Review: Twisted Metal

TwistedMetal

The idea of cultural icons from any brand being remade for a new product line isn’t, well, new.  Comic books reinterpret origin stories, Hollywood spews out remakes of classic movies every year.  Hell, even Coca-cola and Pepsi keep reinventing taste formulas and logos.  Part of the reason for relaunching a product is to try and catch a new audience. Sometimes an artist’s reverence for the original work is so great that they feel compelled to recreate a masterpiece and often unintentionally dilute the meaning and scope of the original. Rebooting an icon or franchise often also stems from the advances made from a technological point of view.

Video game developers and publishers often revisit a title either to capitalize on the fact that some gamers will buy the same game year after year, even though a game has only been given a slightly fresh coat of paint or swapped one desert location for a different one.  Other games are revisited because the original title may have been good, but new technologies offer methods to provide new features or fix problems encountered due to the limitations of the previous generation’s hardware.  Another reason some developers revisit a title is simply out of sheer demand from gamers.  Mix a little of column A with a little of Column B, add a little pinch of retro HD reboot and you end up with Eat Sleep Play’s latest release of Twisted Metal.

During the nineties and oughts, car combat games were a pretty big deal.  Carmageddon, Interstate ’76 and ’82, and Vigilante 8 were just a few of the titles vying for gamers’ attention and dollars at the time.  While several of those titles strike up a nostalgic itch, the one title that car combat fans have been clamoring for since the launch of the PlayStation 3 has been Twisted Metal.  During the 2010 Sony Press conference at E3, Sweet Tooth drove out onto the stage in his ice cream truck with David Jaffe and Scott Campbell to ignite a fire of excitement for the Twisted Metal franchise finally coming home to PS3.  Fast forward to Valentine’s Day this year, when the developers at Eat Sleep Play released the latest incarnation of Sweet Tooth and the rest of the motley crew making up Twisted Metal.

Admittedly, I’m partial to single player over multiplayer, but during the demo I found that once I could get into an online match the game really drove home how much fun the multiplayer could be.  That being said, I still wanted to play through the solo story because I had heard Jaffe talking about how much work had gone into making the cutscenes and how cool they turned out.  I know.  Playing through a game just to watch the cutscenes is kinda lame.  But it also harkens back to the days of the original Westwood Studio Command & Conquer games, where the FMV cutscenes, although cheesy as hell, were always some of the best storytelling elements folded into a fun gaming experience.  So, I loaded up the Solo campaign and feasted my eyes on a truly amazing opening scene.  Highly processed live action scenes tell the tale of Sweet Tooth agreeing to race for Calypso in return for being reunited with the girl who got away.  Of course, in the Twisted Metal universe, “the girl who got away” has its own twisted meaning that I’ll let interested gamers discover for themselves.  Additional character arcs that are explored through the rest of the game include Doll Face and Mr. Grimm.  Each of their stories is told with the same high polish and true “twisted” dark narratives found with Sweet Tooth.

While the cutscenes are enjoyable, the single player levels teeter back and forth on the precipice of pure excitement and controller throwing frustration. I think part of my frustration with the game is the lack of clear explanation of what each weapon does and how to best utilize each car type in each scenario.  Obviously in race levels a faster car makes sense, but in the rest of the battles, each vehicle requires a level of understanding that is not offered during any regular missions, nor in challenge scenarios.  The hints and tips section gives some basic knowledge beyond the flimsy paper game manual packed into the case.  If there was a playable section in the (beyond the very basic tutorial explaining what each button does) offering an actual hands-on experience of the delicate rock, paper, scissors balance that is at play, the game would present a friendlier learning curve.  Instead, the game unlocks new vehicles every few levels with no true indication of what each car has under its hood.

Twisted Metal would rather have gamers learn the ins and outs of each vehicle through actual gameplay time behind the wheel. While I’m fine with that concept, I just wish the actual practice of said concept worked.  In single player levels, playing a new vehicle during any sort of deathmatch (pretty much every level–save for racing and boss levels of course) I found myself not knowing how to best use a vehicle because instead, I was focusing on simply not being the target for every single enemy in the match.  Seriously.  I understand that some games can end up having a balancing issue, but Twisted Metal wins the award for most sadistic AI.  For example, in the levels where the Juggernaut (a giant semi that delivers additional enemy vehicles every minute or so–in addition to having lots of armor and a shit-ton of weapons) spits out enemies constantly, I struggled so many times to stay alive long enough to even find the Juggernaut while every enemy in the level made a direct beeline for my vehicle that the only thing I learned was where health packs spawned or where the garage was located to swap out a vehicle. That is of course assuming a garage is even available to swap out damaged cars.

OK.  I get it.  The game was designed to be played as a multiplayer experience first and foremost.  Both split-screen and online options are available for multiplayer, and each is fun in its own way.  Obviously, playing split-screen (with up to four players) harkens back to the days before broadband Internet connections were commonplace and gamers had fun by obliterating their friends on screen and then talking smack to their face.  Twisted Metal runs fast and lag free even with four players zooming around a full-screen HD TV cut into quarters.  Two player split-screen is a bit odd (and I’m sure there is some technical reason behind it) but instead of splitting the screen evenly, the view is offset horizontally with dead space filling part of the screen.  I’ve seen this before in other split-screen co-op experiences and for the life of me can’t understand why the full screen isn’t utilized.  While the local co-op and deathmatch combat is fun, this game isn’t exactly a title that I want to play with my kids.  I work full time and find that as I’ve gotten older, inviting friends over to play video games just isn’t an option like it was before marriage and kids.  Co-op gaming in the same room during college was something that my dorm mates and I would look forward to way back in the day, but now scheduling even one other adult gaming friend or relative to share the couch experience is something that is almost as challenging as the boss levels in this game. But for you younger gamers with friends around, strap in for some old school couch car combat fun.

Fortunately, Twisted Metal does provide online multiplayer.  When it works, the game is a total blast.  When it works, that is.  I’ve delayed finishing this review for several weeks because I have been trying to give the game a fair shake and put in as much time as I can with both the single player and multiplayer experiences.  Unfortunately, night after night I load up the game to take for a spin, and even a month after release I’m still having problems with the online component.  Either I cannot connect to the Twisted Metal servers entirely or, if I’m lucky, I’ll connect and join a game lobby only to find that the gamer who is the host doesn’t realize it and never starts the damn match.  What I also find frustrating is that from the main menu of the game is an option to “Quick Join” a match.  Unfortunately, what the really means is that the servers will add me to a game lobby where the game is already in progress and I have to sit and wait for 1, 2, 5 almost 10 minutes for the match to finish before it will allow me to join the next round.  I can’t figure out why the Quick Join doesn’t exclude games already in progress, or why games can’t be joined mid-match.

Once a game is going, all sorts of fantastic hell breaks loose.  Buildings shatter as cars careen through them.  Missiles and bullets fly all around, pedestrians become speed bumps, and total mayhem takes over. As I stated earlier in the review, I am not exactly a huge competitive multiplayer gamer, and after getting into actual working matches I think all of the other opponents during my gaming sessions pegged me as an easy target.  While I tend to get a few good shots in, I found that I was mostly getting credit with assist kills; that, and I was basically always on the receiving end of homing or striker missiles.  

My biggest problem with online play is the way cars unlock as rank increases and how slow the progression seems to be.  Finding and joining matches is easier said than done, and leveling in Twisted Metal is not nearly as quickly paced as other multiplayer combat games (basically any FPS or action game currently being played online). While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you’re committed for the long haul, level progression can be a bit daunting if all I ever end up being is frag bait for faster, better, higher ranked players with meaner rides. Even after four solid matches, I found that I had only leveled up once.  Either I suck (which could very well be the case) or the experience earned during matches doesn’t scale proportionally to the awards earned.

Fans of the past games will likely find the latest Twisted Metal to be a fun reworking of the franchise.  Series newcomers who are looking for a different slant on multiplayer mayhem may find what they are looking for, but will likely be disappointed by the spotty matchmaking servers. Solo drivers will find the single player campaign levels to be a fun challenge, but are also like to hit the skids more than a few times under the steep learning curve.  The best feature, in my opinion, is the ability to play with up to four players locally.  But one minor feature is not the best reason to buy a game. I would suggest renting the game first, but of course keep in mind that playing online will require buying the Sony mandated Online Pass.

TryIt

Pros:
+ Solid frame rate and tight controls
+ High production cut scenes
+ Fun local split-screen gameplay

Cons:
– Online matchmaking doesn’t work all the time
– Single player levels are frustratingly unbalanced
– No consistent method for learning the finer point of each vehicle

Game Info:
Platform: PS3
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Eat Sleep Play
Release Date: 2/14/2012
Genre: Car Combat
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-16 (4-player split-screen, 16-players online)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

[nggallery id=2049]

[nggallery id=1864]

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.