Twisted Metal review: On cruise control

We all have guilty pleasures, those things we enjoy but are afraid to tell others about, because deep down we know how terrible we are for enjoying them. The Twisted Metal series has always been that way for me. As my prepubescent self might have exclaimed at the series' introduction so many years ago, "A clown with a perpetually flaming head drives around in an ice cream truck killing people? That is so cool."

Imagine my stifled pleasure when a new installment of Twisted Metal was announced for the PS3. I envisioned how much the old arcade gameplay might benefit from some modern influence, and how much technology could augment the formula and push the series into exciting new territories.

Too bad that isn't the case here. Instead, Twisted Metal does little to shake things up and takes the safe, careful approach with its PS3 debut.

Twisted Metal places heavy emphasis on the story this time around, choosing to go more in depth on three characters rather than allowing you to see the storyline play out for each driver. Because the one thing we all remember from the Twisted Metal series is how dynamic the characters were. And, of course, we all remember how a tournament to the death, held by a magical, wish-granting wizard CEO, provided one of the most gripping video game narratives of all time.

Three different plots play out in Twisted Metal's story mode, starting with Sweet Tooth, then moving onto Mr. Grimm and finally Dollface. Each story is delivered through cheesy cutscenes and dramatic voice-overs, and features a handful of matches introduced by the overly enunciating Calypso. Everything in here seems like something we'd expect from a 12-year-old boy scribbling notes about killer clowns and chainsaw-wielding bikers in the margins of his Trapper Keeper.

As for the events themselves, there's thankfully some variety. Aside from the regular death match events, there are also some more unique challenges, like the Electric Cage and Juggernaut. The former is a survival gametype where players must move between different quarantined areas of the map -- if you're outside of the designated zone, a timer will tick down and, once it expires, you will start to lose health. Juggernaut features a gigantic, heavily-armored truck that spits out opponents at regular intervals. Once you've destroyed the Juggernaut and remaining opponents, you win.

Competitors act less like opponents and more like the Illuminati, a cadre of conspirators who seem to have had a huddle before every match, deciding that the player needs to die in the most annoying and unfair way possible.

Being the target of everything becomes taxing far too early in the game. It's hard to find the constitution to keep playing when you're constantly being frozen and bombarded with rockets. You have no idea how many times I dropped the controller in frustration and had to walk away just to cool down, something I never do.

It becomes even worse later in the game after the helicopter is unlocked, as it seems the CPU opponents have even better aim when altitude is brought into the equation. In one instance Warthog, positioned on the completely opposite side of a massive map, might as well have had a sniper scope on his rocket launcher. The accuracy and efficiency of the CPU can only be described as cheap. The addition of the garage and vehicle swapping makes the punishing CPU bullies a bit less frustrating, though.

Each map has a garage and a roaming health-dispensing semi-trailer that can aid you, and in each contest you'll have three different vehicles at your disposal. When low on health, you can either find and drive into the semi for a boost, find a health pickup somewhere, or drive into the garage and swap out your vehicle. Unused vehicles slowly regenerate health over time.

The helicopter, the Talon III, changes the landscape of Twisted Metal considerably when it's unlocked about halfway through the single-player campaign. It almost seems unfair at first. The Talon's special weapon, the Tri-Gun, has a sticky reticle that will latch onto a target, allowing you to unload a full clip from the massive cannon onto a target, all by simply holding down a button. The higher up the Talon is, the easier it is to find a target and lay them to waste. Some of the less armored vehicles will go down after one clip, with others requiring only a few more rockets afterward to put them to bed.

But it's not the firepower that is so unfair about the Talon, it's the mobility. Eventually, the maps get quite large and one specific mission in Mr. Grimm's storyline -- an Electric Cage showdown on a huge amusement park map -- seems unbeatable without the aid of the Talon. Well, okay, somebody out there could most likely best the mission without the chopper, or fly around with the alternate special ability on the Sweet Tooth truck (the Sweet Bot, a gigantic mech with turbo boosters), but for me the mobility of the chopper was the dominant contributing factor to my success.

Talon aside, there are plenty of vehicles and some good ones to unlock. Each feels as you'd expect, like a thick slab of butter dancing around on a block of ice. Twisted Metal isn't meant to have the feel of a simulation -- vehicles slide around, can turn on a dime, and each feels light and incredibly maneuverable. No complaints there, and weapons feel like they should, too. Classic homing and fire rockets and mounted guns return, as does the energy meter and its bevy of uses: mines, shield, the freeze ability and an unlockable absorption shield.

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The biggest beneficiaries of the PS3's power are the environments, which are large and loaded with destructible objects. One level in particular, a small suburban neighborhood, is the best example of how these environments compliment the gameplay. If an enemy is behind a house, for instance, you can topple it with rockets or simply drive through it. There's nothing better than crashing through a house and ramming an opponent who's hiding, hoping to regain some energy or waiting for their special move to respawn. Trashing an entire neighborhood ain't bad on the eyes, either.

While Twisted Metal can be more frustration than fun when playing alone, the good news is it's still a blast to play with other human beings. The online portion of Twisted Metal has a bunch of game modes, XP to earn and stuff to unlock. There's a lot more going on -- independent skirmishes abound -- and you're less of a focus in multiplayer, so you don't have to swim upstream in a river of rockets and freeze shots to get anywhere. Unless you're the only guy in the Talon and everyone is sick of it, of course.

But when you get that good group together, with a blend of both aerial and ground vehicles, Twisted Metal is great fun, regardless of the mode. The online suite is fairly standard, including team-based deathmatch and elimination modes. Hunted mode is interesting, designating one player as the target, with points only awarded for killing the target or scoring kills as the target. Nothing here will revolutionize multiplayer as we know it, but it all works well enough to highlight the game's core strengths.

The constant struggle of trying to take out enemies and keep your own rig in check is as entertaining today as it was when it was first introduced back in the mid '90s. I just wish there wasn't so much muck to wade through before I got to Twisted Metal's gooey, rocket-blasted center. Should you decide to pick up Twisted Metal, do yourself a favor. Once the chore of the single-player story has been completed and you've unlocked a few things, head online and play with some human beings. You won't regret it.

This review is based on retail copy of Twisted Metal, provided by Sony.

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