Desert, jungle, arctic. Those MotorStormers certainly get around the planet, each excursion more dangerous and extreme than the last – and whilst this fourth title in the series returns to America, it’s in an entirely different setting than Monument Valley. Apocalypse, as you’ve no doubt already gathered from the oodles of hands-on impressions we’ve been running over the last year or so, is based on the west coast of the US, in a city not dissimilar to a potent blend of San Francisco and Los Angeles; the twist? It’s in the middle of a huge earthquake: reason enough, it seems, for Big Dog and his merry band of hardcore racers to base their next festival right in the middle of all the destruction.
The plot – such as it is – is as implausible as it is irritating, even if the central device, the reason d’etre, is sound enough. These guys need somewhere to race, why shouldn’t it be in an ever changing, considerably more lethal locale than they’ve had before? Sorting out the men from the boys is the basic, cliched mechanic here, told through clunky animated comic-book cutscenes that never seem to find their feet and remain eminently skippable even if doing so will render the single player story mode little more than a series of races. Not that this is a negative, once you’re through the game once it’ll almost certainly be the choice of most for repeated play-throughs, but MotorStorm has survived just fine without this new element, and whilst it tries its best it just doesn’t slot into the game as neatly as we’d have hoped.[drop]Thankfully, and much more importantly, once you’re onto the track MotorStorm Apocalypse is an absolute blast. Sure, the first couple of races serve up little excitement (they’re more of a gentle introduction to the controls) but once you’re about four or five tracks in the action kicks up a few gears, the courses start to flex their muscles and, hugely impressively, the city starts to fall apart.
The game is split into around forty races in single player mode, divided up into three stories that act as difficulty levels, telling the same two-day tale from alternative viewpoints as they go along. What this means is that although you’ll race on the same courses more than once, because they’ll appear at different times in each thread they’ll be, for example, at night rather than during the day, or suffering under different levels of the ‘quake.
This works brilliantly – the tracks evolve gradually over the storyline, new routes appear (and old ones become obstructed) and a few, like the Boardwalk track, show just what Evolution are capable of in terms of – literally – breathtaking visuals as the second and third iterations appear. The courses are also really well designed: they’re all varied enough to be distinct but consistent enough to be part of the same city, even when they’re flicking between dockland, parks and massive long bridges – they’re definitely better than anything we’ve seen from the series before and the balancing period the developers must have gone through has resulted in some truly memorable and utterly raceable courses.[boxout]The controls fit perfectly too, the driving physics tuned to perfection, and save for a couple of oddities the game is designed to have the player at the very limits of each vehicle’s handling and grip from start to finish, all the while managing the turbo which, as we’ve seen before, is capable of turning your ride into a flaming wreck if pushed too hard. A subtle switch to the cooling of the boosters (let go of both the accelerator and the turbo in the air) brings a minor element of tactics but for the most part it’s all out top-speed pedal to the metal racing, which a few corners designed for drifting thrown in. It’s not subtle, and purely simple arcade maths under the bonnet, but it’s well suited.
Likewise, the sound is equally brutal: distorted engines play against a booming drum and bass soundtrack from the likes of DJ Shadow and Noisia that screams out for surround sound or a decent pair of headphones. But it’s the visuals that’ll make the loudest claims here: as we said above, the graphics are occasionally astounding, especially in terms of the destruction of the city, but they suffer from a slightly flat overall image (there’s little in the way of deep blacks and much of the game is rather muted) and some rough edges, but this makes way for a solid framerate with sixteen vehicles on screen, which is surely worth the compromise in fidelity. Don’t get us wrong, MotorStorm looks good enough, but it’s only during the big ‘wow’ moments that it really comes into its own. That said, the game looks much better in 3D, the added depth really bringing MotorStorm Apocalypse alive and it’s easily one of the best examples of the new tech around just now – any compromises the team have had to make are, unlike most 3D games just now, invisible.
MotorStorm’s single player is a thrilling ride, the way the tracks play out is great fun, there’s only a couple in there that could be classed as filler and most are genuinely exciting, especially if you’re pushing for first place throughout. The difficulty level is much easier than previous games, too, you’ll sail through the first story arc without any fuss, only meeting tougher opposition midway through the second, and although there’s no choice in vehicle types (you’re forced to use the given vehicle for each race) the new additions, like the Superbike, more than make up for this. Finally, each track has a few hidden collectable cards dotted around that promote a little exploration, even if the rewards for doing so aren’t all that exciting. A success, then, apart from the disappointing cutscenes and the enforced linearity which is a sudden change from previous games’ ticket systems.[drop2]The other half of Apocalypse is the Wreckreation mode, which is divided up into more single player options (in the form of hardcore challenges and a comprehensive, full open time trial) and the all important multiplayer section, which is as expansive as you’d like, with a few surprises. For starters, there’s four player split-screen local multiplayer, and save for a few visual tweaks it’s just about perfect; but more impressive is the way you can take that split-screen goodness online and race against other players with a buddy by your side, all the while racking up points that go towards your overall rank and your ever growing medal count.
Online multiplayer races are much more exciting than the single player ones – the thrill of human opponents always is – but the presence of local split-screen is most welcome. Online works smoothly too – you can search for games in the three main types (Perks and Betting, Racing, Chase and Eliminator) or you can set up private games and invite friends to the party via a simple but effective Friend list at the side of the lobby screen. Once you’ve gathered enough racers, a track is voted on (from a choice of two) and vehicles, liveries and loadouts are picked before the countdown begins; of course, in private races you can tweak the settings and select whichever track you desire.
The perks are an interesting new feature – you can set up five loadouts, and each one contains three perks, one based on Handling, one on Boosting and one on Combat, and rising through the ranks will grant you more options. You start with some basic ones, like better handling, the ability to boost for longer and use less boost when you perform a ram move, but as you move up through the levels you’ll get more and will be able to tailor your settings depending on the track and your opponents – a neat touch. You’ll also pick up more livery options and more player icons with which to decorate your online persona.
MotorStorm, then, is a game that doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not, and what it is is a bombastic, relentlessly energetic rush through a series of courses that start slowly but ultimately end up making you feel like you’ve gone ten rounds with a heavyweight. By the midpoint, when the game starts to get serious, the tracks get hard and the other racers become more aggressive and brutal in their racing – you’ll need a few restarts but it’s always worth the effort just to see what crazy ideas Evolution have come up for the next race in the story. And with a comprehensive multiplayer portion we’re think this one’s a winner.
- Solid single player mode
- Comprehensive online options
- Split screen local multiplayer
- In-game photo mode supports ridiculous resolutions
- Stunning soundtrack
- Perks system is clever
- Comic-book cutscenes don’t work well
- Story feels a little tacked on and results in a linear path through the game
- Load times can be troublesome
- Rubberbanding is still a little cheap – cars ahead seem to crash more, whilst those behind drive better
- Lacks the festival feeling that the first game offered
By then, as the city falls to pieces around you, you’ll be glad for the final credits – this isn’t for the faint hearted, but if you’re tough enough and reckon you can tame a superbike as a tornado whips around you, we’ll see you out there…