Twisted Metal preview: Something old, something new

Playing the new Twisted Metal for my first time (I didn't personally cover last year's E3 build), I was surprised by just how powerful the feelings of nostalgia were that swept over me. The old characters and vehicles, the old environments, and the old power-ups and weapons -- though updated by the current technology and featuring new elements -- bring back fond memories of many long nights playing split-screen with friends on the original PlayStation.

"The essence or the fantasy of it that inspires me and Scott [Campbell] -- that hasn't changed since the very first one," game director David Jaffe said at a preview event this week, but it's not just about taking players back to the mid-90s. "We've added stuff -- we wanted to build a deeper more relevant game in multiplayer, online, things like that."

Still, the "fantasy" that inspired the original game -- an over-the-top demolition derby set loose in the streets -- "is still just as relevant today," Jaffe suggested, "and we can bring it to next-gen gamers using next-gen artwork."

Even with the so-called "next-gen" updates, Twisted Metal maintains some distinctly throwback designs. At the press preview, the controls defaulted to the "classic" scheme, which notably maps the car's gas throttle to the Square button. That's old school -- modern convention maps the gas and brakes to the triggers. Jaffe explained that the reason the preview build was set to classic controls was because that's how the development team has been playing the game.

"Not all of the weapons fire backwards," he said. For some weapons, the go-to strategy is to charge up a shot, and then quickly spin the car around to fire at a pursuer. "With classic controls, it's a lot easier to flip around a 180, keep driving backwards, launch that at you, and then flip back around all in one motion, and keep going forward. That's how we designed it, and that's how we play it."

"But we know in this day and age, we cannot ship with those controls as default," Jaffe added, saying that especially younger players, who are new to TM, will be expecting modern racing controls. Of course, this isn't a racing game, let alone a conventional car game. "It is, but it's more of a shooter than a car game," Jaffe clarified. "That's why our cars don't drive like Forza cars or Gran Turismo cars, because it's about shooting and aiming and tracking."

While the series has always been a multiplayer game at heart, obviously the technology has come a long way since Twisted Metal: Black was released a decade ago. It's no secret that the new game's focus is on expanding the scope of TM to meet the expectations of an online audience accustomed to deep multiplayer experiences.

As I played during the preview session, I earned XP, and the game tracked my "Global Rank," reminding me to check the "Rewards" screen to see what I'd earned. Clearly, these were more or less placeholder elements for the time being, and Sony representatives weren't willing to explain them just yet. "Persistence is important for online games," Jaffe hinted. "We obviously understand that, and we'll have that in this game. What it means, what it gives you, how you earn it, we're going to be talking about that going forward."

At this stage, Jaffe was content to give us a glimpse into some of the new dynamics of the gameplay. He introduced a vehicle called the "Juggernaut," a semi-trailer truck with a special move that allows another player to drive up into the trailer, Spy Hunter-style. The parked car is shielded by the truck's substantial health pool and its driver is positioned into a powerful turret gun mounted on the truck's roof.

"I love that the game supports those tactics and allows players to use those tactics to be super amazingly strong," Jaffe gushed of this impromptu co-op move. With factions being such an important element of the new game, there will be a number of ways for players to team up for coordinated attacks. Jaffe described how a pack of motorcycle riders (with relatively little armor) could take down even the toughest of opponents with a timed assault of sticky remote bombs.

The new "Talon" helicopter, too, features a towing magnet, which can grab up another player to form a two-vehicle tower of destruction, doubling the standard missile assault. The helicopter, in fact, seemed overpowered in the preview build, as compared to the other vehicles available. And playing on the newly revealed map, called "Black Rock Arena" (pictured above) and based on the popular "Suicide Slide" area in Twisted Metal 2, I was able to easily avoid the obstacles -- including lava pits, dynamically changing arena walls, and the swinging wrecking balls that guard the best power-ups -- with the highly maneuverable helicopter.

Jaffe admitted that the Talon wasn't quite balanced yet. "By E3, it'll be substantially better," he promised. "By ship, it'll be great." The team is just starting to fine-tune the vehicles, plus, Jaffe points out, TM players aren't yet used to keeping an eye out for threats above.

Even in this early build, though, the helicopter wasn't always the obvious choice. In the "Nuke Mode" gametype, each side is trying to kidnap the other faction's leader -- an NPC you hook to your vehicle and must drag to a missile launcher on the far end of the map. In this demented version of Capture the Flag, you must survive long enough in the missile launcher area for a meter to fill up, initiating the "sacrifice." At this point, the leader is attached to a nuclear missile that you manually steer back to the other faction's effigy, a giant metal statue suspended in the air -- score! "The last vehicle that you want to try to sacrifice that leader with is the helicopter," Jaffe explained, because its sacrifice meter fills the slowest.

Balancing aside, there are still a lot of bugs to work out. While not out of the ordinary, the preview build did suffer from a number of noticeable problems. Certain vehicles couldn't be selected from the beginning of the game, crashes abounded, and the framerate dipped, especially at startup. Jaffe waved off any concern, however -- he says Eat Sleep Play will have no issues hitting the October launch.

There are some new twists in this metal for sure -- the PS3 hardware allows for more playthings on the field, and the exponential growth of online multiplayer since the last game should draw a new crop of curious players looking for a different kind of "shooter." But so far, the most powerful effect of the new Twisted Metal game might be bringing back all those great memories you have of the old one.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.