E3 2010’s biggest surprise by far was the reveal of Twisted Metal for the PS3. This was due to in large part co-founder David Jaffe’s adamant denial of any such thing. But when that macabre ice cream truck rolled onto the stage, gamers everywhere knew they had been taken. I ventured over to Twisted Metal developer Eat Sleep Play’s studios nestled in tranquil Salt Lake City to make sure they weren’t planning on dropping any more bombshells on us this E3. I sat down with co-founder Scott Campbell, who had just returned from a muddy mountain bike ride on his lunch break, and sage creative director Kellan Hatch.
Campbell explains that whereas the reveal came in 2010, the crew at Eat Sleep Play had been working on the latest installment of the mainstay series for a number of years beforehand. Unfortunately, it was nowhere near show-ready as “there have been some major course corrections along the way,” Campbell says. He tells me that the first iteration of a next-gen Twisted Metal game was geared more toward an international audience attracted to “sleek and sexy” cars over bulky gadget-ridden powerhouses. “Sweet Tooth was a black dude that looked like a fit, trim, supermodel version of Mike Tyson,” Campbell relates with a chuckle, “that doesn’t really feel like Sweet Tooth.” So, doing something that makes Eat Sleep Play unique, they tossed out months of work and “gave it a total facelift.” This meant bringing back the cold, hard, face-mashing steel of the originals.
Though this may not be an entirely accurate description. From the gameplay I saw, Twisted Metal looks to be the sexiest installment yet. “While we don’t expect to win any awards graphically with this one,” Campbell says, “it’ll probably be the most polished version of Twisted Metal we’ve ever had.” I couldn’t agree more. The cars were supermodels on a runway; turning on a dime, launching missiles at helicopters, flying through exploding gas tanks like a Michael Bay film on speed. The first map I saw could have been the downtown of any major city. In fact the city reigns supreme in Twisted Metal, as Campbell is trying to break away from an older formula; “Even though we always had big maps they were always arenas.” This time around the team at Eat Sleep Play wanted a more natural, relatable feel. Indeed, players can even turn on traffic on certain maps. I give it a month before psychiatrists start prescribing Twisted Metal as a cure for road rage.
Campbell flew onto an onramp in one of the few “sleek and sexy” cars that made the cut after the overhaul and then jumped over a concrete barrier and headed toward a parking garage. After smoothly cruising up five stories, he launched off a pile of wood into a satellite dish, breaking off the antennae and catapulting through the windows of an adjacent building. With flame licking the tailpipes, the car burst from the glass of the building landing on another and another and another until Campbell sat above the city ready to rain hellfire down upon foolishly grounded opponents.
Twisted Metal’s version of capture the flag, “Nuke” strikes the core of Twisted Metal’s take on video games. Teams take turns trying to destroy giant stone effigies of either Dollface, Grimm, Sweet Tooth or Preacher. The way to do this is by capturing the opposing team’s faction leader and delivering him to the “sacrifice machine,” which will allow you to launch a nuke at the statue. The twist is that the other team, with a little skill can take down the nuke. Campbell showed me a small dirt hill that serves as a perfect spot for sniping the nuke; practically guaranteeing an impromptu king-of-the-hill minigame every match. Really, the only way to capture a faction leader and guarantee safe flight of the nuke is nonstop wholesale slaughter of the opposing team. Yeah, it’s starting to sound like a Twisted Metal game.
Did I mention that there are playable helicopters? Or that they have giant magnets attached to them with a chain? So any deathmatch or game of Nuke can be seriously augmented by a nutcase swinging from a player-controlled helicopter, flinging missiles like a booze-besotted submarine captain. This has actually created a massive headache for the team at Eat Sleep Play, who is used to only seriously programing on the x-axis. Putting in up-down airborne gameplay with its current frame rate is no small feat. “My hat’s off to the guys at Rockstar with Grand Theft Auto,” Campbell says, impressed with their ability to create a fully vertical city.
But the cherry on top of the gameplay demo I saw was Sweet Tooth’s iconic ice cream truck, which has taken on an entirely new look for the latest installment. It’s a freaking Transformer. Seamlessly, Sweet Tooth’s ride transforms into a bipedal killing machine, complete with rocket boosters for flight. “Yeah that was another gameplay nightmare,” says Hatch. I watched as Sweet Tooth bounded from building to building showering opponents with flaming clown heads. Finally, he flew up high and plummeted to the ground, creating a shock wave that overturned all the cars in the area.
There are eight multiplayer maps and each of them is designed for different types of matches and styles of gameplay. Each car has two unique guns along with the eleven guns lying around each map. One seriously cool element is the health semis, which are semi-trucks that do a loop around the map. Players can carefully drive into the back of a truck to regenerate health, after which, the truck launches them across the map. In a further effort to keep the game relevant, both the multiplayer and single-player games feature upgrades and leveling, similar to other major multiplayer games. Players can unlock weapons, skins, and cars. The customization screen includes a full color scale that allows cars to be just about any color under the sun. Finally, Campbell promises downloadable content, which is guaranteed to add more of everything.
Eat Sleep Play is committed to improving every element in past games that may have been lacking. The single player, once repetitive, now incorporates different modes to mix up gameplay. The controller scheme, always regarded as hard-to-grasp for casual gamers, has been simplified. They have done this all without, as Campbell states, “compromising our unique blend.” For example, we can expect one of the pillars of Twisted Metal, four-player splitscreen, in the latest installment.
Indeed, as the vanguard of car-combat games facing a slough of Mario Kart clones, Twisted Metal on the PS3 has been a long time coming. As Campbell says, “Twisted needed to make a big appearance on the PS3.” “It’s a niche and we pretty much fill it,” says Hatch. And Twisted Metal is not an easy game to make, especially now. “Going from PS1 to PS2 was a big step…and then to go to PS3 and it’s a five times step from there,” Hatch explains, “PS1 games, we could churn those out in less than a year with a smaller team.” Campbell clarifies, “There’s no quick anything.”
David Jaffe expressed dissatisfaction with Twisted Metal III and 4, which were both created by different developers. Jaffe felt as if they didn’t do the Twisted Metal brand justice. So I ask Campbell and Hatch what makes a Twisted Metal game a Twisted Metal game. “How much fantasy we have to put in,” says Hatch. The team is constantly changing the Havok engine they use to better fit the unrealistic physics of the Twisted Metal universe. Campbell believes it’s a willingness to throw out bad ideas and start anew without hesitation. “We’re not afraid to throw stuff away, we try things, but if they don’t work, we’re not attached to it. We’re not afraid to drown our baby if that’s what it takes.”
Morbid as it may sound, without this mindset, Twisted Metal would probably look a lot more like Gran Turismo than Twisted Metal. Both agreed that they are most comfortable with the Twisted Metal IP, however, and as Campbell puts it, “We could easily put two more years into this title.” And for anyone strange enough to already be asking about a sequel, Campbell reveals without shame that, “if Sony wanted us to do a sequel, we would totally be down for that.”
We definitely can expect more at E3, including an alluded appearance by Sweet Tooth. Eat Sleep Play also has an enormous immersive booth at the event destined to fire up gamers. Campbell says without hesitation, ““With the power of the PS3 we can do the most amazing version of Twisted Metal ever.” Fans expect nothing less and are waiting impatiently, but they aren’t the only ones. After years of bouncing around other companies and developing other titles, the folks at Eat Sleep Play are committed to giving Twisted Metal the revival it deserves. Hatch smiles through his white beard and looks at a point just beyond me. After all this time, he says, “It’s kind of like going home.”
Nationally unacclaimed freelance writer Jonathan Deesing has been writing about video games for dozens of weeks. His professional knowledge ranges from skiing to Peruvian history and of course, anything with buttons. If you can't get enough of his musings, check out his Twitter feed.