Thursday, 14 April 2011

MotorStorm: Apocalypse

The first MotorStorm was the best Playstation 3 launch title by a muddy dirt track mile; the physicality of the experience, the sense of chaos – which would be as prevalent on the first corner of the first lap as it would be near the end of a race – was the ideal demonstration of the new hardware’s technical muscle. Winning a race by a nanosecond with a perfectly-timed nitrous boost, leaving the detritus of multiple write-offs behind you, was a moment of elation that almost singularly justified the console’s high price (not to mention the cost of a new HD television). MotorStorm’s sensory experience firmly left you in no doubt that the fabled next-generation had arrived.

Some four years later what’s most surprising is that, with a few exceptions, MotorStorm’s emphasis on barely-controlled disorder within an arcade racing structure wasn’t picked up by more games. There was the excellent MotorStorm sequel Pacific Rift, and more recently the unforgettable Split/Second: Velocity (more on which later), but in general the tendency has been, when presented with consoles of such capability, to understandably pursue the agendas of simulation, photo-realism and auto-porn boredom. Of the current crop perhaps Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit has struck the perfect balance between the two extremes of messy arcade thrills and studious detail, but it’s no surprise to report that Apocalypse is firmly entrenched in the former camp.

Although on the surface both Apocalypse and Split/Second share the same love for the screen-filling destruction and Hollywood-friendly explosions much beloved of messers Bay and Emmerich, the implementation of these pyrotechnics in both games is fundamentally different. Whereas Black Rock allowed the player to trigger the events manually, bringing into play such factors as timing and risk, Evolution Studios have the scenes of devastation play out in the background of each course. Although you don’t have direct control over the actions, the shared connection is that in both games the track will be reshaped on an almost lap-by-lap basis as a result of these disasters – such genre conventions as familiar racing lines and the ability to master courses still exist, just not in the familiar way. These constant dynamic shifts also ensure that Apocalypse remains close in spirit to the first two MotorStorm games, which were masterclasses in restless, unpredictable racing.

The subtitle is explained by MotorStorm’s superb single-player mode, which has the festival take place in a city in the midst of a natural disaster of epic proportions (Sony’s decision to postpone the game’s release following the tragedy in Japan was completely justified, and even now playing the game so close to the event often carries an unfortunate aftertaste). The difficulty levels are each represented by three different participants, who have their own personal story and path through the game. Because their campaigns take place across the same two days, the characters – The Rookie, The Pro and The Veteran – witness different views of the same events, with the level of devastation dependant on the difficulty chosen.

It’s a rewarding system that encourages replays on Pro and Veteran levels not just as a test of skills, but also one that creates a compulsion to see all the awe-inspiring, undeniably spectacular (not to mention visually stunning) attacks being wrought on this unfortunate city.

The campaign races cover a range of pre-selected vehicle types, the widest such selection in any MotorStorm game. It’s this diversity that has always been one of the series’ strengths, with each vehicle noticeably different in its handling. Racers new to the game, including the speedy Supercar, nestle in nicely alongside such classics as the Dirt Bike and Big Rig. Their implementation follows the MotorStorm philosophy: no two races feel the same, whether it be because of the track-side carnage, or because courses play out differently depending on which of the many vehicles you are using.

Apocalypse’s online mode is the gem at the heart of this crazy mangled-steel milieu. Built around a structure of experience points, perks and betting, it’s extensively customizable, but as with so many familiar systems of persistence (usually found in first-person shooters), there’s an initial sense of grinding through the early levels to get to the enhancing rewards beyond. This isn’t helped by the matchmaking system, which rarely presents novices with an even field of competitors. However get past these first stages and you’re left with one of the more accomplished Playstation 3 online racers, a streamlined set-up that is extremely addictive (and the part of the game that gets the biggest blame for this review being so late).

Admittedly detractors of the MotorStorm series will find little in Apocalypse to sway them towards the franchise. Collisions can feel unfair, while the tendency for races to collapse into Mario Kart-esque bouts of randomness will test the patience of purists. But these are very rare occurrences, and easily forgiven when compared to Evolution Studio’s wider achievements. For underneath the rage of Mother Nature at the heart of Apocalypse lies a racing game whose visceral impact is almost unlike anything in the modern genre, an anarchic experience built on both arcade simplicity and technical complexity.

- When I win lots of money I will buy a 3D TV and review MotorStorm: Apocalypse's 3D effect. Until then I'll just assume that it's brilliant.

- This review was originally written for D+PAD Magazine.

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