Twisted Metal is the longest-running PlayStation-exclusive franchise, outdating Crash Bandicoot, Warhawk, Uncharted, and even Gran Turismo. Co-created by the notorious David Jaffe, also of God of War fame, the series has seen a number of releases across each Sony platform since first debuting in 1995. Twisted Metal for the PlayStation 3 is not only the franchise’s big comeback opportunity and first appearance on a current-generation console but also an all-important sophomore outing for the Salt Lake City, Utah-based studio.

There’s some interesting history behind this Twisted Metal title, a lot of which was touched upon in our recent interview with various team members of Eat Sleep Play. Essentially, the 2012 edition began life as a downloadable, multiplayer-only car combat game — but not necessarily a Twisted Metal title. About two years ago, already after two years of development, Sony insisted that the game be given a story mode and get upgraded to a full-priced retail package.

It’s also important to point out that just before the release of Twisted Metal, Eat Sleep Play saw layoffs hit nearly 25 percent of the team. Jaffe himself, who co-founded the studio, also announced his departure. Similar to the closing of the studio behind Little Deviants, a PlayStation Vita launch title, the last-minute drama suggests a problematic development history, which almost always leads to a damaged end product.

My fondest memories of Twisted Metal include knocking down the Eiffel Tower and driving up its toppled remains in Twisted Metal 2: World Tour; rooftop battles in various iterations, where jumping between skyscrapers was a thrilling risk-versus-reward strategy; and almost every part of Twisted Metal: Black, unarguably the pinnacle of the entire franchise. Since Black, however, Twisted Metal slumped into handheld-only status for several years, and I eventually lost most of my attachment to the series.

And so here we are, over half-a-decade into the PlayStation 3’s life cycle, and Sony’s longest running exclusive franchise finally sees a proper this-gen release. Even before unwrapping the game, I was already disappointed. Eat Sleep Play has opted to drop all but four playable characters from the famed roster. That means there’s a good chance you’re going to be pissed that your favorite character is not represented in the story. Just watching the character selection in the video below reminds me of all the characters I would have liked to have seen featured. (Twister was always my go-to girl until Dollface, for example.)

Above: All the characters you won’t be playing as in the new Twisted Metal.

As mentioned in our interview, the reasoning behind the limited scope of the story is to ensure a unique, quality experience. Live-action cutscenes replace the crappy motion-comic cinematics of the older titles and the solid CG in Black, and while they are a worthwhile addition, I hardly see the justification in stripping out all the other characters. Sweet Tooth, the franchise’s serial-killer clown mascot, returns. It should be no surprise that his story pulls no punches, but it was a bit startling to step back into the mind and perspective of a relentless butcher, especially thanks to the more realistic (yet still stylized) story sequences.

Joining Sweet Tooth are Mr. Grimm, Dollface, and Preacher, each looking to win a deadly vehicular combat tournament and have a wish fulfilled by the demonic Calypso. Like an episode of Tales from the Crypt, even when they claim their reward, Calypso always has a twisted ending in store for them. I was a little disappointed by Sweet Tooth’s ending in particular, though Mr. Grimm’s was worth the ride. I was severely crushed, however, by Eat Sleep Play’s poor handling of Dollface, who first appeared in Twisted Metal: Black and was arguably the most interesting character since Sweet Tooth himself. Sadly, she has now been reduced to a stereotypical wannabe model, with the writers struggling to find a cohesive way to tie in the cherub mask she wears.

Dollface from Twisted Metal: Black 

Dollface from Twisted Metal

All the talk of sacrificing content to focus on a more refined story seems extremely questionable when the design director is giving presentations on why video games shouldn’t have stories. Each of the four characters also commands a faction of nameless goons, but it’s never explained why. Who are these people, and what do they get out of the tournament? Twisted Metal characters have always been tormented, lone-wolf types, so it’s a little strange to have another clown riding shotgun and calling Sweet Tooth “boss.”

David Jaffe publicly stated that if you’re only interested in the story in Twisted Metal, you should probably just rent the game. I recommend skipping that step too, saving yourself the trouble, and watching it all on YouTube in a couple of days.

Read on to understand why.

Eat Sleep Play’s first foray into the Twisted Metal universe (porting Twisted Metal: Head-On from the PSP to PS2) did not stray from the franchise’s usual formula whatsoever. In both look and feel, Head-On was very much a classic Twisted Metal game, for better and for worse.

Now, seven years later (or four, depending on which version you’re talking about), one would predict a bit of an evolution to be found in the signature vehicle-based gameplay, especially since it’s on the PlayStation 3. While there are some unique additions, the core controls are still as slippery and loose as ever. You can even turn 360 degrees without hitting the gas, so don’t expect any level of realism here. At the same time, the gameplay was in need of tune-up and could really have used some tightening up, especially in terms of weight distribution. Even the heaviest vehicles can be flung into the air with little effort…and sometimes with no effort at all; Twisted Metal sports some of the worst game physics to date, and at times it’s downright game-breaking.

I have to emphasize how utterly detrimental crappy physics are to the entire experience of driving game. Precision and urgency are imperative in Twisted Metal, as one wrong move or arriving at your target a second too late can spell defeat, especially in multiplayer games. So to be constantly flung around like a grocery bag in the wind is insanely frustrating. I can’t count how many times I had an enemy on the ropes, and I was bearing down for the kill when all of the sudden the level geometry or some random attack caused me to tip over sideways or flip upside down for a few seconds. Meanwhile my prey had escaped, and all the other AI opponents (who seemingly only wanted to fight me) had dog-piled my vehicle.

The general flow of combat in Twisted Metal hasn’t changed at all over the years either. If you want to kill someone, you basically drive around stocking up on weapons, then find the nearest enemy and lay into them with everything you’ve got until they’re dead. If you didn’t bring enough firepower, they’ll likely run away to go find health or get sharked by another player. There’s honestly very little strategy to it, especially for a game that Jaffe has openly compared to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim in terms of complexity.

What there is, however, is plenty of unbalanced gameplay. Lighter vehicles have virtually no armor, meaning they can be destroyed in a matter of seconds, while some of the heavier vehicles are not only massive damage sponges, but they have the most powerful special attacks in the game. A helicopter has also been added, which is an extremely poor decision. Struggling with the controls and gameplay in general is already a hassle, but when you have an airborne target to try and contend with, it becomes a hair-pulling nightmare. Because of this, a skilled helicopter pilot can utterly dominate so long as he knows how to kite grounded players in just the right way to avoid the game’s attempt at auto lock-on.

Hardcore fans will miss inputting the button combinations for the secret moves, as jump, shield, mine drop, and freeze have all been assigned a button of their own for easier access. I’m not complaining, but there was something cool about knowing something that wasn’t quite as obvious and easy to pull off when playing with friends. The freeze move in particular is a powerful tool that will stop your foes in their tracks momentarily, but it will also be used against you very frequently. I’ve had the AI freeze me repeatedly within a few seconds of each other, which gets pretty annoying.

Races are among the new modes found in Twisted Metal. You’re either thinking “Cool!” or “Ugh!” right now. I had more of the “Ugh!” reaction, but I was willing to give it a go. Sadly, all the things that make the signature open-area combat frustrating are heavily exacerbated by the need to race from point A to point B. In the campaign, victory only comes with first place, but unless you choose any vehicle other than the fastest available, you’ll never have a chance to catch up. With over 10 combatants all slamming together at the beginning of the race and shooting/ramming/freezing you, the first- and second-place AI will be given a wide lead that you’ll never be able to recover from.

With the checkpoint race variant, I honestly have never had so little fun in an allegedly triple-A title. When checkpoints begin appearing on rooftops, everything goes to hell. You have to get them all in order, and it’s extremely easy — again thanks to the PS1 controls and wonky physics — to fall or get knocked off the edge of a building, causing you to have to find your way back to that rooftop, which is not simple to do. You might as well just restart the match right there, because the AI drives flawlessly, even on Normal difficulty.

I expect that some people will have the same reaction to Twisted Metal that I did, and some people won’t, but I dare anyone to come back and tell me that they enjoyed the checkpoint races.

The bosses in the campaign are as poorly implemented as the rest of the game. One revolves around two gargantuan monster trucks, but in this case the slipshod gameplay actually works to your advantage, as you can just drive under them and sit there, unleashing all your weapons and special attacks into the first one until it dies. Then, after an almost-interesting and slightly amusing objective, you can do the same thing with the other. It doesn’t work all the time, but the fact that it works at all says plenty about the state of the final product.

Eat Sleep Play apparently has an obsession with mechs, as not only can Sweet Tooth now transform into a flying robot (seriously), but there’s also a giant Dollface mech. I’m not even going to bother explaining how much that tarnishes Dollface’s character, but when you’re struggling with Nintendo 64-era camera issues and trying to figure out what the game wants you to do next, you’ll know the exact moment where I finally accepted that I simply was not going to be allowed to enjoy Twisted Metal, try as I might.

It’s no secret that Twisted Metal began life four years ago as a discounted download-only multiplayer game a la Warhawk. The difference is, Warhawk actually was a discounted download-only multiplayer game, whereas Twisted Metal has been repeatedly delayed and eventually shoe-horned into a full-priced retail package. And it was released in 2012, not 2008.

While this edition is definitely an improvement over previous Twisted Metal games, every single one of which has featured muddy, bare-bones graphics and super-chunky pixels, that’s not really saying much, especially considering they were all on much older hardware. By almost any other standard, Twisted Metal looks dated. Not terrible, mind you, as it has its moments — just dated.

While the visuals are passable, the music is far, far worse. Not since Avril Lavigne’s “Boyfriend” appeared in Burnout Paradise has there been a more mismatched licensed soundtrack in a game. Twisted Metal: Black had one licensed song, and that was all it needed. The rest of the score included heart-pounding original compositions that perfectly accentuated the frenetic gameplay while keeping the darker tone of the series front-and-center.

While playing the new Twisted Metal, I had to check a couple of times to make sure I hadn’t accidentally uploaded my own music collection…from the 8th grade. Some of Rob Zombie’s radio-friendly hits from two decades ago make a number of appearances on the soundtrack, as does NWA’s Straight Outta Compton. Seriously? Which painfully unhip Sony executive demanded that one?

I want to say that’s as bad as it gets, but like every game since Gears of War 2 fumbling over itself to be edgy, Twisted Metal features an embarrassingly horrid rap song during the end credits. I involuntarily eye-rolled and cringed at the same time; this is how I get rewarded for enduring such a frustrating experience? No thanks. To all game developers: It was funny/cool once, please stop now.

Online Pass
Eat Sleep Play has put a lot of emphasis on Twisted Metal’s multiplayer being the centerpiece of the experience. I guess it makes sense, then, that the multiplayer modes are locked behind a mandatory online pass. Players who have purchased a new copy of the game can find the online pass code on the back of their instruction booklet, but those who haven’t will be prompted to buy an online pass through the PlayStation Store.

Regardless of how you access multiplayer, there’s a very good chance you’ll be wanting to. After all, almost anything is made tolerable with friends around, and while multiplayer doesn’t fix any of Twisted Metal’s woeful shortcomings, you are more likely to overlook them online or in split-screen. Plus, unlike the story, coming in first doesn’t matter so much as incremental progress and just having fun.

Like every multiplayer game ever since Modern Warfare, there is a half-baked leveling/reward system (where you’ll unlock all the same stuff you just got done unlocking in the story), kill streak rewards, and more interestingly, Nuke Mode. Nuke Mode has the offensive team attempting to grab the defending team’s NPC leader and deliver him to a stationary or mobile missile launcher. If successful, the player will launch the missile and take control of it, with the intent of steering it into the enemy faction’s statue. The side that destroys the other side’s statue first wins. It can be a bit manic and offers the game’s one worthwhile tweak to the aging Twisted Metal formula, but it’s not a miracle cure for everything else that’s wrong with the game either.

I can barely even recommend this title to longtime fans of the series whose nostalgia may blind them to the many faults they’ll be encountering. Twisted Metal has never been remotely near the apex of technical game design, but that’s certainly no excuse to continue the trend. I’m surprised to see Sony celebrate the return of one of its few exclusive franchises with outdated visuals, watered-down content, obsolete gameplay, and a buffet of technical issues, yet that’s exactly what this $60 retail package consists of, albeit with a smattering of fun to be had when things go right.

I don’t condone secondhand sales, but I can’t imagine someone paying full price for Twisted Metal and feeling like he or she got their money’s worth.

Score: 60/100

Twisted Metal was released on February 14, 2012 for the PlayStation 3. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.

Eat Sleep Play Interview: “Sometimes you have to give them what they don’t know they want”

Opinions, Tears, and Expletives: David Jaffe’s “Story in Video Games” presentation