I reckon that it's been about 12 years since I last played a Twisted Metal. The second game in the franchise was one of my favourite releases on the original PlayStation, but somehow I ended up losing track of the series after that. It's been a long time, and yet somehow David Jaffe's new instalment is instantly recognisable: the messy, chaotic destruction, the over-the-top vehicles with eccentric special weapons, and the hyperactive rock soundtrack with its squealing guitar riffs.
It was rather exciting when Twisted Metal finally popped up at this year's E3. It wasn't that much of a surprise, really; even when Jaffe was vehemently denying the project's existence in the run up to the show, there were plenty of clues to the contrary - not least the artwork that was splashed all over the man's own Twitter page. There was an undeniable sense of buzz about the series' reappearance, and yet the critical reaction has not been without the odd grumble. In particular, I've heard quite a few people muttering about the way the new game looks, and it's certainly true that in comparison with Rage, Crysis 2 and Killzone 3 - the undisputed homecoming queens of this year's prom - the pre-alpha code looks a little bit shabby.
But here's the thing: Twisted Metal has never really been that pretty. It's a series that thrives on delivering visceral, hard-fought battles, and one that has always managed to do that in a surprisingly deep and original way, given that the central concept can be summed up as "shooty cars." Having watched a presentation by Jaffe himself, I have little doubt that the new TM will recapture the feel of the old games. That might not explicitly guarantee a killer masterpiece, but it's certainly a damn good place to start.
Tellingly, much of Eat Sleep Play's demo was spent dwelling on some of the rides that will be available for your motorised massacres. Twisted Metal has always had certain parallels with one-on-one fighting games, in that each vehicle has a distinct personality, as well as its own strengths and weaknesses. In the single-player campaign you'll choose a character with their own unique set of wheels (or rotors), but for the team-based multiplayer events, everyone has access to all the rides, regardless of their faction. In other words, it's entirely possible for Dollface's team members to ride in Sweet Tooth's ice-cream van. There's nothing to stop everyone picking the same vehicle; This is a slight departure from the enforced diversity of previous games, but it also means you'll never be stuck with a car you don't like if you've been dithering on the selection screen.
The first car that Jaffe showed off was nicknamed "Roadboat" - a family car with a massive electro-magnet mounted on the bonnet. The latter can be used to grab rival cars, at which point you can then ram them into a wall or set them up for some form of combo using your other weapons. The magnet can also be set to an alternate fire mode, where upon it spits out ricocheting rounds that can be bounced around corners. The game's motorbike, meanwhile, allows the rider to wield a highly damaging chainsaw that can be thrown at your rivals. If you're in the mood to show off, you can also perform a wheelie and drag the saw behind you, causing it to catch fire. When you then finally throw it in someone's face, it'll really hurt - because obviously a chainsaw to the face generally feels like the softest of licks from the Andrex Puppy.
Other special attacks seem to open up a greater degree of tactical flexibility, or at the very least demonstrate the series' trademark black humour. The tow truck is capable of dropping off health packs that heal your allies, but it's also got the power to spawn a yellow taxi on its rear hook, which can then be flung directly at your foes. The game's ambulance, meanwhile, uses its unfortunate client as reluctant human missiles. The back doors open, and out comes a gurney bearing a terrified patient, loaded with explosives. It looks ridiculous in the best possible way, and since you can assume direct control of the gurney, it'll probably be very useful too.
In addition to these unique abilities, each vehicle has a machine gun with unlimited ammo and access to a range of pick-ups like missiles and remote bombs; the D-Pad is also mapped to its own set of powers, including freeze rays, mines, and the power to reverse-fire your currently selected weapon. As a further consideration, each vehicle has its own statistics and trade-offs - so while the helicopter has the obvious advantage of mobility, it's also one of the most vulnerable rides in the game. In short, Twisted Metal is a game that strives for tactical depth. As veterans of the series will already know, this is basically a fairly hardcore shooter on wheels, and it's pleasing to see that Jaffe and his team have resisted the urge to dumb down for the sake of attracting a wider audience.
The E3 demo was entirely focused on Nuke mode, an unapologetically complex variation of capture the flag, with missiles and human sacrifice thrown in for good measure. Each side attempts to capture the other faction's leader, snatching them up from a gun turret at a set point on the map. Once someone has kidnapped this celebrity, the aim is to drive them to the site of a large missile launcher, which may be static, randomly placed or moving, depending on your choice of settings. If the leader-bearing vehicle can stay in close proximity to the launcher for a set period of time, the hostage is thrown into a giant grinder and killed. After this "sacrifice," a missile is fired towards a large statue of the opposition leader, ultimately blowing part of it up. The first team to completely destroy their rival's likeness is the winner.
Did you get all that? On paper, it sounds horrendously convoluted - like a new version of It's A Knockout, aimed at Satanists with a motor fetish. I suspect it's probably quite straight-forward once you get into it, and from the way Jaffe talks about it, teamwork will be all-but essential. For example, when you do manage to finally drag the enemy leader to the launch area, you'll find yourself unable to fire for the duration of the countdown - forcing your team-mates to cover your back. Some of the special vehicle powers will also have a big role to play: the helicopter can pick up and carry team-mates using a magnetic winch, so you might have one car dash in to steal the hostage, then use a chopper to quickly ferry him across the level. Then again, the helicopter's aforementioned weakness makes this a risky strategy, and if you balls everything up, the leader will respawn at his base.
At the risk of repeating myself ad nauseum, Twisted Metal focuses on gameplay ahead of graphical showmanship. That said, I reckon the final game will look fine. It may not reach the heavenly standards of some of Sony's other exclusives - the one with the angry bald man, the yellow-eyed Cockney one and the boring one with pretty cars - but you can trust that it'll look pretty decent. The map used for the demo was a pleasingly large urban affair, with sizeable multi-storey buildings to ravage and explore. The world itself seems to be inherently destructible, and with any luck we'll get a few neat Easter eggs to wrap everything up: TM 2 allowed players to destroy the Statue of Liberty and to topple the Eiffel Tower.
Such vandalism aside, there's also the promise of some kind of co-op mode, and the core single-player campaign. We're bound to hear more about this at gamescom in August, if not sooner, so it shouldn't be too long before we see what else Jaffe has up his sleeves. For now, it's just nice to have Twisted Metal back.
Twisted Metal is due for release exclusively on the PS3 in 2011.