Much like Namco's Ridge Racer series, it seems that the Twisted Metal series has always gone hand-in-hand with Sony's various console outings, always there to pave the way and set the trend for things to come. The original Twisted Metal, released in the mid-90s helped usher in the PS1 and along with its sequel sold tons of copies. Twisted Metal Black ushered in the PS2 revolution and its re-issue with online capabilities set the tone for Sony's online push. Now, on the PSP, we are again presented with a new Twisted Metal offering. But does it stand up to the legacy of the SingleTrac versions (TM 1 & 2) or does it feel empty like the 989 offerings (TM 3 & 4)?
Luckily, the team behind the PSP's Twisted Metal: Head-On is the same team that brought the franchise to the PS2; Incognito Inc. These guys "get it". They know that for all intents and purposes, the series does not focus on the vehicles but on the gameplay mechanics (somewhere between a FPS and a fighting game; complete with combos), the power-ups, the overall tone of the game, the arenas (and how memorable they are) and the personalities of the combatants. The greatest games in the series have always been TM 2 on the PS1 and TM Black on the PS2. In both cases, it seems that everything came together just right and not even the lack of modes or the hard-to-get-used-to control schemes could hurt that. And it's with that same warm and fuzzy nostalgic feeling that I report that TM: Head-On fits in perfectly with those two games (more with TM 2 than TM Black actually) and takes its place as not only one of the best PSP titles to date but one of the best Twisted Metal titles we've ever seen.
Long standing fans of the series will agree that TM Black was the most aptly named title in the series. While the franchise never strayed too far from being twisted, it was at the very least colorful. Black changed all that! But destroying Paris in part 2 has always stood in my mind as one of the greatest levels in gaming history. The open level design, the French anthem playing, the mimes jumping away from my car, the Eiffel Tower, it all felt so light and breezy. TM Black took all of this and spun it on its head. The levels became dark and claustrophobic, the humor brooding and serious but the carnage and enjoyment stayed intact. And now, Head-On goes back to the roots of TM and gives us what feels like a true sequel to part 2, Paris level and all.
You pick a driver/car (each has his/her own back-story) and enter an arena in the hopes of destroying the other cars. This is demolition deathmatching at its best. And there's nothing else to it. Regardless of the mode you pick the objective never changes. Destroy your competition. Fans will immediately recognize the classic TM control scheme but newcomers to the series may be taken aback at first by the them. As with most PSP games, the analog stick is not as precise as the D-pad and you should just save yourself a lot of frustration and stick to that. The shoulder buttons control your machine guns and equipped weapon (missiles, napalm, remote bomb, ricochet disk, etc) while the triangle switches equipped weapon. Nothing too complicated so far. The driving portion however, is what will make or break this title for many. While you can control breaking and acceleration (as well as turbo) with face buttons, you can also do so using the D-pad. The catch is that you have to use the down D-pad button to reverse. This will inherently frustrate many. It's a small concession though and will soon become second nature. You'll even forget that you're playing on a handheld altogether within a few minutes.
The single player portion consists of 3 modes: Challenge, where you simply fight the computer in a battle (a la Quick Match), Endurance, which is a survival mode and Story Mode which is the initial meat and potatoes of the game. In this mode you will pick a character and fight through his or her match brackets (all the while upgrading your vehicle) until you eventually face boss battles where you will be able to unlock your character's ending. Throughout the various levels you'll also be able to access certain mini-games which will allow you to unlock more characters and arenas. The mini-games are also a blast to play in there own right and hunting them down is a nice distraction from simply mowing down the competition. Don't feel too bad if you fail miserably at one over and over though; some of them are just plain easier with specific characters. The Story mode is also a great place to learn the intricacies of each character and his or her special weapons as well as honing your skills with Energy Attacks; Twisted Metal's button combo system which allows you to freeze your opponents as well as shield/cloak yourself, etc.
As every fan knows, the real beauty of TM is taking it to the next level against some human competition and in this respect, Head-On offers up 3 types of multi-player modes: Ad-Hoc, Infrastructure and LAN. And so, whether you are playing against a friend with another PSP or against a stranger in another country, Head-On offers many options for PSP connectivity. The multi-player games differ from the single player modes in one very important way; Relics (and while using these is completely optional, they do add a lot of fun to the mix). Picking up a relic (available right from the start of a match) is like picking up an upgrade in the single player version. It will give you a special attribute/power for a certain amount of time or until you are hit by a relic buster. The catch is that you can only have one relic at a time but pressing triangle+square allows you to drop unwanted relics.
Multi-player modes available are; Deathmatch, Last Man Standing, Fox Hunt (one vehicle is the target and others hunt him down), Collector (collect as many items scattered around the arena before the game ends. Destroying opponents scatters their items), Team Deathmatch, Team Last Man Standing, Team Fox Hunt and Team Collector. In all cases, playing against real opponents is always infinitely more enjoyable than the CPU since it allows for unpredictability. And Head-On does a great job of providing excellent network conditions for lag-free gaming. The options for creating custom games are plentiful and allow anyone to set-up a game to their liking.
The graphics are truly something to behold. From the opening movie (with its cell shaded look) to the character selection screens and various arenas, TM: Head-On does a great job of creating the perfect TM atmosphere. While the in-game graphics may seems a little rough around the edges in places, the level and character design as well as the constant action truly make that a moot point. The soundtrack and sound effects are well used and quite clear, but they never offer up anything too memorable. The songs fit the mood of the game perfectly however and are guaranteed to keep your blood pumping.
The comparisons to Twisted Metal 2 are undeniable. But is Head-On even in the same league? Actually, it's an even better game. The mini-games and upgrades add a layer of gameplay to the classic formula that was sorely missing. The graphics are better, there are more characters and arenas to play with and the controls can be modified to suit your taste. Is it the best Twisted Metal yet? Sadly, no. Twisted Metal Black still holds that distinction for the simple fact that it doesn't feel like a sequel to a good game but a reinvention of a great series. Make no mistake about it though, any fan of the series should check out Head-On on PSP and newcomers looking for a fix to their destructive needs need look no further. Twisted Metal: Head-On is, oddly enough, the best shooter on the PSP and a wonderful trip down memory lane.