I work in Washington, D.C., which has some of the worst traffic in the United States. So I spend a lot of time in gridlock, wondering how much faster I could get to work if my car was equipped with rocket launchers.
Sony's "Twisted Metal" games have been answering that question since 1995, allowing us to vent our road rage in the safe, legal confines of our own living rooms. After a few years in the garage, series creators David Jaffe and Scott Campbell have finally rolled out the first "Twisted Metal" ($59.99) for the PlayStation 3 - and while it still delivers plenty of multiplayer mayhem, its solo campaign is about as much fun as changing a flat.
The game takes place in a sort of alternate America where a ruthless billionaire named Calypso stages massive demolition derbies for his own amusement. The star attraction is Sweet Tooth, a flabby serial killer who wears a flaming clown mask. He drives a souped-up ice-cream truck, but instead of Bomb Pops, it's stocked with actual explosives - and it can transform into a killer robot.
The other vehicles in "Twisted Metal" range from zippy but vulnerable hot rods to sluggish but heavily armored behemoths. There's a motorcycle equipped with a grenade launcher, a hearse that shoots coffins and a station wagon strapped to tank treads. For the first time in the series, you can take flight, picking off the competition from the turret of a helicopter.
Online, you can battle against up to 15 other drivers. The multiplayer modes include the usual death match and "last man standing" events, as well as "Hunted," a sort of reverse game of tag in which everyone else is trying to kill "it." The newest addition is "Nuke," a more sadistic take on Capture the Flag. Nothing terribly original here, but a good way to blow off steam.
The single-player campaign is less satisfying. It tells the stories of three characters - Sweet Tooth, death-masked motorcyclist Mr. Grimm and mutilated ex-model Dollface - as they fight through a series of challenges. Each has been promised her or her heart's desire by Calypso; each learns, in a morbidly comic twist, that one should be careful what one wishes for.
The stories won't surprise anyone who's ever seen "Tales From the Crypt," and they're not worth the aggravation of forcing yourself through Calypso's events. In most of the challenges, you're dropped in an area with a half-dozen computer-controlled opponents; you have to destroy them all to move on.
Even on the easiest difficulty level, the game's artificial intelligence seems unfair, with all the enemy vehicles ganging up on you. And the racing stages are next to impossible to win if you fall behind because the A.I.-controlled cars still attack you rather than the leader.
There's no reward for second or third place; you don't even get money to spend on thicker armor or faster engines. So you just have to keep replaying events until you're sick of them - an archaic game design that will frustrate even the most dedicated gearhead.
Only "Twisted Metal" die-hards will have the patience to make it through its story. Online play is more amusing, although the variety of game modes is slim. Overall, this once-beloved franchise returns to the road w ith not much left in the tank. One and a half stars out of four.