As the gaming industry continues to move toward more story driven experiences, it's easy to forget that some games should be made just to be played. Eat Sleep Play's new Twisted Metal is exactly that sort of game. The latest entry in the popular and brutal car combat series is named after the series' genesis, and it's certainly aimed at capturing its established fanbase, but some major missteps in the campaign and frustrating mechanics hold it back from being a renaissance for the series.
The campaign's story follows Sweet Tooth, Mr. Grimm, and Dollface (long established series characters) through a series of short campaigns. While the series canon has long been established in past games, Twisted Metal re-writes some of that history for the sake of good, contained short stories for each character. These don't stray too far from the origins, motivations, and personalities of the past, and they're presented through entertaining (and sometimes disturbing) live action grindhouse movie cutscenes interspersed between campaign challenges. They add a great style to the game, and I found each of them interesting and entertaining in an (intentionally) cheesy way.
Unfortunately, between the entertaining cutscenes of the campaign, you'll have to play the campaign itself. Twisted Metal's campaign plays out in a series of individual objective-based missions which range from battles and game modes similar to those you'll find in the multiplayer, to completely unique boss encounters created for the campaign, and you will have to compete them if you want to be offered any sort of weapon and vehicle variety in the excellent local multiplayer.
Standard missions are often fairly simple "destroy all enemies" deathmatches, and in the nicer ones of these you'll be allowed a few cars which can be swapped out in garages around the maps to restore the health of one vehicle while you use another. Other times you'll be forced into confusing and poorly balanced races in which only a few vehicles are really viable options for surviving. Even worse, some of the races are so poorly laid out that you will actually get lost while trying to complete them, and only through many trial and error attempts is it possible to finally do so. The combat stages can be equally frustrating, especially when the game pits you up against ridiculous odds. One of the later stages was particularly frustrating, throwing me in a small level against eight enemies, all on a team against me, and two of which were hard-to-kill trucks which constantly spawn more enemies. I wasn't even allowed a garage or more vehicles to lighten the unfair balance.
But the most obtuse part of the campaign is the boss fights. Only one of them felt remotely decent. The others were extremely confusing. Minimal explanation and instruction is given during these massive multi-stage encounters. I suppose the developers were trying to make these like Zelda fights, and make "solving the puzzle" part of the challenge, but it works out to be nothing but frustration. Visual cues are poorly delivered, and, even when you get them, frustrating and cheap design makes it incredibly irritating to complete the objective. This is not to be confused with actual difficulty; most of them were not incredibly likely to kill you (at least not very often), but a number of frustrating irritants were thrown in to make things more challenging.
This is especially unfortunate because the concept of the boss fights was all-around outstanding. The bosses were crazy and over-the-top and fit extremely well into the Twisted Metal universe. Every time I entered a new boss area I would marvel at the great scale and cool design... and ten minutes later I would be ready to throw my controller through the screen. Every bit of clever design is frustratingly ruined by poor gameplay decisions in the fights themselves. At one point one of the boss fights puts you into a helicopter and expects you to use the helicopter's abilities to drop an enemy onto the boss. The only problem with this is that unless you went through the tutorial for the helicopter there is no way you could possibly know how to do this. In fact, there's not even a way to pause the game and bring up a controller layout. I finally asked on a forum and found that you could do so by pressing Up and Triangle at the same time, but there's no way I could have figured that out on my own and I was extremely irritated with the game for not giving any information on it during a mandatory segment.
Luckily, after you've trudged through the singleplayer on Normal, you will have unlocked most of the multiplayer weapons and vehicles for local play and be ready to hop online (or on a couch with friends). And boy is it great. The multiplayer is so fun you can forget all the woes and mental suffering of the singleplayer in minutes. Matches are fast, the community is active, and there are tons of game modes to experiment with. Standard Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch are accompanied by new crazy modes like Nuke Mode, in which you must capture an opposing team captain to use as a sacrifice to launch a nuke at their statue (similar to one of the singleplayer boss fights but much more fun). There are seven game modes in all, and most are worth plenty of repeat plays
There are 17 vehicles featured in the game, and each has unique controls and stats. The three main stats are armor, speed, and special. Variety of vehicles is great, and the addition of the helicopter doesn't unbalance things, which is good. There are also some awesome customizable paint options for each vehicle. Your sidearm (the default weapon that needs no ammo) can be freely attached to any vehicle, but each vehicle also has two unique special attacks which need to recharge after each use. In standard Twisted Metal style, there are a number of weapons littered about the maps to pick up and fire at your foes as well.
While the balance is a bit sketchy on some of the multiplayer vehicles and weapons, even when you lose it's hard not to have fun. There are a good number of stages and each one features completely unique styles of play. If you are more interested in playing locally, Twisted Metal has four player splitscreen, though you can only use bots with two or less, which is incredibly entertaining. It also has LAN play, letting you network systems into a LAN party of gruesome fun. Two players can also play the campaign in co-op, which helps to alleviate the horror of it to some extent. The one thing holding the multiplayer of the game back is rampant server problems at launch. It can take as many as 20 tries to finally find a server that doesn't give you a network error. Hopefully this is fixed soon.
Graphically, Twisted Metal fails to impress. It's not an ugly game, but it certainly doesn't meet the standards set by many others on Sony's platform. The dark brownish color palette is a good fix for the game's brutal style, but it can be a bit dreary at times. The music fares much better, with a great selection of licensed tracks appropriate for the game as well as an option to use your own music stored on the PS3 hard drive. The cheesy actors in the campaign cutscenes are entertaining as well.
It's hard to look past some of the value issues in Twisted Metal. The campaign is only 4 hours long (though believe me I was glad to see it end). Also, while there are a good number of stages, the multiplayer could still use more, even if the ones present are great. More irritating is the fact that you cannot unlock all of the multiplayer vehicles and sidearms without completing the campaign on Twisted difficulty with gold medals in every event. This is an insanely frustrating venture which people shouldn't have to put up with to enjoy all parts of the multiplayer in a primarily multiplayer game. This also makes Twisted Metal basically the worst online pass game ever, as you miss the one part of the game that's truly great if you ever buy used. That said, Twisted Metal is a game I will likely never sell back. The multiplayer has great replayability and variety.
Reviewing Twisted Metal has given me some of both the most frustrating and most enjoyable experiences I've had in gaming in a long time. The campaign is genuinely bad, although I enjoyed the story cutscenes. It's also horribly integrated as an essential component in a game made almost entirely for the excellent multiplayer. Luckily, that multiplayer is so great that it can carry almost any other faults the game has, and it's great to see a developer still supporting local play in a game that's a blast to play with friends. At the end of the day, Twisted Metal is a game I'll have a lot of fun playing for a very long time, but it was quite a chore getting to that point.
This review is based on a retail copy of Twisted Metal for the PlayStation 3.