Longtime fans of the Twisted Metal series almost universally cite the second game in the series as their favorite. It picked up where the first game left off and really brought a lot to the series, as well as the genre. After the second game, development of the series was turned over to a different development team, and as a result, TM3 and TM4 were extremely weak games. Twisted Metal: Black gets the series back on track, as development has been given to a team partially composed of the group that worked on the first two games. The resulting game is not only the best in the series, but it also manages to be the best car combat game ever created and one of the best PlayStation 2 games currently available.
Black sticks to the basic premise that has driven the entire series. A mysterious man of the underworld by the name of Calypso has sought out the craziest inmates from a local mental hospital to compete in a car combat tournament called Twisted Metal. Calypso attracts everyone by promising to deliver each individual what he wants the most. For some it's revenge, for others redemption--but each has a desire that Calypso says he can deliver. In all, TMB contains 15 characters, ten playable from the start and five that you have to find to unlock. The roster includes favorites from the series such as Sweet Tooth, Axel, Shadow, Spectre, and Mr. Grimm.
The gameplay and setup are fairly straightforward. Each level consists of a certain number of enemies, usually seven or eight, whom you must defeat to advance to the next stage. Once you do, you're sometimes given a choice between two levels. Successfully clearing all the enemies out of a level requires a lot of skill and, in the later stages, a little luck. You're given only two lives in each level, but you can refill your energy twice, which, if done correctly, amounts to having four lives. Locating key weapons, health, and weapon power-ups, all of which are scattered through out the levels, is essential to winning.
The controls in TMB are set up extremely well. You have several control configurations to choose from, and the default is well thought out. The left analog stick steers your vehicle, while the right controls its speed. The shoulder buttons on top of the controller handle firing and cycling through your weapons. This setup lets you control every aspect of the game without ever lifting a finger to press another button, which is helpful since the game moves at an incredibly fast pace. The controls are incredibly responsive and take a bit of time to get used to, but once you get used to them, they control just as well, if not better, as those in the first Twisted Metal games.
The difficulty balance and the AI of the normal setting in TMB are almost perfect for someone who is looking for a real challenge. The game is neither easy nor impossible, but it does have that perfect blend of having to overcome the failure of completing a level a few times and having to learn from your mistakes. If you've ever played the first two games, you'll have a slight advantage. It takes time to get a feel for the speed and, subsequently, the controls of the game. But once you do, you'll be good until about the fifth or sixth level, which is when the AI gets a bit steeper and a little frustrating. You'll have an easier time getting through the game with certain characters, so the level of difficulty will vary for all depending on which character and style of play you use. Every character has a certain style--for instance, Sweet Tooth and Warthog will come right at you and try to take you out in one ferocious attack, while others will choose to send homing missiles and other projectiles from afar.
Visually, Twisted Metal: Black is easily one of the best-looking games for the PlayStation 2. Everything from the character selection screens to the loading screens are very stylized and polished. The vehicle models themselves are nicely detailed and have all kinds of attached little extras that give each one a unique look. Activating different weapons actually triggers vehicle-specific animations that show the weapons physically popping out of a little compartment on the vehicle. The levels in TMB are simply unbelievable--not only are they huge, but they also involve so much finding and discovering that you can literally spend an hour on some levels just trying to find out where everything is. For instance, one of the larger and more impressive levels starts you off in a ship's cargo hold that's just about to dock. You're confined for a minute or so with two other opponents in the tight confines of the hold, which is just enough time to ensure you start off the level with quite a handicap. Once the ship gets close to harbor, the doors of the cargo hold open, and you're able to go around the ship, where the rest of the enemies are. As you travel around the ship, you can see the harbor getting closer and the waves crashing over the bow of the ship. The ship itself is big enough to be a level all by itself, but once the ship lands, you're free to take to the beach and move farther on to a giant structure and surrounding areas. It's massive and extremely fun to explore, which is necessary since it's the only way to find not only the power-ups you need to win, but also many of the hidden characters in the game. Even though the levels are huge, you can see way off into the distance without much fogging or pop-up.
Aside from vehicle models and level architecture, a lot of what gives Twisted Metal: Black its unique appearance and mood is the lighting. On the default setting, the game is extremely dark. All the vehicles are equipped with working headlights that effectively light your path. You can change this to be brighter or darker depending on your tastes, but either way, the game definitely has a dark, eerie feel to it. This darkness makes all the rockets, flames, and special lighting effects in the game look even more spectacular. When Sweet Tooth transforms into his robot form and unloads a volley of rockets, the brightness of the center of the explosions is so bright that you almost want to shield your eyes from the blast. The CG storylines for each of the characters look fantastic, so much so that you really want to get further into the game to unlock more of the story sequences. The only negative thing about the game's graphics is slowdown, which happens only when you get a lot of characters in a small area with lots of explosions all at once--even then, it's hardly noticeable.
In the audio department, TMB has a really good mix of eerie, ambient music that plays when you're just trolling around looking for power-ups, but when someone comes in for a skirmish, the music quickly transitions to a more fast-paced action beat. The opening of the game has the first few seconds of the Rolling Stones' Paint It Black, which can be heard in its entirety when you watch the game's credits. The song fits the game perfectly, and if the in-game music weren't already such a perfect fit, you'd want to play to it. The game's sound effects are easily recognizable, as they sound similar to previous Twisted Metal effects, but through the use of a surround sound system, they come alive and actually add a great deal to the experience.
In the end, Twisted Metal: Black is a terrific game in every respect. The game looks, sounds, and, most importantly, plays better than any car combat game before it. The cinema sequences that explain the storylines of each character as you advance through the game are so well written and look so good that they actually make you want to go back and complete the game with each character. Add in a fantastic two-to-four-player multiplayer mode, and Twisted Metal: Black is the only game you'll need for the PlayStation 2 for a long time to come.