A couple of years ago, we were quite taken with Twisted Metal: Black. It might look a bit crap these days, but back then each car's dainty, projectile-launching protrusions throbbed into life eye-catchingly enough, illuminating the post-apocalyptic wastelands of wherever with some fervency, and the fast-paced, Carmageddon-esque gameplay held our attention for quite some time, with a little help from countless gratifyingly destructible levels.
And, we told ourselves, if Incog were to come back in a couple of years' time with a vastly overhauled graphics engine, lots of new toys and a few more cogent gameplay modes then we'd certainly be keen to have another look.
A pity then that they've done nothing of the sort.
Twisted Metal: Black Online, apart from mocking the noble colon, is little more than an airline movie screening of the same show, with visuals once proud now exposed as grainy. Although we're sure this is the same engine and indeed largely the same game as before, finely detailed explosions and car designs seem to have swiped the nearest parachute and blown the emergency exit, and the resulting decompression has stripped the walls of vibrancy and left uninspired, repetitive grey sludge flapping in the breeze. It simply looks like a game from another generation. And not a far-flung, futuristic one, either...
On the other hand, mid-teen death metal enthusiasts (or even enthusiastic death mentalists), who wear nose rings and black fishnet shirts, and who thought Marilyn Manson's recent Top of the Pops outing was an intelligent parody of current pop exhibitionism, will be more at home here than they would in the Osbourne family crypt on Halloween as lightning cracks. It's got hellish looking clowns, post-apocalyptic wastelands, chaos, decay, brooding unpleasantness and an intangible hopelessness to it.
What it doesn't have thought is anything particularly new to latch onto. To call the three new modes - manhunt, last man standing and collector - 'uninspired' would be like saying that Alastair Campbell 'could be happier' with the BBC, and the extra power-ups are completely inconspicuous. It actually took us a while to figure out which they were.
Online? Offline? What's the difference?
But even when we heard that TMBO was little more than Black with a Network mode, we still thought it stood a chance of keeping us happy. After all, a good vehicle deathmatch game is still a good vehicle deathmatch game, right? How bad can it be?
Let us paint you a picture of virtually every game of TMB we've played online. To begin with, everyone tries to figure out where all the good power-ups are, breaking into buildings, smashing things up and taking pot shots at everyone else. During this stage, combat is little more than a crosshair drifting over a speck on the horizon. After a few seconds though, everyone starts tearing around, eyes glued to the radar, in search of their first target. What follows is like a digital version of jousting, as players in unmanageably fast cars and trucks zoom past each other firing off a volley of ordnance. After each of these fleeting interchanges, both players skid round, and head for the next closest target. Maybe later they'll tool up on toys once more, but on the whole this is all that happens.
But... hang on... isn't that what happens in the single player game? Yes! And herein lies the problem: the online experience is so impersonal, with human behaviour so difficult to distinguish from AI, that you wonder whether you're actually playing bots of what - one irony being that split-screen multiplayer (not an option here of course) would be decidedly preferable. In the absence of voice comms, you can't even gage a reaction unless you hook up USB keyboards and type obscenities. And unlike PS2 Online bedfellows SOCOM, Midnight Club II and Tony Hawk, which demand skill and occasional bouts of luck, TMBO requires luck and occasional bouts of skill - usually little more than pulling the trigger at the right moment. Coupled with its drab looks, this emotionless gameplay is more than enough to drive us away.
Cheap in more ways than one
If this came free with the PS2 Network Adapter - as it does in the US - we might be more inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. As it stands, whether it's £25, or £15 as part of a £40 Network Adapter bundle, we'd recommend you steer clear. If you want vehicle deathmatch, get the widely discounted Twisted Metal: Black. It looks rubbish these days, but it's still good enough to hold your attention in single player. Taken online, however, it is not.