We can't prove it, but we're pretty sure that the Twisted Metal series has had a lot to do with Sony's successes in video gaming. Specifically, the original car combat classic was one of the first great PlayStation games 10 years ago, and 2001's Twisted Metal: Black was one of the first, best showcases for the PlayStation 2. It's true that the series has had its ups and downs during the past decade, but it's back in top form again for the launch of Sony's latest game system. And while Twisted Metal: Head-On might have been shrunk down to fit onto the sleek new PSP, it has lost none of its charm and none of its bite. A colorful cast of characters, a great presentation, exciting shooting action, and support for wireless multiplayer competition over the Internet combine to make this game one of the safest bets you can place when choosing your first PSP games.
Twisted Metal: Head-On plays just like the classic games in the series. If you're not familiar with the previous installments, you should know that car combat such as this actually has a lot more in common with first-person shooters than it does with other driving games. So don't let the appearance of all the tricked-out roadsters fool you. The name of the game here is blowing stuff up with extreme prejudice, using a combination of machine guns, missiles, bombs, mines, napalm--you name it. You've got more than 15 different vehicles to choose from (some of which are initially locked away), each with its own unique special attack and distinct characteristics for handling, top speed, armor, and so on--plus its own unique driver, who has his or her own reasons for entering the Twisted Metal tournament that's the context for this game's international deathmatches. As in previous Twisted Metal games, finishing the story mode with each of the different drivers is worthwhile if only to see how each of their stories pans out.
A typical Twisted Metal contest requires you to tear your way around a bumpy environment, running over health and weapon power-ups while keeping an eye on your radar for nearby opponents. You've got nitro boosters and an emergency brake in case you need to make a quick getaway or a sharp 180-degree turn, and the numerous available weapons tend to have homing capabilities or a large blast radius, making them effective against fast-moving targets. The exaggerated environments you'll fight in are based on various real-world locations and pack in plenty of secret nooks and crannies to explore, not to mention access points to some pretty cool little bonus missions. Controls are responsive and pretty easy to get used to. Even the larger vehicles handle nicely and are capable of turning even when they're not moving.
The variety is definitely part of the fun, and it's great to see the series' familiar vehicles back with sharp, new designs. You've got everyone from Mr. Slam, a bulldozer that can pick up and smash opposing vehicles, to Thumper, a fresh pink coupe sporting a flamethrower, and many others. Even the speedier vehicles in Twisted Metal: Head-On can take quite a bit of punishment before exploding, but any of them will light up like a Christmas tree if you concentrate all your firepower on them long enough.
Twisted Metal fans know that the best way to demolish an enemy vehicle is to freeze it in place first. Like most Twisted Metal games, Head-On lets you execute a few fighting-game-style special moves with any of the vehicles, by inputting some fairly simple commands on the PSP's D pad. The most useful are the freeze, which is a homing blast that causes the vehicle on the receiving end to become a sitting duck for a few moments, and the shield, which makes you completely invulnerable for a little bit. These abilities are governed by a recharging energy meter, so you can't use them constantly. But they're still critical to your success, especially against the story mode's boss vehicles, which are much bigger and tougher than all the rest. In fact, these energy moves are probably a bit too influential on the outcome of a typical match. Since every vehicle has access to the same energy moves, and since the freeze and the shield will likely be prevalent in any contest among experienced players, your choice of vehicle can eventually start to feel less relevant than it really ought to. It might have been nice if energy attacks varied between vehicles, but as it stands, they're the great equalizer, and they do help add a layer of depth to the action.
The story mode actually isn't that different from the challenge mode and the endurance mode, in terms of gameplay. These are Twisted Metal: Head-On's three single-player modes, and each one basically places your vehicle in a big, destructible arena filled with rival vehicles, who'll blast away at you as well as each other. Blow up an enemy vehicle, and you'll spot a useful upgrade power-up floating above its burning carcass, encouraging you to take an active role in the free-for-all rather than cower and wait for the dust to settle. Your computer-controlled opponents pose a solid threat at the default difficulty setting, though experienced Twisted Metal players won't have too much trouble blasting their way to the finish line--luckily, there's a tougher difficulty mode to offer them more of a challenge. Though there are somewhat lengthy loading times between each battle, the battles themselves feel like they last a good while. Plus, it's possible to instantly restart a level if you run out of lives (or otherwise feel like it), and you can also save your progress in between each level. Twisted Metal wasn't originally designed for portable game systems like the PSP, but this style of gameplay is actually very well suited for those who can't necessarily play for more than a few minutes at a time.
There are also the six-player multiplayer features to consider. Twisted Metal: Head-On is among the first PSP launch titles to include a complete set of Wi-Fi multiplayer options, including an ad-hoc mode for up to six players in the same vicinity and an infrastructure mode, which lets you tap into the Internet through a wireless access point to theoretically take on opponents around the country and beyond. The multiplayer menu system is modeled after player-matching lobbies just like the ones you've probably seen in other multiplayer games...but probably never before in portable games. Being able to play a fast-paced action game such as this wirelessly against opponents around the country is pretty wild, not to mention potentially a lot of fun (there's no lag when playing in ad hoc mode, but your mileage may vary over the Internet). Twisted Metal has always shined as a multiplayer game, for the same reasons that first-person shooters and fighting games have been popular. Head-On features the deathmatch and team deathmatch modes you'd expect, in addition to some other variants, as well as the ability to tweak a game session by giving everyone unlimited ammo, forcing everyone to use a particular vehicle, dropping all the HUD elements (health and so on), and more. All the flexibility is nice to have.
Impressive visuals and sound round out a rock-solid game. The graphics mostly run fast and smooth, though occasional fits of slowdown do get in the way at times. Still, that's in exchange for some impressively detailed 3D, particularly in the various vehicle models, which start to break apart and smolder as they take damage (though this doesn't affect their performance). Some nice-looking flame effects and even some convincing weather effects help all this add up to a great-looking experience. It's not just eye candy, either. The PSP's wide screen gives you ample peripheral vision to help you get your bearings during a hectic fight. Meanwhile, some throaty exhaust noises, the convincing rattle of machine guns and explosions, and the sounds of, well, twisted metal all fit the action well. The musical score consists mostly of rock and metal riffs, though you'll hear some lyrics in part of it, and some of the other tracks help remind you of their respective international settings by hitting all the right stereotypical notes.
Twisted Metal: Head-On doesn't mess with the series' tried-and true formula, though that's not to say that fans of the series won't find anything new to enjoy and appreciate in this installment. More importantly, you don't need to be a card-carrying Twisted Metal aficionado to enjoy this game. Chances are, if you like the premise of a bunch of crazy vehicles trying to blast each other to kingdom come, you'll be more than satisfied with the execution. Better yet, Twisted Metal: Head-On makes for some great gaming on the go, and its multiplayer features should give it a great deal of longevity.