Keith Staskiewicz
February 14, 2012 AT 09:45 PM EST

The original Twisted Metal was a fun mess, a custom wrecking rig that soldered the basic gameplay of Mario Kart’s battle mode with the carnage-heavy cheese and grit of Mortal Kombat. The controls were all over the place and the writing was pure Roger Corman schlock, but the multiplayer was addicting and it was popular enough to demand sequels and add the murderous clown Sweet Tooth to PlayStation’s questionable pantheon of mascots, right next to such timeless cultural icons as Crash Bandicoot and, um, Croc.

Seventeen years later, this franchise reboot attempts to plop a new body on the old chassis to see if it still runs. It does, but just barely. The whole game is an exercise in nostalgia for over-stimulated ’90s youth: Very little in the series has changed between then and now, and by the time you’re frantically mashing buttons to the chunky chords of Rob Zombie’s “Dragula,” you’ll be pining for some Fruitopia and a fistful of Airheads. But this is 2012, and the sugar high has worn off. Glaring faults like arbitrary physics, limited and unmemorable arenas, and inexplicable control choices — why would you ever double-tap a button to reverse instead of holding it down? — are much less endearing.

Single-player mode has been tweaked slightly from previous iterations. Instead of choosing your own character, you play through a series of three pre-set, dovetailing storylines, starting with the game’s most recognizable (greasepaint-covered) face: Sweet Tooth. The narrative is faithfully bad, maintaining the basic concept of a demolition derby to the death, the grand prize of which is having one wish granted by event organizer-cum-devil incarnate Calypso. You’d think that after all these competitions, the contestants would have realized that every winner’s wish ends up harming them via some sub-Twilight Zone ironic misinterpretation. (“Oh, you want a billion dollars, do you? Well, how about I give it to you… in pennies! Bwahahahaha!”) The endings are slightly better here than the nadir of Twisted Metal 2, but not by much. And most of the dialogue is Ed Wood-level hoky. With lines like “It’s like a slaughterhouse. But for people!” the writing unintentionally puts the laughter in vehicular manslaughter.

This would be entirely forgivable if the gameplay itself wasn’t equally haphazard. There are plenty of vehicles to choose from, with an array of individualized attacks and attributes, but once you’re actually burning rubber it doesn’t really make a difference because it all comes down to shooting everything at everyone all the time. The melees inevitably devolve into total chaos, and your car spends about as much time being pushed, thrown, bounced, and tossed spinning through the air, as it does under your rather sloppy control. This turns a newly added racing mode into an extremely frustrating experience, as you attempt to stay on the track even as you carom like a cue ball in a game of pool played by someone with rage issues.

As with its predecessors, your best bet is probably multiplayer, which offers plenty of options for both online and in-person combat. But if your appetite for destruction has at all evolved since the days when you thought Axl Rose’s bandanna was cool, you’ll be left wanting something a little more filling. Appropriately, Sweet Tooth’s gamesake is a lot like that dental-destroying confection, Pop Rocks: Noisy and fun, but it’s been a long time since I considered it a good, well-balanced meal. C

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