A Return to Extreme Nostalgia
For many people the 90s represents a time in gaming when graphical resolution and processing power finally let gore and violence be properly conveyed on a screen. It was a time of guilty pleasures—or not—such as Mortal Kombat, Doom, and Night Trap. Twisted Metal, debuting on the original Playstation waaaaay back in 1995, was another example of developers, specifically David Jaffe, realizing, “Hey, look at the crazy stuff we can do in games now!” His gift to the world was this vehicular combat series that embodied everything that was over the top, juvenile and excessive about 90s gaming violence. Well, now he’s come back to the franchise, and the results are mostly in keeping with the spirit of what you remember. And that’s a good thing.
Adolescent Darkness in HD
Twisted Metal has always been about conveying a certain kind of “forbidden” adult sensibility. In the same way that TM’s obvious “literary” influence, Heavy Metal magazine, was for adults only because it bared breasts and showed extreme violence, Twisted Metal follows that same path of engaging in the kind of excess that a rational adult would find juvenile, but adolescents drink like ambrosia from Olympus itself. The story, in true Twisted Metal tradition, is about a contest run by the mysterious Calypso with one simple goal; eliminate all competition and the victor will have his or her wish granted. This is capped off with—in another nod to the 90s—some fairly glossy live action cutscenes (or FMV, if we’re sticking to the 90s ethos) that still retain the kind of gleeful, cheesy material that makes an older gamer chuckle, while younger players will feel like they’ve discovered a whole new world of “dark.” As usual, Calypso, in true Mephistolic fashion, is never straightforward about granting people’s wishes ringing up that old cliché of being careful about this sort of thing.
Moving over to the presentation, it’s obvious from the outset that Twisted Metal favors performance over gloss. The scale of the environments shows that this is a next generation game, but Eat Sleep Play haven’t gone out of their way to use high polygon models, fancy lighting and particle effect gratuitously, or other high “production value” techniques to make this game look as shiny and visually complex as its peers on the market. On the other hand, the frame rate is absolutely rock solid. No matter how many buildings are blowing up, how many missiles are currently in flight, how many vehicles are in the process of flaming into a huge explosion, the frame rate never, ever falters. This is even the case when playing in local, split-screen co-op mode. The performance of this game in fast moving, hectic, action-based situations is phenomenal, and in that respect, the decision to forgo visual frills has obvious gains. This doesn’t look like a game made in the later years of a console’s lifecycle, but it sure performs like one.
Looking at the art direction, we’ve got an interesting hybrid of styles. The environments themselves all retain a certain bleak, brown and grey look consistent with the dark feel of the game, although sparks of color are here and there thanks to neon signs, the occasional amusement park mascot in need of running down and, of course, lava pits. Cities are the primary environmental playgrounds with the Los Angeles downtown rooftops, a New York stand-in, and an expansive suburb all providing the expected urban mayhem while desert towns, massive coliseums and even a Disney style amusement park add a little more environmental variety. The vehicles themselves have received the expected upgrade in visuals, looking more detailed and beat up. There are also options for customizing the paint jobs of cars in multiplayer, which is a nice, contemporary touch.
The audio is completely in keeping with the rest of the game’s adolescent, power fantasy vibe, assuming that, by adolescent you grew up in the 90s. Rob Zombie’s Dragula sits beside the surprising inclusion of NWA’s Straight Outta’ Compton, but more recent bands like Wolfmother are also part of the licensed line up. There’s nothing really eclectic about this soundtrack, the songs have been carefully selected to reinforce a sense of “bad ass driving,” amongst differing tastes, and they succeed. The audio effects, as expected, get a big boost from the HD world, with an effective use of multi-speaker set ups and the almost mandatory abuse of the sub-woofer for gratuitous, bass-laden explosions. The only real flaw worth mentioning is the occasional sudden cut-out of audio, heralded by a loud pop from the speakers and the sound muting out for several seconds. This is, unfortunately an issue occurring for other TM users, so there might be a patch in the future to settle this bug.
Death Race 2012
Twisted Metal was, is and always will be about just one thing; tearing around in a car at high speeds, armed to teeth with ridiculous weapons, an even more ridiculous physics system, blowing up anything on wheels that isn’t you. When this latest 2012 iteration of the series sticks to this ideal, it is exactly the game that Twisted Metal fans want. Unfortunately, at least in single player, this isn’t always the case, and it makes for a weaker overall package as a result.
The lame leg in an otherwise strong package is the single-player component. In the past, the single-player aspect of Twisted Metal was little more than death-match with bots, including an option for co-op gameplay. That might have been fine in 1995, but in 2012, for a retail title on a blu-ray disc at $60, someone must have been nervous that this simpler campaign philosophy wouldn’t sit well with modern gamers. As a result, the single player campaign starts off with traditional Twisted Metal matches, gradually ramping up to matches with specific conditions, then races, and finally boss fights that call for everything from platforming to aerial combat. It’s here that Twisted Metal really loses its way, with the player feeling like the fight is half with the given level’s objectives, and half with a game engine that’s trying to do something it’s not very good at. The final race, for example, is in an open, ruined city that requires the player to cross checkpoints. A new checkpoint appears as the current one is raced over, but because of the multi-level character of the area, the new checkpoint might be on the building rooftop directly beside the player, and the player has no way of knowing this aside from losing the race by doing some exploring. A simple “bread crumb” system could have alleviated this problem, but as it is the second last event in the campaign, progress grinds to a halt as the player deliberately loses the race over and over again, slowly uncovering the location of new checkpoints, and committing them to memory. The boss fights are also poorly designed, attempting to lengthen the duration of the game with multi-stage bosses that drag on for too long and require non-vehicular combat skills, such as platforming a la Crash Bandicoot, and other obstacle course style activities. What starts out as a promising single player campaign in the true spirit of the franchise, closes on a frustrating, genuinely unfun note as the game strays further and further away from its core strength; high speed car combat.
Fortunately for Twisted Metal, the game has never really been about sitting by yourself and playing a game against AI. It’s always been about playing with others, whether in cooperation or direct conflict, and this is where Twisted Metal easily proves that still has what it takes. Eat Sleep Play was considerate enough to include both local and LAN options for people that prefer to play with others in the same room or building, and both modes manage to hold up very well. The campaign mode can be played using these local co-op options, though this doesn`t actually improve the playability in later stages of the mode. It`s easy to see, however, that these local modes have gotten a lot of technical love and attention and work very, very well. And while it’s not a criticism, the combat, while fast and furious, is also complex. Whether you’re using the classic controls or one of the newer configurations, expect to use every button on your DualShock controller, with some oblique control combos thrown in for good measure. This is not the easiest game to get into, but for those willing to put in the time, the combat, once understood, is fast and rewarding.
The real heart of this latest Twisted Metal is the online multiplayer, and it`s the one thing that has been on the crumpled, burning, screaming Christmas wish list of anyone that`s played the game in the past. Jaffe and company did not screw this up. After all these years, TM fans are finally able to play online, and it works just as well as you might have imagined. There are expected modes like Death Match and Team Death Match, but there are also more involved, objective based rounds such as “Nuke” that require teams to switch roles during “innings” and either attack or defend faction leaders that must be kidnapped and “sacrificed” to a nuclear missile launching platform in order to send a missile at the enemy statue. The frenzied, unrealistic physics of Twisted Metal work to great effect here, and Jaffe’s own personal sensibility about doing away with Modern Warfare style “instant slaughter” combat is well served here. Newbies don’t need to fear exploding into death the moment they appear on the battlefield. All players have a substantial health bar to ensure that there’s always a fighting chance at survival, and the possibility of a fast paced car chase around the streets with guns, missiles and other weapons blazing.
The game has been made from the ground up with online multiplayer in mind, and it shows. The expected filters are there, the ability to create clans, the option to chat both with voice or with keyboards in lobbies, and of course, the now standard Modern Warfare RPG-lite mechanic of gaining XP, which translates into gaining levels, which eventually allows for the unlocking of new vehicles and other perks. The only downside to the multiplayer at this point is how unstable it is. It doesn’t affect everyone, but the netcode for online play seems problematic, with many players including myself, experiencing network errors that prevent connecting properly to games, or even getting booted out midway through a game. My own current success rate with online play has been about 3 out of 10 connections actually working, but Eat Sleep Play is aware of the problem and, at the time of this writing, working feverishly to fix it.
In the end, Twisted Metal is, in some ways, a very easy game to recommend to a very specific audience, and that is TM fans. This game has all the performance you’d expect from a current generation game—if not the gloss—though its weak single player campaign merely emphasizes how strong its multiplayer is. If you’re looking for a well-rounded package, this is not it. Twisted Metal is made for multiplayer, and will take some time to master, but if Eat Sleep Play can resolve the network connection difficulties, this game, like Warhawk, is another fine addition to the library of games with a multiplayer focus.