Consoul's Blog Consoul Games: Twisted Metal: Head On

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Twisted Metal: Head On

Heads online, Tales you lose.

You could be forgiven for thinking that every second title in the PSP's launch line-up is an old Playstation franchise revisited, though as the new incarnations of Ridge Racer and WipEout have proven, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The path of the Twisted Metal franchise has been a long and bumpy ride. Ten years ago, developers SingleTrac established the vehicular combat genre with the original hit Playstation game. SingleTrac's 1996 follow-up, Twisted Metal 2: World Tour, was also hugely successful and is still fondly remembered by many as the peak of the series. After TM2, Sony handed the rights to the franchise over to 989 Studios, who produced Twisted Metal 3 (1998) and Twisted Metal 4 (1999), both of which were disappointing affairs. The introduction of a more realistic physics engine (TM was never about realism) was one of many mistakes that detracted from the gameplay in 989's sequels. Luxoflux's rival franchise, Vigilante 8, rightfully took the vehicle combat crown from the crumbling TM series.

Meanwhile, SingleTrac produced another vehicular combat game called Rogue Trip (1998), that was as close to an unofficial Twisted Metal sequel as they could legally get. It was enough to prove they still had the winning gameplay formula up their sleeve. Much to the relief of TM fans, Sony gave the franchise back to the members of the original development team, who formed a new game studio called Incog Inc. (aka Incognito) as part of Sony Computer Entertainment's Santa Monica studio group. Incog reclaimed the throne and ushered the series into the next generation with Twisted Metal: Black (2001) on PS2. As the name implied, Black was a much darker take on the Twisted Metal universe, featuring tortured characters with disturbing storylines set in a gritty post-apocalyptic dystopia. The fact that all FMVs related to character plots were pulled from the PAL releases is indicative of just how gory and twisted Black was. Incog also released a final Twisted Metal game for the PSone in 2001 that went almost unnoticed. In sharp contrast to the decidedly adult Black, Twisted Metal: Small Brawl was a childish game based around kids with remote control cars. It went unnoticed for a reason: it was rubbish. 2002 saw the release of Twisted Metal: Black Online, a cutdown online-multiplayer-only version of Black that Sony offered as a free redemption game with US PS2 Network Adapters.

Are we there yet? Yes. That long and winding road brings us to Twisted Metal: Head On for PSP. The first thing that strikes you about Head On is that it is clearly not a sequel to Black. Head On's brightly coloured cel-shaded intro movie sets a distinctly different tone, setting the stage for a return to the quirkier, more comic feel of Twisted Metal 1 & 2. Indeed, Head On feels very much like a true sequel to (or contemporized version of) Twisted Metal 2: World Tour.

Once again, the mysterious Calypso organizes a tournament of vehicular destruction wreaking mayhem across the globe, promising to grant a single wish to the victor. All the usual vehicles and drivers return to fight their way through the arena battles and conquer the game's three boss stages. As well as Story mode, TM:HO provides Challenge and Endurance modes, as well as a swag of multiplayer modes and options.

The graphics, while not quite up to Black standards, do not disappoint, with detailed vehicles and environments and visually satisfying weapon effects. The game engine's draw distance is impressive, always allowing you to see the far side of the game's huge arenas, with only the faintest hints of texture switching and small detail pop-in. Aside from the first two stages (Stadium and LA) which are rather simple and sparse, the level design in the other stages (which include locations such as Paris, Egypt, Tokyo, Greece, Russia and Monaco) is excellent, with large interesting arenas peppered with hidden areas and plenty of destructible scenery. The frame rate is solid and the game cracks along at a frantic pace.

The game is easy to pick up and play, but like it's predecessors, features quite a bit of depth. Each vehicle has it's own special attack and machine guns, and there are loads of different weapon pick-ups throughout the stages, each of which also has a unique environmental attack. Through the use of directional and button combos, a wide variety of extra moves can be performed, such as rear fire, jumping, turbo, shield activation, cloaking, freezing, dropping mines, etc. The controls are very responsive, almost too responsive. The analog controls are so touchy that chances are you'll be swerving around madly unless you stick to the d-pad for steering. Even if you can get used to analog steering, you'll still find the overly sensitive analog control will lead to you regularly executing power moves accidentally. Exclusive use of the d-pad is recommended. By defeating opponents, players can pick up power-ups to upgrade their vehicles special attacks, guns, armor, turbos and such. The upgrades will carry over from one stage to the next, but are lost whenever your vehicle is destroyed.

Each stage in story mode contains an optional mini-game, which can be used to score a lot of easy weapon pick-ups, and should you perform well enough, you can unlock more hidden characters and deathmatch arenas too. These mini-games range from fun to frustrating, but provide a welcome diversion from the (ultimately repetitive) drive-and-shoot gameplay. The music for each stage is inoffensively generic and has been flavoured to suit each locale.

The AI displays a respectable amount of strategy at the Hard difficulty setting, and the bosses present a real challenge. I'd go so far as to say the last two bosses are cheap, but hey, this is essentially a tournament fighting game after all, so that's par for the course.

Despite the core elements all being intact, somehow Head On never really manages to be as satisfying or have the same impact that TM2: World Tour did. It's difficult to determine exactly which magic ingredient is missing. The formula is undoubtedly getting stale after a decade and may be more fun for the uninitiated than for veterans, but Story mode's lack of story is certainly one area in which Head On falls flat.

Whereas Black had three movie sequences for each character in Story mode (a beginning, middle and ending), the characters' storylines in Head On are virtually non-existent. Most people will miss the story altogether, as you actually have to press square on the character select screen to read a brief outline of their background and motivation. Once you're in the game, Story mode is identical for every character until their ending "movie". There's a short in-game intro cutscene from Calypso and a couple of even shorter boss intro cutscenes, but no real feeling of a story taking place at all. I used quotation marks around the word "movie" because it's more of a storyboard than a movie. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that these are in fact the storyboards of the ending movies that never got made. It's apparent from the impressive cel-shaded intro movie that 3D models of many of the characters had been built, and similar cel-shaded ending movies are what you'd expect to be rewarded with upon completion of the game. Instead you'll be subjected to a just barely animated hand-drawn storyboard of an ending sequence. The characters' lips don't even move when they speak. The weak characterization present in the uninteresting endings is really far too little and too late by then. Shabby Incog. Very shabby.

I expect the pressure to have Head On out for the US PSP launch had something to do with Story mode's obvious under-development, but whatever the reason, it really hurts the game. Without any kind of personality or story to hang onto, there's little motivation for players to complete Story mode with all 17 characters. Admittedly there are two branching points in Story mode, where you will have to choose one world location over another, but this still means that after playing through Story mode twice, you could potentially have seen pretty much everything it has to offer.

Fortunately, multiplayer is where the game really comes into its own. Head On supports wireless multiplayer in three forms: Ad Hoc, Infrastructure LAN and Infrastructure. This means you can play multiplayer with up to five other players by directly communicating with nearby PSPs, or with PSPs within range of one local wireless access point, or true wireless online with players across the globe. PSP has been lacking in true online titles, and Head On proves that it can be done very well.

Setting up or joining an online game is very straightforward and feels much like you'd expect from a home console. After accepting an online EULA, you pick a lobby room, see what games are on offer (or start your own), and you're up and playing in no time. It's been implemented exceptionally well. You can even chat in the lobby (a feature that was missing from PS2's Black Online), though PSP's mobile-phone keyboard interface is less than ideal for creative trash-talking. As well as the standard Deathmatch mode, there's Last Man Standing, Fox Hunt, and Collector modes (all available as individual or team-based versions), as well as 2 player co-operative Story mode.

There are a wide range of options for customizing the multiplayer modes, so there's plenty of scope for fresh match setups. As well as tweaking the settings for weapons, vehicles, health pick-ups and environments, the Power Relics from Twisted Metal: Black can be included to add an even broader range of special powers to multiplayer matches. If the host of a match quits, the game doesn't end; another player is automatically chosen as the new host. All the teething troubles reported with the TM servers when Head On was first released have been resolved. I've never dropped out or been kicked off, and I have always found games with minimal lag to join at any time of day or night. I have experienced occasional frame rate drops in online matches, but nothing significantly detrimental to the game experience.

Taking part in solid, good-looking, hectic six-player carnage with players across the globe on a handheld console is a pretty amazing experience. That's where Head On is head and shoulders above the pack right now. If you have a PSP, wireless internet access, and even the vaguest interest in the genre, then Twisted Metal: Head On is definitely worth checking out. Looked at solely as a single-player experience, it's good, but repeated play in Story mode soon becomes tedious.

Head On is neither a Rolls Royce nor a flaming wreck. With the latest Twisted Metal, Incog have rolled out a nice new model of a vehicle that we're already comfortable driving. Cruising round the same old streets may be starting to lose it's thrill, but taking this baby for a spin on the superhighway shows there's still some gas left in the tank.



Blogger Ryan said...

Good read. But your background really hurts my eyes :)

11:56 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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12:21 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hurts don't it? yes. Im a pro.!!!!!! haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.

12:24 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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12:26 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


12:27 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sweet Tooth the Clown Rocks!!!!
I love this game I rate it 10.0
out of 10.0 and im only 13(did I metion I am a girl, and this game is kick ass!!)

1:57 pm  

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