The Twisted Metal videogame franchise has seen its highs and lows. After five attempts in six years, file the series' latest entry, Twisted Metal: Black, under the 'semi-got-it-right' category. This is a distinction normally reserved for the annual updates of EA Sports titles, but it's also applicable here because the most enduring characteristic of Twisted Metal: Black isn't its innovation, but its refinement.

Those who are familiar with the series will instantly feel at home. There aren't any revolutionary breakthroughs in terms of gameplay. This is a pure interpretation of the 'car combat' genre. The objective of the game's main eight stages is to simply duel with seven other distinct drivers of often whacked-out super-charged vehicles and be the last car running. Of course this simple objective is complicated by a dizzying array of weapons and power-up items littered about each arena.

My earliest impressions of Twisted Metal: Black was very positive. The graphically disturbing style used in the menu screens and non-interactive movie scenes were wickedly entrancing. Unlike most games that only utilize the mature label as a marketing device to target rebellious teens, the 'dark' overtures in Twisted Metal: Black seems inspired by something outside of the ghetto realms of comic book and anime (perhaps the demented paintings of Hieronymus Bosch). The distinguishing style isn't obviously prevalent through out the gameplay as much as I would have liked, but that's not something I'm going to overly complain about.

Other immediate bright spots were the solid in-game graphics, instantly accessible controls and easy-on-the-brain go-cart-style handling of the cars. The game was made with quick gratification in mind and, in that regard, Twisted Metal: Black is fairly successful.

With that said, however, Twisted Metal: Black has several blotches that mar what would have been an otherwise unoriginal, but still very well executed sequel. Those problems can be narrowed down to three things: insane difficulty levels, so-so multiplayer features, and overly repetitious gameplay.

First of all, this game is tougher than trying to get tickets to Lion King on Broadway; tougher than trying to find parking when alternate side rules are in effect; tougher than trying to well you get the idea. I don't mind the occasional challenge, but even at the easiest difficulty setting, Twisted Metal: Black annoyed the heck out of me because the computer opponents were just outright cheesy and unfair. Each stage is supposed to be a free-for-all every-man-for-himself battle, but anytime I was around multiple opponents, their crosshairs always seemed trained on me rather than at each other. It also became blatantly obvious by the fifth stage that the damage levels are ridiculously skewed in favor of the computer. Despite controlling the vehicle with the highest armor rating, other vehicles of lesser stature and firepower would routinely make mince meat out of me while I continually struggled to wear down their armor regardless of my choice of weapon or the accuracy of my aim.

Next on my list of flaws are the multiplayer modes. Despite having full-fledged four-player split-screen deathmatch features and a considerable two-player cooperative, the multiplayer aspect of the game comes up rather flat. Battling or teaming up with human opponents just isn't all that exciting or even all that different from battling computer opponents via the single-player experience. I had high hopes for the cooperative mode, but the frantic and simplistic nature of the gameplay didn't lend itself well to strategizing with a teammate. The developers didn't tailor any two-player-specific game mechanics into the fold either. The car combat genre has generally lacked dimension because there's only so much one can accomplish driving a car, but it can also be said that the developers didn't really go out of their way to explore and exploit the possibilities that multiplayer gameplay offers.

Any way you look it, Twisted Metal: Blackis a decent one trick pony that had very little surprises and I grew tired of the repetitious gameplay after prolonged play. From stage to stage, outside of the differences in locale, choices of character, and the two boss battles, there's very little variety. You're always battling the same group of misfits (despite having killed them in the previous stage), there are no mission objectives of any sort, and the power-ups and weapons do not change. The weapons that are available on the first stage are the same ones used throughout the entire game. Human challengers do little to relieve the monotony. I could once again chalk it up to the limited dimension and appeal of the car combat genre, but I also feel that the developers have done little to spice up the formula. Rating: 7 out of 10

Chi Kong Lui
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