Version tested: PlayStation 3
The story of Twisted Metal is a lot like the game itself. A handful of psychopaths make a deal with devilish corporate overlord (and Professor Snape lookalike) Calypso to grant them their deepest wish if they win his gruesome tournament. Calypso only grants monkey-paw wishes though, and the contestants' desires always backfire on them in strange and unpredictable ways.
This reflects David Jaffe and Eat Sleep Play's goal of creating the ultimate multiplayer car combat game. In many ways they have, yet the final product is saddled with a steep learning curve, a questionable single-player campaign and a host of online connectivity errors. Be careful what you wish for.
Initially, the game feels inscrutable, with a control scheme that pushes the humble Dual Shock to it limits. The basics like throttle, brake and fire are sensible enough, but toss in options to cycle among weapons, drop mines, pull up a shield, launch an EMP blast, make a quick turn, boost, boost in reverse and shoot in reverse, and before you know it, seemingly simple actions like jumping and turbo-dashing are relegated to pushing two buttons at once or motion controls. It's a lot to take in.
This vertical learning curve is exasperated by each vehicle having a unique special move, usually with an alternate firing mode. Sometimes it's unclear how these even operate. There's a training mode, but going through the basic manoeuvres with each vehicle to get to their specials can grate. Hints for each vehicle are also available, but the best way to learn is through practice (and message boards - this is a game where you'll need all the help you can get).
It doesn't help that the single-player campaign is remarkably difficult, even on its easiest setting. Sometimes it's just plain unfair, as the opposition has a tendency to target the player but not each other. The worst offenders are a handful of racing levels, where the chaotic action puts Murphy's law in full force, with nearly a dozen opponents trying to slam you off course. Worse, these stages generally transpire in open environments, making simply learning the route a laborious process of trial and error.
Another unnecessary difficulty spike comes from levels where you need to eliminate Juggernauts, monstrous trucks that spawn enemies. Fail to take them out quickly and they'll populate the battlefield with an army of foes. Juggernauts don't show up on radar, so expect a lot of frustrating restarts.
While these missions greatly hinder the story mode's pacing, the campaign is otherwise filled with a decent amount of variety. Some levels are standard deathmatch, others task you with eliminating a set number of foes, and my favourites are cage matches where you must try to stay within a sanctioned zone that resets its location every couple of minutes. Stay outside it for too long and your health will drain. This creates a strategic dilemma; do you risk venturing outside the cage's safety to collect health and weapons, or try to duke it out in a small area filled with enemies and fewer resources?
The boss battles are also a highlight. These colossal machinations take on multiple forms with varied objectives for each stage of the fight. A giant flying robot doll can't be injured right away, so you have fend off her followers, then drag their drivers - hogtied to your bumper - to a truck where they're sacrificed and transformed into a missile, which you must then guide into the boss. I never said it made any sense.
This lack of logic is apparent in the game's live-action cut-scenes. Their grindhouse aesthetic of green screens, CGI and fake scratches on the film stock are reminiscent of Robert Rodriguez's work on Sin City and Planet Terror, and for the most part, they're stupidly entertaining. Some of the stories are enjoyable in a schlocky Twilight Zone sort of way, but think about them too hard (i.e. at all) and they fall apart at the seams.
While the cut-scenes are all style and no substance, the core gameplay is just the opposite, with deep combat buried under the crude visuals. This becomes apparent in multiplayer, when you can no longer blame cheating AI for your failures. Suddenly you realise that the couple of cars you've relied on can be taken out by a vehicle you'd previously written off. Sweet Tooth's ice cream truck's ability to morph into a flying mech isn't just for show, and the helicopter, Talon, isn't as cheat-y against players who know what they're doing. Its cumbersome handling and low armour can be thwarted by a skilled player as easily as King Kong swatting at a biplane.
Regrettably, there aren't a whole lot of game modes, and most of what's there is bog standard. There's Deathmatch, Last Man Standing (i.e. deathmatch with limited lives) and Hunted, where one person at a time becomes the hunted, gets more points per kill and is invulnerable to EMPs. Then there are team variants of these. Bewilderingly, cage matches aren't an option for multiplayer: an omission that makes even less sense than the narrative.
The lone unique multiplayer mode is Nuke, a riff on capture the flag. Here one team must capture its opponents' leader (an NPC sitting at a gun turret) and drag them to one of those grisly people-to-missile conversion trucks before guiding a rocket into a gigantic effigy of their mascot. The missile can be shot down, though, making for some tense last-minute chases. It's good fun if you've got a half-hour to spare (the six innings are timed at five minutes each), but as with everything Twisted Metal, don't expect to enjoy it right away. The leaders usually spawn at remote locales like rooftops that take intricate understanding of the maps to reach.
Unfortunately, at time of writing, multiplayer comes with a host of matchmaking issues. At least three-quarters of the time a network connection error will pop up when trying to find a game. Going into "quick match" increases your likelihood of success, but renders the browsing player a beggar rather than a chooser, at the mercy of whatever game type and map they've been sent to. Disconnects are also common, which can be hugely frustrating when you're doing well. This is a well-documented problem and Jaffe assures us a fix is on the way (and that it's a Sony issue that's out of Eat Sleep Play's hands), so hopefully this will be fixed in time for the European release. (Check Jaffe's blog for the latest.) Still, you can't ignore the botched launch of such a multiplayer-focused game.
Between the single-player being an obvious afterthought, limited multiplayer modes, shoddy graphics and some online kinks to work out, Twisted Metal can't hide its roots as the multiplayer-only PlayStation Store title it was originally developed to be. With all its flaws, it would be easy to write off this full-priced retail release as a polished turd - but that's not fair.
It's more of a diamond in the rough. Take the time to get to grips with its minutiae and the combat is extraordinarily complex and balanced. Twisted Metal may do everything in its power to turn you off, but those who put in the effort will find it transforms from a heap of junk into scrap art.
7 / 10