Twisted Metal: Black Hands-On

The team responsible for the best games in the Twisted Metal series is hard at work on the darkly sadistic PS2 version of the franchise. We had the chance to spend the day with the game's producer and also spent some quality time with Twisted Metal: Black.

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When it was first released, Twisted Metal quickly became one of the best reasons to purchase Sony's brand-new PlayStation console. The follow-up, Twisted Metal 2, was exactly what a sequel should have been--more of what made the first game so popular, with a few new additions to keep things interesting. But after creating two hit games, the original team at Singletrac left the series, forcing Sony to seek a new developer to carry on the mantle of one of its most successful franchises. Now the power of the PS2 has awakened the team's interest in the series and is allowing the original Singletrac team--the one that was responsible for the games that started the genre--to do what it has always wanted to do with the series. We had the opportunity to spend the day at Sony's Santa Monica studio with the game's producer and members of the original Twisted Metal team to see what exactly they had in mind for the latest incarnation of the Twisted Metal series.

Twisted Metal: Black is the first time that the team behind Twisted Metal 1 and 2 has collaborated on a Twisted Metal game since the team completed TM2. Behind the banner of Incognito, the original team is working to bring everything that made Twisted Metal 2, the game that many attribute as the best of the series, much better than Twisted Metal: Black. According to David Jaffe, the game's lead designer, the development team had three goals for bringing the series to the PS2 when they first sat down. The first was to create a deeper gameplay experience that would elevate the car combat genre to the same level of depth and gameplay found in a fighting game. The second was to use the PS2's technology to create a living, interactive world that would offer a richer, more detailed environment. And the last goal was to create a much darker theme for the series.

Incognito is accomplishing the first goal by focusing the game on the deathmatch experience. Though there's plenty of character development found in the game, Twisted Metal: Black is focused on multiplayer, and even the single-player modes revolve around the basic deathmatch premise. The game doesn't try to confuse players with item-collecting or objective-completing--each level simply puts you in the middle of some desolate location with an assortment of psychopathic opponents and lets you fight it out.

The second goal is apparent from the moment you start the game. From the stylized menus and the spectacular graphics to the sprawling, detailed environments, a Twisted Metal game has never looked so good. This becomes even more obvious when you start playing the game. Each of the vehicles in the game looks simply spectacular and shows an amazing sense of detail as you play. Additionally, the levels are simply huge, and each one of them features plenty of interaction and surprises to keep you on your toes.

The last goal is probably the most controversial. Sony is taking a gamble and allowing a series that has developed a fan base of both young and old players to become a dark, sadistic game that could be nothing less than M-rated. Twisted Metal: Black is the most twisted and black game in the series, living up to its name with some of the most disturbing themes and images yet seen in a video game. From quotes like "I was out like the dying heartbeat of a little girl" to scenes featuring cannibalism, Incognito has accomplished its last goal in spades.

Twisted Metal: Black tells an entirely different story from that of any previous Twisted Metal game--it's a brand-new take on the characters and stories of the past games. Jaffe had a unique explanation for the lack of continuity between the past games and Twisted Metal: Black: "[Twisted Metal: Black] is sort of like an alternate universe--it's not an alternate universe in the story, but it's the Twisted Metal universe as viewed through this context." As such, Black isn't a continuation of the series--instead, it reinvents the characters and concepts of the past games in a completely new fashion. As such, all the characters have been completely redesigned, and none of the storylines or character development from any of the previous Twisted Metal games have been carried to Black. Jaffe's team has spent plenty of time making its own versions of favorites from past games, and characters such as Sweet Tooth, Mr. Grim, and Darkside now have a completely new look and story that complements the game's darker atmosphere. And, although Jaffe maintains that Black has nothing to do with the story of any previous Twisted Metal game, he did hint that there could be a logical explanation for the departure from the story of the series buried somewhere in Black. According to Jaffe, "There is a really, really well-hidden secret in the game that potentially explains [the differences between the storyline of previous games in the Twisted Metal series and that of Twisted Metal: Black] and sets up [a continuity between the games], but no one but the ultra, ultra hard core are ever going to find that."

This departure from any previous story constraints allowed the development team plenty of creative licenses to use and modify any character it pleased. As such, Twisted Metal: Black has one of the most interesting lineups of characters of any of the Twisted Metal games. Favorites from past games have been tweaked and reinvented for Black, and brand-new characters help even out the roster. The game will feature nine initially selectable characters and will feature at least five hidden characters. The characters and their vehicles allow for a wide range of playing styles, and the stories behind the characters are varied and important to the game. Most of the characters tie into each other and have intersecting stories that become important as you progress through the game's story mode. Since each of the characters in the game is a psychopath who has been sprung from the confines of a run-down mental institution, Black has a cast of some of the most disfigured and disturbing characters found in any console game.

No-Face is an amateur boxer who is badly injured in a boxing match one night and goes to a back-alley surgeon to get his face reconstructed. Unfortunately, the surgeon had lost money on that same fight and exacts his revenge on No-Face by removing the boxer's eyes and stapling his eyelids and mouth shut. No-Face drives the boxing looking classic 50's roadster, the Crazy 8.

Darkside, a vehicle from the first Twisted Metal game, returns in Twisted Metal: Black with a brand-new driver. Dollface is an emotionally scarred woman who's been imprisoned in a porcelain mask by her psychopathic father--the same man who created Sweet Tooth's mask.

Bloody Mary is an odd female character who resembles a sadistic Catholic nun. She drives Spectre, a slightly modified version of the Spectre featured in Twisted Metal 1 and 2.

Sweet Tooth is now a huge serial killer who hides behind his twisted clown mask and preys on little girls by baiting them with his ice cream truck--the truck he drives in the game. Sweet Tooth escaped his execution but was cursed by the Preacher character and now has the flames of hell eternally burning atop his head.

Agent Stone is a mysterious SWAT team member who drives Outlaw, a beefed-up militaristic SUV. Not much is known about his motivations, but it's known that he's completely unrelated to the character that drove the police vehicle in the first game.

Axel, who acts as an axle for his custom two-wheeled vehicle, makes a return from Twisted Metal 2. Not many details are known about the Black version of Axel, who is one of the bonus characters you unlock in the game.

Sad Sally is a very Gothic-looking woman who drives the hearse vehicle, Shadow. Shadow is another redesigned character from a previous game in the series, and the new Shadow features the same special weapon from the past game, as well as a brand-new special weapon. Not much is known about Sally, and her motivations and storyline are a mystery.

Mr. Grim returns from previous games in the series. He is again a solo motorcycle rider who rides a powerful motorcycle with a machine-gun-mounted sidecar. This time, however, Grim is actually not an incarnation of Death but instead is a Vietnam vet who wears the sewn-together skull of his best friend, whom he was forced to eat in a concentration camp. Grim is motivated by revenge on the Russian general who tortured him and forced him to consume the flesh of his buddy.

Billy Ray Stillwell is a disfigured hillbilly who drives the Junkyard Dog--a combat-ready tow truck. Stillwell was apparently responsible for killing his own family and then was put into the loony bin. Stillwell's motivations and storyline weren't revealed in the build we played.

John Doe drives Roadkill--a modified nonlicensed version of a mid-'70s Charger. Not much is known about the character or his vehicle. Doe apparently suffers from memory loss and doesn't remember why he's in the asylum as the game starts. His car is fast and agile, and its special launches a huge volley of missiles.

Each of the characters has a unique story that is told through a sequence of three cutscenes that are played as you progress through the game's story mode. Once seen, these movies can be viewed again through the game's movie option. The story mode is the only part of the game that shows any sign of plot, as the game features no opening sequence nor any story elements outside of the story mode. Jaffe explained, "When I play a game, I want to get into the gameplay first, and if I really like the game, then I'll begin to get interested in the world and the story and all that. I wanted the game to come in immediately, right to the title screen so you could get straight into gameplay. So the story starts only if you're in story mode, if you're interested in that sort of thing. It doesn't get in the way of people who want to get right into deathmatch and have that fighting-game mentality."

The game has both single-player and multiplayer modes but focuses on one distinct style of game throughout all the modes. With the exception of the story mode, the single-player modes are a bit skimpy. Jaffe was the first to acknowledge this: "We designed the one-player game knowing full well that the majority of players play this kind of game for multiplayer." The single-player game has the story mode, the challenge mode, and the endurance mode. The story mode takes you through a story sequence of seven levels using one character and playing three cinematic sequences pertaining to your character as you beat the three main bosses of that mode. The challenge mode is essentially the same as the multiplayer challenge mode with computer-controlled opponents. And the endurance mode lets you pick a level and fight a series of one-on-one matches against computer-controlled opponents that use only one life bar and gain no health during or between matches. "We intentionally stayed away from a lot of the more novelty-game modes," said Jaffe. "If we succeed or fail, we're here to basically make a fighting game with cars, and if that works, great. If it doesn't work, that's too bad. We didn't want to dilute the game with a lot of collecting and mission-based objectives." Still, the single-player mode is certainly important; not only does it explain the story behind the amazing characters of the game, but it also has plenty of rewarding secrets for use in the multiplayer mode. Jaffe explained, "The one-player game is designed to get you through the characters, to see their stories, to further enhance the world, and to also unlock certain secrets that you can carry over to the multiplayer game." The multiplayer game is where the game gets its replay value. The multiplayer game has a deathmatch mode, a co-op mode, and a last-man-standing mode. The multiplayer deathmatch is for two to four players and can even support several computer-controlled opponents to add to the carnage. The co-op mode lets two players work through the single-player story mode together. It's unknown how the story mode progresses with two players--either both characters unlock their movies as they progress or only one character gets the credit for completing the story mode. The last-man-standing mode is Black's version of a team battle in certain fighting games. You and your opponents pick a series of vehicles and then battle them out in sequence. When one vehicle is destroyed, it's replaced by the next vehicle in the sequence. The first person to deplete his or her supply of vehicles loses.

The actual game takes place on a series of levels based around distinctly different and unnaturally spooky environments. "We didn't want to pick wacky, cartoony environments like we had done with the earlier games. We really wanted to set these levels in locations that really evoked a foreboding feel--locations that, as the sun goes down, you really wouldn't want to drive your car through or take a walk in," said Jaffe. As such, the game features 10 single-player maps and at least 21 multiplayer maps set in environments such as a desolate suburban neighborhood at dusk, an abandoned backwoods junkyard at night, a freeway that cuts through the middle of a decaying city before dawn, and a prison block. The levels are one of the most impressive elements of Twisted Metal: Black. Not only do the levels do a great job of setting the overall mood of the game, but they also aid the gameplay and provide a convincing and interactive world in which the characters can exist. The game has some amazingly vast levels and really shows off the graphical capabilities of the PS2. Additionally, all the levels feature an incredible amount of interactivity-- environments can be destroyed and tampered with, hazards can threaten your car, and secret areas and surprises reward you for creative thinking. Most importantly, all the levels feature an excellent sense of flow throughout. At no point in the game do you ever feel trapped by a level--there are no areas that leave you cornered. "One of the things you'll immediately notice when playing Twisted Metal: Black is that the levels in the game don't have a lot of cordoned-off areas--[the levels] are really meant to keep a good sense of flow going. So even though there are some visual differences to the levels,players can look at the other guy's split screen and say, 'Oh, you're in the fairgrounds,' it's never like, 'Oh, I'm lost and I can't find you,'" said Jaffe.

The junkyard level is an excellent example of all these elements. The level starts at dusk, and before you know it, the sun has dipped below the horizon. The vehicles will turn on their headlights as the darkness falls around them, and soon a light drizzle will fall. The drizzle eventually evolves into a full-on torrent, and rain simply pounds down around you. The junkyard also has plenty of environmental hazards--there are two crushers found in the level, and both of them are quick to smash your car into smithereens if you're caught between them. The junkyard also features a downed B2 bomber that will launch a payload of missiles at opponents when triggered by the environmental weapon. The junkyard also has a good amount of interactivity and destroyable objects in it. One example is a huge pizza-guy statue reminiscent of the Bob's Big Boy statues. If you shoot a few missiles at the pizza man, he will explode and will shower statue parts about the level. One of the important parts is his beretlike hat, which you'll be able to use as a ramp to launch yourself to a hidden part of the level. Additionally, shooting down a circling airliner will cause the huge plane to crash into the side of a building and will form a makeshift tunnel that leads to plenty of secret power-ups and even hides one of the major secrets in the game.

Another excellent example of the living world that Incognito has strove to create in Black is the prison level. The level starts in a contained metal room, but as time progresses, the room eventually opens to reveal that you're actually on a huge ship at sea. As you make your way to the upper deck of the ocean liner, you'll find that you're actually traveling to an island prison. Eventually, the ship docks, and you'll actually be able to leave the ship and fight inside the prison and make your way through the level to one of the walls of the prison and then jump back onto the ship--thus completing the flow of the level.

The interaction varies from level to level, and you'll find yourself crashing through a run-down mall with shops and displays to be destroyed. You'll blaze your way through an asylum full of patients waiting to be run over and then shoot the supports from a huge decaying ferris wheel, which will it roll its way through a spooky suburban neighborhood, destroying everything in its path.

Another important aspect that Incognito is adding to the game is plenty of fodder traffic for getting in your way. Other cars and even clueless pedestrians will all find themselves between you and an opponent--this can lead to plenty of humorous but cruel moments. Cars can be destroyed, and people can be run over in a very similar fashion to Smuggler's Run--they will be thrown from your bumper and will sometimes crumple over your car as you plow through them. Jaffe feels that being able to kill everything you see is an essential element to the game he is trying to create. "We certainly wanted to return to the mid to early '90s mentality of being able to hit pedestrians--I don't understand where we went so wrong with games like Midnight Club and Midtown Madness."

Twisted Metal would be nothing without weapons, and, thankfully, Black has many of the favorites from previous games and plenty of new weapons to keep things interesting. Like in the past games, power-ups are found scattered throughout the level, and they award you with various weapons and items when you find them. Power-ups are classified by a small icon and a large glowing color. The color is easily seen from a fair distance, but the actual icons are a bit difficult to make out, even at close range. This essentially makes you memorize a color-to-weapon reference scheme, which might be a bit overwhelming for some players.

The weapons are a good assortment of missiles and other projectiles. The fire missiles, homing missiles, power missiles, and the ricochet bomb all return from previous TM games. The new weapons--the gas can and the skill weapons--are both creative and help balance out the fighting. The gas can is a mortar-style bomb that fires into the air at an arc and can be dropped from the air to hit a target at the player's command. The skill weapons are actually three different types of missiles--one of which is randomly chosen when you pick up the skill weapon power-up. Each of the three types of skill weapons are designed not only to cause a good amount of damage, but to also award players who learn to use them better than others. The three types are the zoomy attack, the reticule attack, and the satellite attack. The zoomy shoots 10 missiles at the targeted enemy and awards you a huge damage bonus for scoring a hit with all 10 missiles. The reticule attack starts a 10-second timer when activated and makes you keep your enemy within a targeting reticule for as long as you can while the timer counts down. The longer you keep your enemy targeted, the more missiles the weapon fires, and if you lose the vehicle when the counter reaches zero, the weapon will actually backfire and cause you damage. The satellite attack launches a volley of missiles into the air. Once launched, a large targeting reticule appears on the ground in front of you. The target will slowly change from green to red, signifying the intensity of the missiles. The missiles can be called to the target by hitting the attack button again. The damage done to your opponents depends not only on how close they were to the center of the target, but also on how intense the color of the target was when the strike hit. Additionally, all the weapons, except for the skill weapons, have alternate fire modes that let you perform more interesting stunts with the weapons by successfully completing a D-pad sequence before you fire them.

Twisted Metal: Black also marks the return of environmental weapons and energy-based weapons to the series. The environmental weapons are various objects that launch different attacks based on the level. If you find the environmental weapon pickup in the suburban level, you can launch lightning bolts from an ominous electrical storm brewing above the level. If you use the environmental weapon pickup in the prison level, you can fire a series of missiles from a blimp that circles the prison. The energy weapons, which return from Twisted Metal 2, are a series of special moves that cost a certain amount of energy to perform. Each character has an energy meter that regenerates after time. You'll be able to perform a D-pad combination to launch a freeze attack, create a shield over your vehicle, grant your vehicle invisibility, lay land mines, and even jump your car on demand. The freeze attack sends a ball of ice at opponents--but if you attempt to freeze an opponent who has already frozen, the ball will bounce back and freeze you. While frozen, you can pound on the attack buttons to help break out of the ice and regain control of your vehicle. The shield temporarily renders your car invincible. The invisibility will not only make your car transparent, but will also take you off the radar--this effect is canceled the moment you fire a weapon. The mine lets you lay a powerful land mine that is more powerful, depending on how long you hold down the button sequence. The jump move simply lets you spring into the air to avoid incoming attacks or to get onto high platforms. Additionally, the game features a turbo-boost gauge that will let you increase your speed in any direction as you hold down the boost. You can replenish your turbo gauge by finding turbo power-ups scattered throughout the levels.

Obviously, one of the most talked about and most important weapons in the game are the unique special attacks of each character. The development team has outdone itself by creating some of the most outlandish and spectacular special attacks of any of the Twisted Metal games. Unfortunately, only some of the special attacks are particularly awe inspiring, and some of the attacks are simple and a bit underwhelming. Brimstone, the generic El Camino driven by the overly zealous Preacher character, commands a crucified sinner strapped with TNT to jump atop an enemy's car and detonate himself. Sweet Tooth's ice cream truck transforms into a giant oddly shaped robot version of the serial killer and shoots a devastating volley of missiles at enemies. Both of these effects are simply amazing to look at and create some of the most jaw-dropping moments in the game. Unfortunately, the spectacular special weapons are outnumbered two to one by the less-impressive special weapons in the game. Agent Stone's SUV pops a manned turret atop the vehicle that autofires at any enemies in range. Additionally, getting an enemy at a certain angle within a certain range will also allow you to fire powerful energy missiles that will severely damage opponents. Spectre shoots the same powerful homing missiles that the Spectre from the first two Twisted Metal games shoots. Junkyard Dog hurtles a large spiked steel ball from the back of his tow truck, which, while powerful, might as well be the gas-can power-up.

At this point, the power-up placement hasn't been finalized, and we found that it was somewhat difficult to find enough power-ups to properly dispose of your enemies, especially in a larger fight. Also, while the weapon power-ups of previous Twisted Metal games gave you plenty of weapons for each power-up acquired, Twisted Metal: Black gives you only one or two actual missiles for each power-up icon you run over. This leads to a much more stingy game populated mostly by special attacks, which regenerate after time. Incognito might change the game to award you with a larger quantity of the weapon you obtained when you run over a power-up.

Twisted Metal: Black has some of the prettiest and some of the most gruesome visuals seen on any console. The presentation is simply spectacular. Detailed and stylized menus make the interface of the game plenty of fun to look at and successfully set the mood of the game even before you start playing. When Jaffe first unveiled the game at Sony's PS2 Gamers' Day last July, he said that the team was drawing influences from films such as Seven, Silence of the Lambs, and Jacob's Ladder. While it wasn't entirely obvious how the team would draw parallels from those dramas into an action-based game, the efforts of the team and the influences of the movies shine through in the final presentation of the game. Jaffe explained the effect of the movies and the goal of the designers who integrated the influences into the design of the game: "What I meant was that we were trying to create a bleak, foreboding atmosphere where you would really feel that something horrible could happen at any moment."

Black creates that atmosphere with visuals that are nothing short of disturbing. The menus feature close-up shots of pallid flesh, freeze-frame effects displaying characters in frenzied poses, driving cars frozen in a state of combat, and plenty of flaming destruction and carnage. But most shocking are the CG movies that explain each character's story. Sweet Tooth's movies feature a horrific electric-chair scene, plenty of newspaper clippings detailing his gory killing spree, and an unremorseful voice-over dialogue that desperately tries to justify his gory past. Grim's movie features that character's obsession with cannibalism, showing the sickening turn of events that warped his mind and created his unnatural craving for human flesh. The presentation on the movies is absolutely fabulous, and the sequences, though not complete when we saw them, are very well shot and well written.

Combined with the creepy levels and the overall premise of the game, the atmosphere and visuals make Black a distinct and refreshing experience. The graphics in the game are not only moody and dark, but also well done. Plus, they help accomplish the team's second goal. Each of the cars in the game looks exceptional and features some of the most amazing animations seen in any car game. The cars will actually display the type of weapon you've currently chosen, and the animations go well with the weapon system. As you can select and use only one weapon at a time, with the exception of your always-ready machine gun, the cars will load and use only one weapon at a time. When you select a missile, a panel on your vehicle will open, and an arm with the missile attached will actually pop out and aim forward. Additionally, switching to a different type of missile will make the current missile fold back into the car and another missile pop out of another body part. Other weapons, like the gas can or the ricochet missile, feature equally impressive animations. Further, these animations are unique to the car you're driving--so you'll never see an inappropriate animation on the car you're driving. This effect couldn't be cooler, and it really goes a long way in aiding the realism of driving a car that's been modified to shoot rockets and launch flammable cans of gasoline at enemies.

The levels all run with plenty of excellent lighting effects and feature absolutely no fog or pop-up. You can see extremely far in Black, except when the level is dark from the evening. Plenty of detail in the levels makes Black an exceptionally lush game, with lots of extras to look at while you're not engaged with an enemy. The lighting effects and explosions in the version we played weren't final but showed a lot of premise. Without the lighting, the game looks a little too clean, but Jaffe assured us that the final game will look almost lifelike. Particle effects, such as tire smoke and rocket smoke, add just a little bit more to the outstanding nature of the game's graphics. Other graphical effects, like a very cool blurring effect when you activate the invisibility and when you activate Darkside's special weapon, really give the game a sense of style all its own. Load times are surprisingly quick, especially considering that we were playing a debug build that probably hasn't been optimized to enhance the load times. Black will have plenty of graphical options, and it features four different cameras to appeal to any type of player. Additionally, you'll be able to tweak the game's brightness setting, as the game is often set at night. You will be able to customize your heads-up display and choose exactly which elements of the HUD help you and which simply get in your way.

At this point, the game simply screams along and never slows down to load textures or deal with several opponents onscreen at once. Even in eight-player battles, the action was just as silky smooth as ever. Incognito is shooting for 60 frames per second, and the build that we played was very close to that. At this point, the team is confident that it can get 60fps out of the game in both single-player and two-player modes without sacrificing any level of detail. The four-player game, however, may require some modifications before the game will run that fast.

The development team has done an outstanding job with the sound of the game. At this point in time, the final soundtrack hasn't been signed or announced, and the music in the build we played was merely a placeholder. Still, plenty of ambient sound effects, such as the sound of wailing souls and creepy organ music lightly played in the background, really helped the whole mood of the game. Explosions and weapon noises were all right on the money. Other sound effects--such as engine noises and hydraulic whirring and buzzing as weapons pop in and out of vehicles, as well as a Transformers-esque thud when Sweet Tooth's ice cream truck transforms into a giant robot--are outstanding. Jaffe hinted that Sony is working on signing a major deal with a top name act for a track that, according to him, would complement the game perfectly. The team is still working with Sony to find the right musicians to create the final soundtrack for the game.

Though Twisted Metal: Black has a lot to offer fans of the series, there was plenty that the team ultimately had to let go of. "There were a lot of things that we cut, basically because they created a problem. We had ejector seats, we had [the ability to] get out of the cars and run around, and what those things did was disrupt the rhythm of the game. You would have this great rhythm going, and after about five minutes of getting out of the car, the novelty would wear off. People would be like, 'I'm bored--you mean I have to walk all the way back to my car to get the action going again?' So everything was about keeping that fast-paced rhythm," explained Jaffe. Still, the team responsible for the best Twisted Metal games is using everything that the PS2 has to offer to pack Twisted Metal: Black full of everything that the team has always wanted to see in the series. Black should not only appeal to fans of the series, but should also attract players who have never played a previous Twisted Metal game. Black is due to hit shelves at the end of April.

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