SingleTrac’s first entry in their seminal car-combat series has plenty of fun carnage, but dated features and control issues burden the experience when playing today.
World-building & Story
Twisted Metal is set around a secret underground car-combat tournament organised by Calypso, a mysterious individual with sinister ties. Invitations to the event are sent to various unhinged individuals, all of whom have their own reasons for entering.
Unfortunately, this is it for the story. The premise is introduced through a scrolling text box (not uncommon at the time it released – I remember Battle Arena Toshinden doing the same) and character bios are merely just text when selecting them. There’s no cutscenes; no development beyond this and in general the storytelling is sparse (I’ve later discovered a fantastically campy live-action cutscene was made for the game but this was cut from the final product).
But that doesn’t mean the game skimps in portraying its world, it just does this through other methods. Everything from the character designs to the vehicle choices to the makeup of the arenas you’ll fight in help to develop the premise of a gritty underground fight-to-the-death tournament. Indeed, it often feels like a load of escaped mental patients hopped in vehicles and are trying to blow each other up – which is a direction some of the sequels took the series; but the original game does this without telling any real story.
Presentation & Sound
As with so many early PS1 games, Twisted Metal‘s presentation really hasn’t stood the test of time and as a result it’s somewhat difficult to look at now, though some elements redeem it.
Graphically, the game has aged fairly poorly. The vehicles are the high point – clearly a lot of effort went into modelling them and they’ve all got defining characteristics – Sweet Tooth’s ice cream truck is colourful and bulky while Mr Grimm’s bike is swift and menacing. Environments are passable – plenty of muddy textures and blocky edges are here, but the areas do mostly look like they’re supposed to and do make a good use of colour.
The one thing the game really nails, however, is aesthetic. Based on a gritty underground car combat tournament, a lot of thought went into realising this – the menus are metallic and menacing; the characters look unhinged and loose and the places they’ll be battling run the gambit from skyscrapers to sewers with all sorts in between, each providing a distinctly unsettling feel.
Unfortunately, everything else looks poor by today’s standards – explosions in particular are pixelated and ugly. The weapon pickups are difficult to read even on the Vita’s small screen (it took me a while to figure out that’s what they actually were) and the weapons themselves lack any real visual flare. It’s all down to the fact that the game is from an era when the industry was still figuring out 3D and many of its contemporaries face similar graphical shortcomings.
Sound is more decent – weapons hit with a decent thud, tyres screech and explosions fly around. There’s no voice acting, but the game doesn’t really need it as the cast have plenty of character in themselves (and the vehicles are the star of the show). There’s also a rocking soundtrack to go along with all this that – although it isn’t filled with memorable songs – is suitable and fitting to go along with the carnage and was something I generally enjoyed.
Gameplay & Content
An arena combat game featuring vehicles rather than humans, Twisted Metal was somewhat of a trailblazer for the genre and something that was emulated fairly often in other games, not least because of its commercial success in North America. While it’s easy to see why the game was such a hit, many elements of its gameplay are clunky and difficult to use nowadays.
Upon booting up, you’re given two modes to choose from – one player or two player. Sadly this is it for the game – it’s severely lacking in content and is mainly meant as a couch co-op title, meaning it’s better played on a PSTV than a Vita (though you’ll have to put up with ugly as sin graphics on a HDTV). While there is some single player content here, it’s brief and forgettable.
Still, there’s a variety of vehicles to choose from, each with their own driver and bio. The different cars and trucks each have individual strengths and weaknesses (as well as a unique special attack) which means its worth fiddling around with them to figure out what works for you – do you want Darkside’s brute force or Crimson Fury’s fast manoeuvrability?
Once you’ve chosen your vehicle, you’re dropped into a battleground to duke it out with your opponents in a series of escalating battles to the death with the goal of blowing up your opponents – initally a 1v1 dual in an arena; followed by a four way battle royale on the city streets. It culminates in a boss battle on a skyscraper that’s so memorable and unique and feels like a real triumph to finally reach.
However, the driving itself will take some getting used to if you want to progress. The first thing you’ll notice is that if you’re playing on Vita, you’ll want to change the control scheme as the default maps important commands to L2 and R2. None of the alternatives are really suitable, but at least one allows you to battle somewhat effectively with handbrake on R2.
It’s not just the controls that let the game down, though. Vehicle handling is weird – turning corners is difficult; taking ramps and jumps feels weirdly artificial and sometimes you’ll be heading towards a weapon pickup only to randomly miss it at the last second. It’s certainly not the easiest to get used to and although you’ll adjust to the handling eventually, I couldn’t help but wish for something a little more user friendly out of the gate.
Driving is only part of the fun, though, and you’ll soon find you have an arsenal of weapons at your disposal to blow up your foes. They’re not massively creative, but they’re mostly fun to use, ranging from standard missiles and mines to freeze shots and tyre puncturers. In addition each vehicle has a regenerating special weapon – these tend to be the most powerful but are often only situationally useful, meaning you’ll need to get used to a specific vehicle to be effective with it.
One thing that’s worth noting is progression in single player – after completing a level you’ll get a password for the next level before progressing, but if you use all your lives at any point you’ll have to start again from the beginning. This means writing down passwords (or looking them up online) is essential to progression as the game can get incredibly difficult when you have 4 other vehicles gunning for you. It’s a bit strange to try and get used to this method of playing again after the systems employed by modern games.
Overall, Twisted Metal’s gameplay isn’t bad – just aged – but its complete lack of content in single player isn’t something that can be excused so easily.
An early player in a favourite genre of mine, Twisted Metal lays all the basics for a great car-combat game, but sadly time has not been an ally to this game and numerous issues ranging from control problems to lack of content plague it today. Still, there’s fleeting fun to be had and it’s a good way to look at the origins of the series to see the groundwork laid for the vastly improved sequels.