Conformity isn’t something you normally associate with Motorstorm. The series’ band of anarchic racers refuse to be confined to purpose-built circuits, shackled to formal starting grids or restrained by the edicts of voluminous rule books. They even regard the limitations of the open road as a form of oppression.
Instead they venture far off the beaten track, out of the reach of risk assessment forms and health and safety protocols, and into some of the world’s most dramatic and dangerous environments – the parched and imposing grandeur of Monument Valley, the lush volatility of the Pacific Islands – defining and priding themselves in the unique racing counter-culture they’ve created.
In recent times, however, there’s been a rising tide of innovation and deviation amongst the arcade racing fraternity. Developers have been venturing out, exploring new frontiers, and the inspirations they’ve returned with from other videogame genres – primarily the first-person-shooter and role playing ones – have given us fusion racers such as Blur, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit and Split/Second.
Surprisingly, rather than doing the expected and bucking this trend, Evolution Studios have made the very un-Motorstorm decision not just to follow the heard but to try leading it. For a series that had always previously enjoyed splendid isolation in terms of both its choice of settings and its place in the gaming market, this might seem like a slightly uncomfortable position; and Apocalypse definitely heralds some very big changes for the franchise, most notably in its wholesale incorporation of ideas from big-budget FPS’s and in providing its first excursion into an urban setting. But Motorstorm has always taking racing way beyond the ‘Warning! Road Ends Here’ signs, and doing so again here certainly doesn’t end in a car crash.
It takes a lot to coax the Motorstormers out of their natural habitats and into the city, but the opportunity on offer in Apocalypse is one that’s too good to miss: a deserted metropolis, very obviously based on San Francisco, that’s being torn up, down and apart by a cataclysmic natural disaster. It’s the ultimate urban playground for adrenaline junkies with enough petrol sloshing around in their skulls to turn their ears into a set of twin exhausts.
As oversized seismic events continuously redline the Richter scale, Motorstorm races break out opportunistically at various locations right across the city. Whether it’s escaping from the bohemian suburbs as they’re swallowed up by giant fissures and sink holes, navigating through uptown where a war has broken out between a private military company and gangs of Molotov lobbing crazies, hammering along boardwalks being torn up by tornados, lightening and torrential rain, or scrambling across the rooftops, launching yourself from one to the next as skyscrapers lurch, shake and drop out of sight, the epic scale to the devastation really captures that disaster movie feel. At its best, this is racing taken chapter and verse straight out of the Book of Revelations.
The revamped structure of the game’s single player Festival Mode has been heavily influenced by first-person-shooters. The individual races and occasional eliminator events play out in a pre-set order, cut and shut together by an overarching narrative. Finish in a high enough position in one and you move on to the next, fail and you replay until you do. There’s no option to try different races or switch vehicles. It’s a strictly linear set-up that has the potential to become very frustrating, but races in the game’s six hour campaign always seem to go out of their way to ensure that you’re in contention in the final laps.
The story itself tells the exploits of a trio of different characters – a rookie, a pro and a veteran – through a series of ‘motion comic’ style vignettes that appear between races. They’re short, shallow, occasionally humorous and almost totally incidental, but at least they’re in keeping with the racing action and never attempt to overreach themselves. More importantly, they, together with Apocalypse’s persistent damage, allow the game to return to the same tracks at different point over the 48 hours before the city’s final annihilation without ever repeating the same experience twice.
Thankfully, heading back to civilization hasn’t made the Motorstormers any more civilized. Races here are still the intense, unrefined, brutal and chaotic dashes for survival and glory they’ve always been, full of ramming, taunting, dodging, boosting and some brutally believable rag doll. As you hammer through clouds of dust and motion blur to a soundtrack of thumping beats and orchestral crescendos, zigzagging and jostling between explosions and piles of rubble on the wreckage-strewn streets, racing has never felt so much like a contact sport.
The eclectic range of contrasting vehicles returns, with a few with more urban-appropriate machines, such as Muscle Cars and Super Minis, shuffled into the mix. As before their varying characteristics steer you towards different strategies, with the brutish, lumbering Big Rigs and Monster Trucks favouring off-road terrain and tight pack racing, while the nimble and vulnerable Dirt Bikes and ATVs are better suited to the more intricate, alternative routes. All continue to handle like life-sized remote control cars, and the expanded boosting system that now allows you to cool your engine (and stop it exploding) during jumps as well as by driving through the water gushing forth from fire hydrants, cracked pipes and lying in convenient pools, only encourages more high speed risk taking than ever before.
There are issues. Previous Motorstorm games left indelible images on the mind courtesy of their stunning, photo-realistic environments, and, although in keeping with Apocalypse’s comic book style, the cartoony edge to the visuals here doesn’t encourage the jaw to drop anywhere near as freely. There are also times when it’s difficult to tell where courses go, but the biggest let downs comes when, occasionally, your high anticipations for a particular race aren’t met. Some contests are absolute mayhem and awesome beyond words, but others pale by comparison due to their disappointing lack of incident, and it’s during these moments you really wish you had a Split/Second-style button to bring bits of scenery with major destructive potential to life.
Online, Motorstorm’s Wreckreation multiplayer mode has basically been transformed into Call of Duty with growling V8’s replacing the guns. As you race, you earn experience points, level up and gain medals for completing various achievements – some directly related to racing, others to more subsidiary activities. You can even bet on races to try and establish a healthy secondary income of XP. New vehicles, customisable parts and perks in three categories – handling, combat and boost – are all unlockable, and while none of the varying loadouts have a huge impact on the racing, their differences are often the subtle deciding factors that determine race outcomes.
Throw in the options for online and offline four player split-screen action and 3D support, and Motorstorm: Apocalypse is easily the most comprehensive title in the series to date. Its choreographed catastrophes may be a little too close to Split/Second’s for the liking of either game’s developers, and there may be nothing here as inherently awe inspiring as Rain God Mesa, but Motorstorm remains one of the greatest spectacles in videogame racing. Even if Motorstorm is no longer going in the opposite direction to the rat race, at least it’s running at the head of the pack.
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