tooltips you may never see. For all Twisted Metal cares, you can just trundle your ice cream truck around, none-the-wiser that it does anything but shoot a boring old homing missile. Now multiply that by about fifteen vehicles.

It’s a bit like a fighting game that offers distinct player characters, but no information about what the characters can do, or how you should play them, or their relative strengths and weaknesses. That’s all for you to figure out because, apparently, the developers were too busy making the game to teach you anything. You have to take the initiative and set up solo games against the AI bots. Here you can play around with the different vehicles, test the various weapons, and learn the level layouts. Since the game doesn’t tell you to do this, a lot of new players are going to drive around in an ice cream truck, only firing homing missiles, and dying frequently to people who actually understand Twisted Metal. At which point they will stop playing and go back to Call of Duty for their turbodeathmatch needs.

One welcome bit of streamlining in this Twisted Metal, which is also mostly untaught, is each vehicle’s secondary abilities. These include mines, shields, and that goddamnablebastardthump freeze ray, which shuts down a vehicle for a few crucial seconds. In earlier Twisted Metals, these powers were triggered by entering d-pad combos, which meant you had to be a pretty accomplished player to remember in the heat of battle whether it was left-right-left or right-left-right. Now each secondary power is a single button press on the d-pad, drawing from your vehicle’s reserve of slowly replenishing mana. I say “slowly replenishing”, but this apparently varies by vehicle and is, of course, undocumented.

So much to learn in Twisted Metal and almost no way to learn it! For instance, jumping. Cars can jump. And they should, given how this is a crucial part of getting around the levels. Want to get to the other side of that freeway or over the lip of this building’s roof? Just hop over it. Don’t forget to master rear firing, boosts, and the superboost, which is activated by yanking the controller to trigger the Sixaxis’ motion controls. Can’t I rebind my superboost to a button? No? Perhaps it’s just as well, since the controller layout screen is a nightmare of Japanese robot sim proportions. Fortunately, I haven’t found any sort of tilt-control flying controls or anything yet. Not to say they’re not in there. Just that I haven’t found them. Twisted Metal is nothing if not full of surprises.

If Twisted Metal were to build up a large online community, the current online set up would work fine. You can browse a server list for games, many of which you can’t join due to network errors. Alternatively, you can jump into a quick match feature that will, at this point, dump you into a lobby to sit there until more people show up. They probably won’t. Especially if you’re looking for any sort of game beyond vanilla deathmatch. Twisted Metal has some really cool team-based modes, where some vehicles and powers really come into their own. For instance, a tow truck that drops health, or an 18-wheeler than can carry friendly cars to activate its powerful turrets. Unfortunately, as is the case with most shooters that don’t somehow guide players into different game modes, it seems like the Twisted Metal community is clustering around the less interesting deathmatch games, which will leave the team based games to languish and wither. And you have to unlock most of the vehicles by leveling up, which means grinding match after match in starting cars before you can avail yourself of one of the game’s greatest strengths: variety.

But for all the kvetching, a funny thing happens while you’re actually playing Twisted Metal instead of complaining about its disappointing shortcomings. There is nothing quite like this experience. It’s unique sense of speed not only means you’re going to have a hard time targeting enemies, but it also means you can often get away easily. Or if that’s not your deal, just take Darksider, the slow powerful semi, and plow into the fray. And when you’re ready, you can take on something funky like the motorcycle or the helicopter. A helicopter! With the ability to rain down missiles from on high and activate a door gunner superweapon. How is it that fair? I can’t say, as I haven’t really figured out how to do it all yet, and there’s no help in the game. Plus, I haven’t unlocked them in multiplayer yet, since I can’t get online due to the botched launch.

But asymmetry is inherently interesting, and extreme asymmetry is even more interesting. Second only to the game’s sense of speed, this is the governing design principle in Twisted Metal. It’s fast, rewarding, immensely varied, and arranged along a long skill curve, set in arenas wide open to be explored and exploited, like an edgy Tony Hawk with the black humor of Death Race 2000 instead of skateboards. There’s nothing else like Twisted Metal and when it finally works right, assuming anyone is still playing, it will be exactly the sort of unique online experience that deserves an audience. Because we can only keep playing Call of Duty for so long.

3 stars
Playstation 3