On the one hand: Mass Effect III. Skyrim. World of Warcraft. Hell, even Uncharted 3.
On the other: Call of Duty. Battlefield. Crysis. Halo.
When you look at the most popular games, two things leap out: sprawling, epic story, or finely honed, razor-precision person-to-person multiplay. Twisted Metal, freshly rebooted for the PlayStation 3, is neither of these.
Instead it marches to the beat of arcade retro - though boasting modern production values, Twisted Metal’s gameplay is rooted firmly in the early double-aughts, a near linear projection from the iconic sofa shooter of the prior PlayStation platforms.
Twisted Metal has always been something of an uneasy fit in video games. It never took itself entirely seriously, with an over-the-top sensibility that would seem completely at home in a Roger Corman flick. At a time when video game storytelling was coming into its own (the first iteration was a contemporary of the influential Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy VII), Twisted Metal eschewed narrative pretense to focus instead on sheer vehicular mayhem.
Yet for a game so solidly aiming at the pick-up-and-play multiplayer market, the control system was almost fiendishly obtuse, requiring those that would master its intricacies to devote a number of hours that would make a Street Fighter champion balk. And it did all of this with a sense of humor that no one could confuse as striving for acceptance from the politically correct.
Despite its odd fit, Twisted Metal developed a niche but radical following - call it the Godzilla of video games. Not unlike the rubber clad beast of our celluloid nightmares, Twisted Metal has lumbered through sequel after sequel, and its latest iteration may have finally destroyed Tokyo.
The story, such as it is, centers around a mysterious, mega-destructive tournament hosted by the enigmatic Calypso, a fae billionaire as inscrutable as he is emo. Previous iterations of the game would put a different character in each car, giving us both a brief intro movie to explain their motivation and, if you played obsessively enough, an equally brief denouement with an O’Henryesque twist of grand irony.
TMPS3 deviates from this formula in two important ways. First, there are only 3 characters: Dollface, a woman who has had a porcelain mask locked over her face for years; Mr. Grim, the son of a carnival sideshow daredevil; and Sweet Tooth, the game’s psychotic mascot. Each has their own six-level mini-campaign, telling what technically qualifies as their stories with bombastic cut scenes blending full motion video and 3D backgrounds - yes, just like those old CD-ROM games, only prettier.
These tales are grim to the point of comedy, with scenery-chewing vocal performances to match. None of these folks will be winning Oscars, but it can be overlooked with the same glee exercised by fans of Piranha 3D, as the tone the performers strike perfectly suits the medium.
This brings us to the game’s other major departure from the formula: vehicle selection. Rather than tying each character to a specific vehicle, the player may at any time select any vehicle they’ve unlocked, and most levels allow the selection of three vehicles; if you can’t get the hang of one, drive into the garage and select another one, allowing any dormant vehicles to slowly regenerate health.
Each level consists of an enclosed arena and some number of opponents, all of whom must be destroyed to progress. As in any arena shooter game, various powerups and weapons are scattered about, and its up to the player to drive over these and unleash their destructive potential against whatever’s in front of them.
If there’s one thing at which this game excels, it’s destruction. Driving through almost any solid object reduces it to an avalanche of polygons; each level is scattered with random passers-by that die without so much as a whimper; you can even get a health bonus after offing an opposing vehicle by exterminating the fleeing driver. All of it is surprisingly bloodless, though the pyrotechnics would make even Michael Bay weep with envy. As well they should - destruction is the point.
This game will win no awards for making us fall in love with a character and then killing them tragically; no one will compare it favorably against the epic action films of a bygone era. Though each level carries with it a unique wrinkle to differentiate it from the pack, they all ultimately boil down to a demolition derby in which one excels by being as bloodthirsty as possible as quickly as possible.
In a format like this, it is no wonder the single player campaign is almost beside the point. TMPS3 is all about the online multiplayer experience, a feature the diehard have been begging for lo these many years. In true Twisted Metal style, it takes the basic modes of online competition and turns them on their head - sure there’s the obligatory solo and team deathmatch modes, but much more fun are things like Hunted, a sort of reverse game of tag in which you have to kill “it” in order to score points, or Nuke, a psychotic form of capture the flag in which you must capture the leaders of the opposing team and then launch them, as ammo, against a massive, obscene statue.
The multiplay, in other words, has a distinctly Twisted Metal...erm, twist. Those that worship at the alter of the thoughtful, strategic stat-wrestling of World of Warcraft, or the prodigious, carefully timed dance of Battlefield, will not be at home here. This is breakneck run and gun gameplay that makes Call of Duty feel slow, though the complex controls, long a hallmark of the series, work against it here. The game features a bevy of options, including abilities for each vehicle that slowly regenerate over time, and the control mapping is unlike anything else in the popular gaming space.
Upon reflection this makes perfect sense; a vehicle always moves forward, even when turning, and simply lacks the stop-start mobility of an on-foot infantrymen. It is, however, a game that is punishing to the unfamiliar. The single player mode, though allowing a chance to familiarize oneself with the controls, will not prepare for the unbridled mayhem of live opponents, and one can expect to lose several of their first matches before becoming a credible threat.
Which, ultimately, brings the game back to the same odd space Twisted Metal has always occupied - neither fish nor fowl, a game with no easy entry into an established genre. This is a game that was created, almost from the ground up, for people who are already fans, and is unlikely to win any converts to the franchise.
On the other hand, it lets you drive a horribly beweaponed ice cream truck that turns into a giant robot clown that attacks its foes by hurling its head at them. If that doesn’t appeal to you, even a little, you have no business playing video games.