Twisted Metal: Black Review
At first glance the title Twisted Metal: Black may seem a bit odd, but there couldn't be a better description for the overall look and attitude of this game. SCEA even went as far as to send the game to me in a black popcorn bag filled with black licorice and black popcorn, which I haven't sampled yet. They also went to the expense of licensing The Rolling Stone's "Paint It Black" for use in the game, and other than when the song plays in the credits, they used only the first few notes of it. Everything else from the game's packaging, the characters and their stories, to the game's visual style are all dark or "Black" as the title implies. The game is rated "M" and deservedly so, it's unlike the lighter versions seen on the Playstation, and it isn't suitable for children.
After the opening riff of "Paint It Black" plays, the camera zooms through a scene of destruction frozen in time, not unlike what was seen in the movie Swordfish. After selecting a vehicle (the vehicle always has the same driver) you are introduced to your character and given a short FMV describing how they ended up participating in the contest, and what they hope to accomplish by winning Calypso's tournament. Sweet Tooth, John Doe, Bloody Mary, Doll Face, Raven, Billy Ray, Preacher, and No-One each have there own reasons for being locked up in the asylum, yet they all share the common goal of changing their fates through killing the other participants. Some of the stories are actually a bit moving, not Saving Private Ryan moving, but you do feel bad for some of the characters, and some of the tragic endings they experience are pretty sad.
One of the things holding back the original games on the Playstation were their graphics. It was frustrating not being able to tell if you were shooting at a tree or a competitor from long distances especially when it turns out it was in fact a tree you were shooting at. The games always had sluggish framerates, and they got downright horrific in the four-player modes. Bigger levels and more things to destroy were two of the items on my list for a "perfect" game of Twisted Metal. Well the gods must be smiling upon me because this game answered every single one of my complaints, and exceeded my lofty expectations for what Incognic could do with the game's graphics.
To start with, the game runs at a silky smooth 60fps and seldom dips below that. Smashing through a wall while firing a missile and getting fired upon are no challenge for the stellar game engine to handle. 60fps wouldn't be a tremendous accomplishment if the game moved slowly, but this game screams along like no game I've ever played before. Enemy cars will scream by in a blur, missiles will streak across the sky, buildings will crumble to the ground all before your car has moved ten feet from its starting location. Once you get moving the game will test your reflexes every second of its eight levels.
While eight levels might not seem like too many, they are so large it more than makes up for their lack of numbers. The first level is a large junkyard that doesn't look too imposing initially, but eventually turns out to have a lot of hidden areas to explore. There's a warehouse, a compactor that can be driven through if you're quick, some roads above the yard, and even an underground tunnel that can be opened up if you are crafty enough. This level pales in comparison to the level after it in which you and your fellow combatants tear through an enormous suburb. I've beaten that level several times and I still don't know my way around it too well. In this one level alone, there's a large neighborhood, some stores, an amusement park, some mountains, a mall, and an asylum. This level could have been divided into thirds and it still would have been a decent size, it's amazing. The area that best represents the ingenuity of the level design is the prison transport ship. The level begins with you and two other cars duking it out in a very small room. After a minute or two, a door opens and you are free to escape, but upon leaving the confines of the small room you find that you are on a large ship that is approaching a small island. Combat continues as the ship approaches the island and waves begin crashing over the ship's bow. The boat docks and a loading ramp is extended from the ship, opening the rest of the island to exploration. If this weren't enough, there's a blimp flying overhead that can be shot down, and a drawbridge that can be lowered. All of this is done with no fogging and no pop-up, which is truly amazing. The two-player mode isn't quite as pretty but the casual player will never notice the subtle fog in the distance or the slightly slower framerate.
At this point it's been established that the game has large levels that move along quickly at 60fps, but we've yet to discuss the game's models, effects, and the overall look. At first glance the car models look very good, but upon further inspection you'll find they look even better. Each car has different levels of damage that it will show, from a bent fender to a burning heap that can barely be driven (like my car). Each vehicle also has its own unique set of animations for firing weapons. Select a gas can and it might pop out of the side of your vehicle, or choose a missile and it might launch out of a mini silo on the back of your car. Initially things will be going much too fast for you to ever notice these small touches but after you've beaten the game a few times you can take a moment to notice the smaller details.
Twisted Metal: Black boasts particle and lighting effects that are second to nothing I've seen done on the system to this point. It's possible to watch your missile streak across a level while leaving a smoke trail behind it and its rockets lighting the ground as it moves. When it strikes its target it'll explode in a blinding flash scattering sparks and pieces of its prey for yards around. While fighting indoors or in a small room it will often be almost completely illuminated by the rockets and explosions contained within. There are some nice smoke and rain effects used throughout the game as well. On the few levels that take place in or near the water, the water effects are a nice touch and are very well done. Incognic went the extra mile with their eye candy and it really paid off.
I feel that the game's visuals are a perfect combination of form and function. The textures are good but they aren't outstanding, though you'll be whizzing by them so fast it won't matter. Some of the homes and buildings are a bit bland, and the skies all have the same general look to them, but these things don't really matter. The developers sacrificed some graphics in areas that were less important and spent their resources in the areas that people would see. Black? Yes. Ugly? No.
As good as this game looks and plays, I'd have been content to play it with no sound if that's what it took to get this game to run at such blazing speeds. But leaving one merely content is not what was this title was created for, it's here to kick your ass. From the moment the first notes of "Paint It Black" hit and then turn into a slow pounding beat in the background, this game is a feast for the ears as well as the eyes. Each level features music that sounds as if it is straight from the climax of a major action movie. Making the music more effective is that when you are far from the action hiding like a baby or trying to recover some health, the music becomes more calm, but then as soon as a skirmish gets near it will get louder and faster. In a cool moment for those with a good ear, one of the songs features a choral variation of "Paint It Black". It's subtle, but if you've got a good ear for music it'll bring a smile to your face.
Each character's story is brought to life primarily through three FMV's that occur at the beginning, middle, and end of the game. Each character tells you their painful story, and share with you the horrors of their present situation. This is where inept voice acting could have really hurt the game's presentation, but fortunately the game has above-average talent voicing its characters. Not all of the participants sound as good as others, but Sweet Tooth for example, is superb. His story, and the way he tells it while showing no remorse is chilling to listen to. In fact with all of the videogame characters making their way to the big screen, Sweet Tooth would do well in his own slasher movie, he's one messed up clown boys and girls. Other characters are able to convey their innocence, ignorance, naiveté, or brashness in these short clips, which is all this game needed to round out the story.
If you are into movies a home theater is required to fully enjoy what a movie has to offer. From a gaming standpoint, surround sound is still more of a luxury than a necessity. After turning up the sound in TM: Black it's a luxury I'm glad I indulged in, that's for sure. The sound of rockets taking off, gas cans exploding, and helicopters flying by add to the feeling of total chaos that surrounds each battle. A missile shot from the left side of the screen will pass through the left, center, and right channels before fading off into the distance or exploding with a loud BOOM in your subwoofer. Many of the cars feature unique sounds as well. Darkside sounds an ominous air horn before ramming you, Sweet Tooth has his demented ice cream song, and Brimstone has a guy that yells out "Revenge!" before launching his special attack. Each sound is clearly separated which allows you to discern between the machine gun fire in the distance and the bullets that are striking the pavement right behind you. Throw in rain and other effects that are indigenous to certain levels, and you've got as good an audio presentation as I've ever heard.
This is undoubtedly the first time I have ever covered a game's instruction manual as part of its presentation, but in Twisted Metal: Black's case I've got to make an exception. The instruction book is laid out as a cross between a normal manual, and the diary of Frank "No Face" McCutcheon. In between the pages telling you how to use your vehicle are No Face's daily entries into his journal. In these pages he describes the horror he's gone through, the operation that has left him without a face, and what he wants to do to the doctor that disfigured him. There are disturbing doodles from him scattered amongst the directions, and odd newspaper clippings that are taped together that leave disturbing messages. For those of you that actually take the time to read the directions before playing, this is a little reward for you.
If you've ever played any of the older Twisted Metal, Vigilante 8, or Rogue Trip games, you'll have a basic idea of how this game controls. The basic setup allows you to use either the digital pad or the analog stick, but I found a hybrid of both was my method of choice. The L1 and R1 buttons will scroll through your car's weapons, and L2 will fire the weapon you select. R2 fires your machine gun, which has unlimited ammunition but can overheat if you are trigger happy. The other buttons are mapped to acceleration and braking, and the X button allows you to spin or turn on a dime. This comes in extremely handy for the larger vehicles when fighting a smaller car that likes to zoom by, make a 180 and then attack again. If it weren't for the quick turn button Darkside would be a lost cause, but with it she's a force to be reckoned with.
Weapons and health powerups are procured by running over brightly colored icons that represent what is contained within. The use of color-coding allows you to spot a powerful weapon while still being a great distance away. It also allows you to not waste your time driving through heavy fire to get a weak weapon just because you didn't know what it was until you ran over it. There are also helicopters with rapidly changing weapons dangling from a long cord that fly over certain levels. Aligning your moving vehicle with another one in the air is a difficult task to master, but it's one that will give you the upper hand on more than one occasion, so it's one worth taking the time to learn. Another skill that is difficult to master, but worthwhile are the special traits that each vehicle has. By pressing up, down, up it is possible to freeze your enemy, while other combinations can provide you with shields or other helpful abilities. Since precision is required for pulling off these moves, I used the digital pad when performing one. The energy platforms are also back to provide you health in times of need. On the game's default setting which is medium they can be used twice per level, while on easy they can be used four times, and on difficult only once.
Once you've learned to control your car and how to get some firepower, it's time to blow away the other lowlifes that are trying to deny you the second chance that Calypso promised. I've gushed over the game thus far without discussing the actual gameplay that makes this game so much fun, and that's the combat. Each car has its own strengths and weaknesses, whether it be strong armor but slow speed, or weak armor and powerful weapons, each car has its moment in the sun. Playing to your vehicle's strengths is the key to being successful when the going gets tough. If you're playing as Darkside you're going to want to stay close and use your powerful ramming attack to finish off your foes. But if you are a smaller car like Crazy 8, you'll find yourself better off to attack from afar or while darting in and out of buildings and using your speed to your advantage.
None of this strategy would be needed if this game had second-rate AI (think 989's recent Gameday efforts) but it doesn't. The AI found here in Black is what developers have been promising for years. It'll react to specific situations and exploit your weaknesses. If you think you're going to sit in an empty warehouse and hide while the other guys kill each other off, you're sorely mistaken. I will say that the computer seems to take it easy on the other computer controlled cars, because on the only occasion where I did find a place to hide nobody looked the worse for wear when I came out to take a look at the carnage. On the rooftop level I encountered numerous opponents whose primary method of getting rid of me was to entice me into following too close until they led me off the edge of a building. The first time I was going for a kill on that level, the car I was chasing led me to the edge of a skyscraper slammed on his brakes and quickly turned. In the meantime I was too focused on switching my weapons to notice I was getting too close to the edge. He sped away as I plummeted several hundred feet to my death, it was great to see AI with tricks like that up its sleeve even if it resulted in my frequent death.
Enemy cars will take self-preservation to the next level if they are getting ready to die. Once their life bar hits a certain level, they will quit attacking and run for cover, cutting corners, jumping obstacles, and making U-turns to ensure their safety. If you give up on the chase and turn your attention elsewhere chances are that later on you'll see the first guy with his health back up and his weapons ready to go. That's because while you were out wasting missiles shooting at the ferris wheel he was out collecting all the health and heavy weapons in the level. I found that finishing off my foes one at a time was the best method for progressing through most of the levels.
One of the biggest topics that has come up when discussing this game is its difficulty. Make no mistake about it, this game is difficult and you won't be unlocking everything the same day you picked it up. The game's difficulty never comes from cheap AI or poor level design, rather the opposite. There are still secrets in certain levels that I still haven't figured out and I've beaten the game several times, this sort of level design is like throwing in an additional competitor to deal with. The only part of the game that felt unbalanced to me was the middle boss of the game: Minion. He was harder and more frustrating than any other part of the game including the final boss. I don't know what exactly made him so much more difficult than everything else, but the general consensus is that he is a bit too tough.
To ensure that you don't tire of this game after beating it once, there are a host of hidden things to hold your attention. There are several characters, like Axle, Yellowjacket, and Warthog that are only available after accomplishing certain feats. If you want to have access to all of the levels in multi-player right off the bat you're out of luck because you've got to earn it. Many things are unlocked by finding black cubes that are hidden throughout the levels. A good portion of these are near impossible to find without the aid of a strategy guide, so I'd recommend you pick one up if you are dead set on beating the entire game. There is also a movie theater where you can watch all three of each character's movies as one long one to get the full effect of their story.
Multi-player modes are available to those of you with friends and two controllers. Unlike many two-player modes that play as if they were an afterthought these modes are actually worth playing. The first is a basic head to head mode where you and a friend fight to the finish. There is also a co-op mode where you can play the story mode together. Isn't it nice when you can work together as a team? The two-player mode is very playable, but it does have a little fog, and it does slow down a little when things get hectic. It's also hard to see if you are trying to play on a small TV. I have a 32" so it's not an issue at home, but I tried to play on a 19" while on vacation and it was a little tough to see. If you're having trouble seeing in two-player, just go buy a bigscreen TV, it's that simple! There is a four-player mode that obviously requires the multi-tap, but while I have a multi-tap, I don't have any friends, so I wasn't able to check it out.
If you've made it this far you know that Twisted Metal: Black is an outstanding game. It more than makes up for enduring the pain that 989 caused fans of the series. At this point in time, I can't think of any way that this game could have been made any better than it is right now. The entire package, from the box, instructions, menus, and even the credits are nothing but the highest quality. Any problems I had with the original games have been eradicated, this game is not only a TM fans dream come true, but any videogame player's. Even if you have only a passing interest in the game, go rent it and let it take you on its wild ride.
7/24/2004 Aaron Thomas