Whether or not it really was as good as the carnage-obsessed media of the time determined, Carmageddon was a perversely entertaining game. It was engaging enough to drag the player through a ridiculous number of levels - gradually unlocked as the player improved - before making his collection of vehicles inexplicably indestructible and ruining any remaining levels he still had to complete by removing the challenge. Still, it was about as close as the car combat formula has ever really come to succeeding. Twisted Metal, Sony's answer to SCi's - if you'll excuse the pun - killer franchise died a death before it really had a chance to blossom, slaughtered by a dissonance of feeble revamps which merely served to underline the PSone's inadequacies and Sony's own intention: to wring some cash out of Joe Public. Which is why Twisted Metal : Black comes as such a shock to the system. Stunning presentation, awe-inspiring vistas and manic gameplay aren't the half of it. There is a limitless amount of gameplay in this behemoth of a video game, and it fills the void left by the devolving Carmageddon series admirably. Twisted Metal : Black is made up of several gameplay modes, most notably the single-player story mode which invites you to pick a character - Street Fighter II style - and battle to the end of their storyline. You wouldn't necessarily think that a compelling narrative would be on the cards with characters like Sweet Tooth, Outlaw and Mr. Grimm and a running theme of wanton destruction, but for a large part of the time I played TMB I found myself empathizing with the characters. I have a little brother who enjoys destroying things, so I can relate to Sweet Tooth's plight. No, really.
Down and Dirty
Joking aside though, the simple truth is that the line-up of characters is so outlandish and varied that you find yourself wanting to take on new challenges. This is partly thanks to the game's skills system. Character can be controlled in a number of preset ways, some relying on the analogue sticks and others sticking to digital, some mapping weapons to the shoulder buttons and others to the diamond. For each character though, players can access a special weapon. For instance, the Junkyard Dog driven by Bill Ray can hurtle fire and brimstone from its rear-mounted tow mechanism like a catapult. Players can also execute a number of special moves, with complex d-pad manoeuvres unleashing devastating attacks and stunts. Dropping stuff in the path of a pursuing car is also an option. Ultimately though, players will learn that skill moves are the most valuable. Performing a skill move consists of little more than timing your shot to perfection for maximum effect, but doing so allows players to reap countless rewards. Not content with simply allowing players to blow stuff up and using Street Fighter-esque control mechanics though, Incognito Studios has also strewn weaponry all over the battlefield. The average rocket pack can be picked up, and once the player has selected it a little compartment on the side of his vehicle opens up and a jet fighter-style firing bracket pops out. A sublime effect, and it varies from character to character and weapon to weapon. It's not just the little touches that compel when it comes to TMB though; it's the big, blatantly obvious gameplay modes. Players can select Challenge mode, which is effectively the game's Single Race option, whilst diehards can opt for Endurance, which comprises an endless series of opponents coming at you, with only your single car taking any of them on. If you can find a friend worthy of the carnage though, you're in for a real treat. We're big multiplayer fans around here, so we tend to say that a lot, but it's doubly true of TMB. Apart from the standard split-screen deathmatch mode for between two and four players, there's a Last Man Standing option (try to guess how that works) and the cutting edge of the exercise, two-player split-screen co-operative story mode, with one set of lives for both players. You may sacrifice a few frames per second, but on a big screen TV the effect and sheer artistry of the event takes over.
Blowing stuff up might get boring after a while if you found yourself racing around a primary-coloured Mario-esque paradise, which is why Incognito have kept their heads and introduced us instead to a manic, dystopian near-future society where the running theme is darkness. It resembles some of the sets from Blade Runner at times. Using the PlayStation 2 to its fullest, each of the characters' vehicles is subtly detailed right down to the tiniest moving part, but this comes at the expense of reasonable damage skins, for which Incog seem to have opted for the WarCraft II school of thought with its small-flame-big-flame scheme. Making up for that though is a motley collection of barren cityscapes in which to 'go at it'. Once again not settling for the cliché though, Incog have worked their backsides off and produced a stunning variety of levels which make Carmageddon's offerings look feeble by comparison. Take for example the Prison Passage level. Players begin in a jail cell of all places, and before long it emerges that the cell is on a moving ship, and before you can lay waste to your entourage of metallic maestros the ship docks and you're given a whole new playground to decimate. Special mention should also be given to the Suburbs level, which is so incomprehensibly huge I don't think I found everything despite wasting close to an hour just scouting around. One of the major aspects of this level is the player's ability to take out a huge Ferris Wheel, which rolls menacingly into the ocean where it disappears. And that's another important aspect of TMB; unrivalled interactivity. You can break everything. From people and vehicles to buildings and Ferris Wheels, there are a huge number of things to be broken apart in TMB, and when you send an enemy careering into something to explosive effect I defy you not to gasp 'cool'! So apart from anything (and by anything I mean the prevalence of multi-tiered secret passages and areas, Evil Knievel-choking jumps and the billion other things that make up a level of TMB) there's always something to destroy. Pucka.
Apart from the level design, I think my favourite aspect of TMB is a tiny thing; the particle effects. Used to illustrate rocket-propelled grenades roaring through the air and ash splintering away from a cascading gaseous fireball, they are truly a spectacle to behold. Besides that, you cannot help but be amazed at Incognito's ability to gloss over a logistical nightmare. You try texturing a PS2 game with landscapes as vast as this and create the same flea-bitten, smouldering effect they have… The one thing that might cast doubt on TMB though is the lack of a 60Hz option. This is a wholly bizarre decision on Sony's part, as our friends across the pond have been shouting from the rooftops about their oily-smooth framerate for several months now, and given the delays thrown at TMB (no thanks to September 11th), it's not as if they didn't have time. Still, finding fault with TMB is difficult because it's such an awesome, multi-faceted experience of unparalleled calibre. Even the presentation is mesmerizing. The character select screen, for instance, has the camera hurtling around the level to show you the next character, and all of them appear midway through doing something exquisitely violent. Junkyard Dog's freeze-frame was taken halfway out of an exploding building, for instance. Then touched up to look even nicer. Although not often a problem faced by racing games these days, it must have been very tricky scoring the accompaniment to Twisted Metal : Black, but given the tone of this review so far I'm sure it will come as little surprise to discover that it rocks. Moody isn't the word. Refusing to play partisan to the pop-metal revolution of driving games, we're presented with a collection of epic, soul-destroying tunes as detailed as the game itself, with legions of stringed instruments and choristers all over the place. It's probably an acquired taste as far as casual listening goes, but it's perfect for the game. And completing the package we have the sound effects. Crashes, cracks, breaks and brakes. It's all there. And if you hear that tell-tale horn blowing, you know you've found yourself in the path of Dollface - the trucker behind the wheel of Darkside, one of the game's most menacing vehicles.
Twisted Metal : Black is epic, and comes thoroughly recommended. I've barely touched on the basics here, but there are countless hours of entertainment on offer. Don't expect to finish this in a week, or even a month. If I haven't convinced you by now you probably hate driving games. Well do me a favour, at least seek out the demo and find out if I'm right. I don't think you'll regret it. And the rest of you have probably already skived off work to go find a copy. It's amazing how quickly people can develop work-impeding headaches and stomach bugs headaches these days…