Twisted Metal rewards not only blunt force, but finesse. In this 10th entry in the 17-year-old franchise where cars blow up other cars, one moment asks you to maneuver your vehicle underneath a humongous monster truck, keeping it there while your ally plants an explosive on its underside. One wrong swerve or acceleration, however slight, sends you flying across a barren field. Immediately afterward, your partner radios that he’s ready to be picked up; the bomb is in place. You detonate it as he begs for his life.
Both of these moments speak to the richness of Twisted Metal, which in its first PlayStation 3 outing, packs little surprises around every sharp turn and blazing ice-cream truck. As usual, the game is a gritty demolition derby where vehicles of all stripes, outfitted with explosives and armor that would put tanks to shame, pummel each other until only one driver remains. Though there’s plenty of blind machine-gun fire in this latest iteration, Twisted Metal operates in close-up, pairing its gleefully senseless violence with some that seems sensible.
Much of that introspection comes through in story mode, telling the Sin City-lite tale of the Twisted Metal tournament. The nefarious business magnate Calypso awards the winner with one wish, and always in a monkey’s-paw kind of way: Players get what they want, and it’s worse than they’ve ever imagined. Twisted Metal only focuses on three competitors, but really digs into their complexities. Sweet Tooth, the ubiquitous clown-faced psychopath, begins with sinister motives (to the point where it’s hard to root for him, even as you’re playing him), but each new piece of information adds empathy.
Each saga unfolds in beautifully shot cutscenes, inventively torturing players and inviting them to systematically take out on their enemies. One minute, you’re battling it out in the ominously, hilariously named Killosseum; the next, you’re sliding through a wintry New York City, racing to mobile safe points because you take damage just for being outside of one. Vehicles range from an agile motorcycle to an exterminator van; sticky bombs, homing missiles, and napalm shots are just a few of the tools at your disposal. The variety ensures you never have more than a few of each weapon at a time, forcing you to choose wisely when you fire.
Story-mode levels effortlessly add depth, so it’s surprising how cluttered multiplayer can feel. The simplest variants, like free-for-all or team elimination, are as painlessly fun as they’ve always been. But the new “Nuke Mode” involves capturing enemy bad guys, mounting them on a metal slingshot, and flinging them at a statue in the sky until it crumbles. It’s an intriguing twist on capture-the-flag, but it lacks the methodical build of Twisted Metal’s other conceits, and the places where the game leaves just enough room for yet another surprising moment.