Twisted Metal is 17 years old. Yeah, let that sink in for a bit. That certainly doesn’t make it the oldest videogame series but the franchise ranks up there with other long-running properties like Final Fantasy and Mario. Twisted Metal has hung around because the kid in us still loves driving around in souped-up cars and blowing others to kingdom come to the tune of Sammy Hagar and Rob Zombie. 2012’s new Twisted Metal doesn’t screw up that formula, but it doesn’t do much else other than add excellent cinematics that have nothing to do with the fun parts of the game.

Here’s a quick refresher, just in case you aren’t one of the series’ rabid fans: Twisted Metal takes place in alternate America where vicious crime is at an all time high and killer gangs roam the countryside. The real power resides in the Calypso Corporation and the underground demolition competition the eponymous CEO runs. The “Twisted Metal” contest brings all of the crazies out of the woodwork because Calypso has the supernatural power to grant a wish to the winner. Just be careful what you wish for.

The stylish cinematics explaining all that work extremely well, but playing through the campaign leaves you with the undeniable feeling that the three short films telling the stories of Sweet Tooth, Mr. Grimm and Dollface might have been better if they were divorced from the trappings of a videogame. There’s just no relation between the horror and grindhouse-esque cutscenes and the game. You don’t even pick a certain vehicle or character to play through, which would have at least given the player a sense of agency or offer some light roleplay. Instead, you are just rewarded with an unrelated cutscene after completing innocuous missions.

Taken from a pure gameplay standpoint, the amount of vehicles at your disposal is welcome. Each of the fifteen or so vehicles fit a different playstyle, some focusing on speed while others are slow and armored or have more useful special weapons. Most of the single-player challenges let you choose three cars that you can switch out at a garage, and each mission has different enough objectives that there is some strategy in picking what cars you use. There’s a fair bit of customization as you can pick your car’s sidearm like uzis or rockets, and in a neat diversion, you can design the look of each car’s paintjob or accessories for use in the campaign and multiplayer. If you are doing one of the few races in the campaign, it makes sense to pick a fast car, but be warned that the speed freaks like Kamikaze are very light and will get bounced around quite a bit. Some purists might not like the unrealistic physics, but I didn’t mind the cartoony nature of combat in Twisted Metal.

I did mind playing with the default control scheme. My hands cramped trying to accelerate and reverse with a button press instead of a trigger, and when you change the scheme to one more suited to light driving games like GTA, you will be a lot more comfortable. Piloting the few aircraft in the game is another scheme altogether and you might take hours to figure that crap out. I appreciated that Twisted Metal came with a printed manual – a rarity today, it seems – but I realized there’s a reason most games don’t make you go searching for a piece of paper to learn how to play. Figuring out all of the special moves and hairpin turns your car can do takes practice, but I wish Twisted Metal did a better job at teaching new players. I don’t want to have my hand held – especially by a creepy clown – but I didn’t like the constant feeling of frustration either.

The challenge level of the game is generally high, but it fits. On normal difficulty, Twisted Metal will take several replays of each mission before you beat them. It feels like an old-school platformer, beating some levels and the “boss” chapters that end each campaign takes a combination of practice, luck and talent that leaves you with a sense of accomplishment. Depending on your skills, the 18 single-player missions will take you 10 to 15 hours, which feels about right.

The replay value comes from multiplayer, and Twisted Metal doesn’t disappoint with how you can compete both online and locally. The modes vary from simple deathmatch all-out battles to scenarios based on specific missions like the Nuke mode and they are all pretty fun. I was thankful for the local splitscreen to play the campaign cooperatively or just duke it out with a buddy, but it’s weird that option is grayed out unless you have a Cat-5 cable connected to your PS3. The multiplayer servers have been sketchy since the game launched, but Sony has mostly figured out whatever the problem was.

Twisted Metal has all the hallmarks of the franchise with tons of fun to be had blowing up cars with missiles, remote bombs or a quick shotgun to the windshield, even if you have to wrestle with the controls a bit to get full satisfaction from a kill. The horror movies that punctuate the single-player campaign are all well-acted and directed, but other than providing a cursory connection to the action, there’s almost no relation to the gameplay. There’s nothing inherently wrong with such a setup, but games have made such headway in storytelling that it’s a shame Twisted Metal‘s formula of unconnected cutscenes feels dated. I kept imagining ways for the story to be enacted within the engine of the car combat, as well as wondering if the exact gameplay of Twisted Metal would appeal to a larger audience if it used say, Mario, Luigi and company, instead of a serial killer with a flaming clown mask.

Bottom Line: It was a probably a good idea to update Twisted Metal for the PS3, and the combat and ambience is intact, but there’s nothing here to push the medium beyond the 1990s era that spawned the original.

Recommendation: Hardcore fans of Twisted Metal will find a lot to like with this reboot , but unless you have a burning love for heavy metal music, cinematics depicting brutal violence, or NASCAR, you can probably pass.

[rating=3.5]

Game: Twisted Metal
Genre: Vehicle Simulation
Developer: Eat Sleep Play
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform(s): PS3
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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