From one angle it seemed like an odd choice to end the Sony conference with: a series that has faded from relevance, that had its last major outing all of nine years ago with 2001's Twisted Metal Black on PS2, and which has absolutely none of the cultured cool or mass-market Hollywood sweep with which Sony in particular likes to associate itself. Guns and cars, rust and destruction: this is an absolutely unreconstructed videogame.
But then, this is E3, and unreconstructed videogames tend to play pretty well here, especially (if far from exclusively) with the local crowd. Other things that play well here include affably rude creator David Jaffe, back at the helm of the series he created, and long-awaited returns of much-loved franchises. If Nintendo can unveil the 3DS with a Kid Icarus game, for heaven's sake, then Sony has every right to blow the trumpet about what is, in fact, the longest-running PlayStation-exclusive game series, going all the way back to 1995. The old warhorse has earned its spot.
Two days later, Jaffe is demonstrating the game to journalists first thing in the morning in more serene surroundings, a quiet Sony demonstration room far from the show floor. Down there you can get hands-on with a straight team deathmatch mode - more on that later - but up here he's demonstrating that Twisted Metal's multiplayer has considerably more scale, depth and ambition than you might expect, by showing Nuke mode.
(Single-player is off the menu for Twisted Metal's E3 debut. Jaffe will only say that it involves "individual characters that go through stories" rather than multiplayer's faction-based set-up).
Nuke is intended to encourage a more tactical, organised, almost class-based style of team combat that will draw out the interplay between the different vehicles' skill sets and get clans involved and strategising. "We've always thought of it as a fighting game in cars, like Mortal Kombat," says Jaffe, but this objective mode with its unusual mechanics is more like a basket-case Battlefield.
In a smouldering, wrecked downtown cityscape, the two factions of Clowns and the Dolls are trying to destroy giant statues of respective faction leaders Sweet Tooth and Doll Face. Brilliantly, these 15-storey floodlit effigies are suspended from helicopter transports and being flown slowly around the map. Twisted Metal is an ugly game - on at least one level, it's meant to be - but there's no denying that this is a wonderfully tasteless spectacle.
Elsewhere on the map, each team has a missile launcher, and the two actual leaders are manning turrets on foot. The aim of the game is to get to the enemy faction leader, kidnap them and take them to a hot zone next to your faction's missile launcher. Keep the leader in that zone's perimeter long enough and you'll charge your launcher, at which point you can start firing player-guided missiles at the opposing team's statue. It's not all over yet, though, because these are relatively easy for the helicopter's minigun, or a missile-equipped ground vehicle, to take down.
It looks like a fun, progressive dynamic for a multiplayer match which exploits the large scale and impressive verticality of the city map. Although Jaffe began by using the chopper to fly around the map and explain the mode, he transferred to a heavily modified old sedan called the Road Boat to play a good chunk of the demonstration. He was still able to climb up through parking lots, use ramps and building interiors and blow through walls to access high vantage points for sniping (an automatic lock and zoom - real sniping is just too hard in cars, apparently), or to get to the raised platform to defend his faction chief Doll Face.
Every faction can drive every vehicle - even Sweet Tooth's truck, which now transforms into a robot - and there should be 12 to 16 in all, with around half of them being new and half familiar from previous instalments.
In order to achieve the aim of getting every car to feel like a fighting-game character, they all have different characteristics across a huge range - armour, handling, carrying capacity, energy refill for energy abilities (shield, mine, and so on), turbo drain, radar signature range. But the key differentiators are, of course, their over-the-top specials.
The Road Boat has a giant magnet on the front which you can suck your rivals on to, charge up and then use to toss them away. Or you can ram them into a wall with a thrust of the Sixaxis. You can reverse it - every special has a secondary fire mode - and it becomes a ricochet projectile weapon. The helicopter has a devastating Gatling gun.
The Vermin, a pest control van, fires player-controllable "rat rockets". The Tow Truck can spawn taxi cabs behind it and then lob them around like a catapult; it can also drop health. The deadly but vulnerable motorcycle comes with a chainsaw you can drag along the ground to heat it up until it catches fire for triple damage. Best of all has to be the ambulance, which fires a patient in a rocket-propelled gurney which can be guided home by the player for extra damage.
It's gloriously crass and silly humour that doesn't take its twistedness too seriously - very much in the spirit of the first game rather than the self-consciously dark Twisted Metal Black. Jaffe says his Eat Sleep Play team is aiming for a T for Teen rating. "The way I've been thinking about it is kind of like eight or nine o'clock television, an edgy Twilight Zone vibe, not as light and frothy as Twisted Metal 2."
No serial killer characters, then? "There are some. There's the eight o'clock CBS serial killer, and there's the HBO serial killer. We're doing the CBS one." It was not always thus: "The original version of this game really was much more urban and Midnight Club, none of the crazy characters were there. As we went through production we got our twisted vibe back."
Twisted Metal will support two-to-four players in split-screen on one console, and 16 online. There will be some form of progression in multiplayer, but in Jaffe's words, "It ain't Call of Duty." He feels the famous Modern Warfare upgrade path is too damaging to balance. "We look at Street Fighter IV as a better inspiration," he says.
Jaffe also wants the game generally to have a slower pace than most online deathmatchers, where death comes swiftly and without warning. "I love the promise of online gaming, but I don't like a lot of online games because the pacing is so quick," he says. "I need to feel more relationship with the people I'm playing against." Consequently the cars have fairly heavy armour and, conveniently, don't have heads to shot.
Back to the show floor. Hands-on in a deathmatch on a more modest suburban map, it's easy enough to see what Jaffe means; combat is flowing rather than staccato, deaths and kills come sparingly and it takes a few solid hits with a rocket to take most of the vehicles down.
All vehicles can fire machineguns and rockets, and there's generous aiming assistance; your main job is to control the car and keep your prey roughly front and centre, but the game will usually reward you with extra damage for doing things the hard, manual way.
It's still a bit of a handful, however. With rockets, guns, special and alternate special, rear-facing weapons, shield and mine on the d-pad, boosting by double-tapping the throttle and a jump (yes, jump) button to worry about - plus a rather old-fashioned default control scheme with accelerate and brake on face buttons - Twisted Metal will twist your fingers at first. At least it doesn't have actual combos any more.
As compensation, the handling is extremely responsive, agile and accommodating. Road Boat turns out to be something of a misnomer, as the heavy old armour-plated car can turn 90 degrees almost on a dime with a tap of the brake. This is done without sacrificing the feel and personality of the vehicles, and it's essential for the frenetic competitive gameplay, as well as negotiating some of the game's tight interior spaces.
With its squealing guitar metal soundtrack and scrappy Mad Max visuals, complex controls and fussy HUD, Twisted Metal is vehicular combat done not stylishly, but well. There's evidence of a careful study of online shooters here, but Twisted Metal also isn't embracing every trend it's missed in the last half-dozen years just for the sake of it. Even with Sony's spotlight shined directly on it, it's happy to just be Twisted Metal. And plenty of people out there - perhaps more than you think - will be very happy with that.
Twisted Metal will be released exclusively for PS3 in 2011.