On October 26, 2000, the Sony PlayStation 2 was launched, delivering not only one of the single best software libraries to the world, but also cementing a slew of features as commonplace items in every system hence: backwards compatibility, online gaming, multimedia functionality. That none of these was originated by Sony itself is a testament to the console’s legacy.
To commemorate the occasion, TotalPlayStation has gathered some of the best and most influential journalists, from either in-house or outside publications, to discuss one of their most cherished games from the PS2’s long lifecycle.
Ten authors and ten years in ten days. Let the celebration begin.
Author: Aram Lecis [TotalPlayStation Senior Editor]
Game: Twisted Metal: Black
Release date: June 18, 2001
When I brought home my launch-day PSX and popped in the demo disc that came with it, the one that jumped out at me more than anything, by far, was the non-interactive demo for a little game called Twisted Metal. I must have watched that video 50 times and showed it to every one of my friends, swearing it was going to be the best game ever made. When release day came, I picked it up along with Warhawk. My roommate and I got home that night, popped in Twisted Metal, played for about 10 minutes, threw in Warhawk, and became so engrossed that we played it for a month straight. When we finally got tired of the game (how did that take a month!), we remembered TM and gave it another go. For the next 18 months, we played it for two hours every night. We finally stopped when Twisted Metal 2 came out, and we spent another year playing that every night. (It’s also fair to point out that I love demolition derbies, the pen-and-paper RPG Car Wars, and fantasizing that I have a rocket launcher mounted on my hood every time someone cuts me off in traffic – so the TM series is right in my wheelhouse.)
Twisted Metal: Black, the fifth game in the franchise, is a return to roots. The original two entries were developed by SingleTrac before the reins were turned over to Sony’s internal 989 Studios. SingleTrac went on to create two underrated and overlooked vehicle combat games, Critical Depth, which moved the genre out of cars and into submarines, and Rogue Trip: Vacation 2012, which was a refined TM with a few new gameplay elements and excellent level design. Several of the developer’s founding members then left the company to form Incognito, Inc., and Sony turned the new, PS2 iteration of its fading demolition series back over to them.
Firing up the game, you are immediately greeted by a much darker menu than in previous incarnations – reminiscent of David Fincher’s gritty film Se7en – while the haunting intro to “Paint It Black” by The Rolling Stones plays softly in the background. This theme continues into the character selection screen, where the contestants and vehicles have a decidedly more ominous look. There are 10 vehicles immediately playable, and another five are silhouetted and unlockable. There is the usual mix of returning favorites, including Sweet Tooth, Outlaw, and Mr. Grimm, and some intriguing new faces, like Brimstone, a preacher in an El Camino; and Manslaughter, a mysterious figure driving a very imposing dump truck.
If you have played previous franchise installments, the gameplay isn’t going to hold any surprises. You drive, you shoot your machine guns (not too much – they overheat!), and pick up the usual variety of fire, homing, and power missiles. There are a few new weapons, such as the ricochet mine, which gains power the more walls it bounces off of before hitting its target (careful not to shoot yourself), and a devastating satellite missile strike. Of course, every vehicle has its unique special attack, and these are uniformly awesome in TMB. When you see Sweet Tooth coming at you and he transforms into a robot (while still driving around on wheels) and fires off 20 swarm missiles, you will shit yourself in some combination of terror and joy.
The real strength of the game, though, lies in its level design. Black features some of the most innovative and just plain fun levels ever seen in a vehicular combat game. They all carry the same dark themes that pervade the rest of the title, and to great effect. The levels are far larger than in any previous Twisted Metal (although there are also the classic tiny arenas, as well) and contain much more interactivity in their environments. Some of the locales include a drive-in movie theater, skyscraper rooftops, and an absolutely massive suburbia area, as well as one of the most incredible levels in any game to date: “Prison Passage,” which starts with two combatants in a tiny locked room that soon opens to reveal a large cargo ship with more combatants. After fighting them for a while, the ship docks at the courtyard of an asylum, and more enemies appear. Soon the asylum and surrounding roads open up, as well, revealing still more opponents – now you are fighting nine other cars that are spread all around the institution, the roads, and the ship. Lest you think this would lead to lulls in gameplay, rest assured that the action never stops coming fast and furious.
Another hallmark of the series has always been the over-the-top noir-horror stories surrounding each of the contestants, and TMB improves upon this, as well. While earlier titles told the story through the instruction manual and a few animated images accompanied by scrolling text after the final battle, Black raises the bar with intro, mid-point, and closing cutscenes (some featuring FMV) that provide far more narrative than in the past. Several of the stories would have to be classified as “mature,” and I found quite a few parts to be downright disturbing.
On the downside, however, the controls don’t seem to be quite as streamlined as they could have been. There are varying control layout options, but all of them have their shortcomings; using turbo, for example, is a total crapshoot – if you even have any charges left, since it is very easy to drain it all by mistakenly activating it. And the developers continue to try to shoehorn their awkward “special” system into the gameplay, which consists of pressing combos on the d-pad much like shooting a fireball in Street Fighter II. Although the combos generally do cool things like making you jump straight in the air, firing a missile to the rear, or generating a shield around your car, the system always feels clunky. I guess it’s lucky you can play through the entire game without ever touching it.
If you enjoyed previous Twisted Metals even in the slightest or if you like fast-paced, non-stop, action-packed combat and driving – or videogames and fun at all – then TMB is for you. There are so many little interesting nooks in every level, branching paths, vehicles that play wildly differently, and fascinating stories, that you will come back to this game again and again. It’s impossible to describe the feeling you get when following Roadkill when he is shooting flaming oil cans at Spectre while attempting to line up a kill shot with your homing missile. And just as you are about to hit the switch, Sweet Tooth comes screaming in from one side, firing a spread of missiles right at you, as Outlaw starts machine-gunning you from behind. Your precious life starts draining away – and you realize that health is just a few seconds away, if only you could make it. It’s a blast.
Twisted Metal: Black was released early in the PS2’s life, but it remains one of the system’s very best games to this day, nine long years later.