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MotorStorm: Apocalypse is action all the way. It's packed full of collapsing skyscrapers and disintegrating bridges, with the driving experience built around turbo boosting, jumps and vehicular combat. But does turning your iPod up to max volume and listening to it for 6-8 hours automatically create a classic album you'll want to come back to again and again? Let's see what's underneath the rubble.
It's almost completely unrecognisable next to the original game that showed us the potential of Sony's new hardware back in 2006. The mud has gone. The explosions are bigger. Pedestrians throw Molotov cocktails at you. Now there's a sentence that would've sounded absurd four years ago.
Above: Looks strange, doesn't it? Better get used to MotorStorm's new bad boy image. Also, note the guns
But it's only one instance of the game getting more 'mature'. These same pedestrians can be run over and they fly around with ragdoll physics, occasionally clinging to your speeding vehicle before inevitably getting scraped off on a sheet of glass or pile of rubble. There's even some bad language in the new animated cut-scenes and the sense of humour is very dark, complete with a glass eye getting punched out. A woman's glass eye, too.
But has it worked? Arguably, not as well as it could have done. Despite the mature content, the humour feels rather immature and the story scenes seems to be aimed at teenaged boys – lots of large-breasted women and adrenaline junkie colloquialisms. The gritty art design also grates a little. Looking at a street that's full of rubble, smoke and debris is about as pleasing on the eye as... a street filled with rubble, smoke and debris. Odd, that.
That's not to say that the apocalyptic setting is dull. There are some downright spectacular set-pieces scattered throughout the game, often on the final lap of each race. The cyclone on the 'Waves of Mutilation' track, in particular, is a shockingly powerful-looking hazard and having to dodge fishing boats raining from the sky is something that doesn't happen very often in videogames.
Above: Environmental effects like this twister look spectacular, although you can't get sucked up in it, sadly
In fact, the first of the game's three stories contains two or three races on the second day that work superbly and everything seems to click. The set-pieces are getting more and more spectacular and you're learning some advanced techniques like cooling your engines in the air. As you near the end of the second day of the festival and things start getting genuinely apocalyptic, you start to think that maybe the game's just going to keep on getting better.
But then you hit the end of the first story and the festival's over. Time to start again from the beginning with a new character. From that point on, it never quite regains that level of cohesiveness and, as a result, you start to pay more attention to the game itself. And then comes the realisation that the actualy gameplay boils down to little more than 'trying not to crash'. Hmmm...
That's easier said than done, mind, especially as the route you're supposed to take is often hard to discern between the thick smoke and piles of rubble. The game has not one, not two, but three signposting devices (chevrons, marked gates and strips of red lights) yet still you'll sometimes find yourself driving towards a wall with no idea why you're not on the track any more. It's also telling that the game's new side-shifting barge attack is actually more useful for avoiding obstacles than for attacking rival racers, which is a shame.
On one occasion, I finished a rooftop race without crashing once… and still came second. Other attempts were full of crashes, yet I won pretty easily. I know there isn't blatant rubber-banding because I did try stopping for 60 seconds just to make sure I couldn't catch up again. But there's no denying that you'll often find yourself between last and ninth over the first two laps, before suddenly emerging near the top 4 with a lap to go. You're crashing just as much, not doing anything better or worse, yet you're suddenly a contender. Most odd.
Fortunately, all the dissatisfaction that comes from racing the AI drones disappears when you take the game online, and it starts to get genuinely fun when you get in a big online race and start making some friends (and enemies). We've covered the betting mechanic before, but it works really well and is exactly the sort of thing that gets people hooked on an online experience.
If you have broadband, then you'll almost certainly have a great time with MotorStorm Apocalypse. In contrast, offline multiplayer isn't as entertaining as it should be.
While the split screen mode is a minor miracle in terms of what PS3 is doing four times over, the actual feeling of playing is too detached. Everyone is just trying (surprise!) 'not to crash', so there's little genuine competition and racing, at least until everyone knows the tracks inside out – which will take a long time and is hardly going to happen over the course of an evening's party.
The single-player game manages to keep the frantic action and destruction going for its entire 7-8 hour long story mode, which is a considerable achievement. But sometimes the constant barrage of explosions does seem a little forced. It's pleasing the first time you crash and see your car explode as the fuel tank ignites, but… every single time? It can look ridiculous, as a small prang sees you sliding gently to a halt before going up like the 4th of July.
There is some degree of recycled content as you start the festival again with a new character as they're all taking part in the same events. They all arrive on the island, they all race, they all leave at the end. But while environments are reused, the state of their destruction is at a different stage for each character, so the content is different if not entirely new.
One will see a skyscraper still standing, the next will see it fall, the last will race around its wreckage, although seldom in that order. It's interesting and impressively natural-looking, but diminishes the impact of each new track a little as you realise you've seen most of it before.
The soundtrack deserves special mention because it was recorded at Abbey Road studios. You know, the place where The Beatles recorded their album of the same name. The idea was this: Hollywood composer Klaus Badelt (who scored Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest) would write the game's music, which would be recorded by an orchestra at Abbey Road, then the result would be handed to cutting edge DJs to mix before being put into the game. Great idea in theory, but the result isn't noticeably superior to Slipknot's Before I Forget and Curve's Hell Above Water from MotorStorm 1 and may actually put some players off.
Above: The London Metropolitan Orchestra... or Slipknot? The new game takes a chance on the former
Without wanting to get too down on the music, every loading screen features the same piece that goes from pleasant military-style horns to an annoying 'dramatic' swell and atonal orchestral flurry. Having to sit through this same annoying tone-setter every time only serves to highlight how long the load times actually are - and this is despite a mandatory install.
There's always the slight feeling that it isn't as polished as the original. Perhaps Sony should have released some more totally unfeasible 'target footage' for the team to attempt to match - it worked a treat the first time round. MotorStorm: Apocalypse looks rough in places. And while the frame rate does stay impressively high, it's clearly come at a price. A lot of the smoke and debris are flat 2D sprites with two or three frames of animation per second. At speed, it looks great. Slow down or go into photo mode and you start to see the strings.
Apologies if this all sounds rather unenthusiastic. The concept is great and the execution is fine, but while everything works on paper, perhaps there are too many elements in the mix. Like a cake that's got all of your favourite things in it. Sure, strawberries, custard, gravy and whiskey are all great, but not together. And certainly not all covered in inches of concrete dust.
A little more pacing instead of the breathless dash that fills every minute of gameplay would have helped. Interesting features like the gang warfare that's going on around you while you race are hardly mentioned and seem almost incidental as you race by. Likewise, the new barge attack is fun, but actually eliminating a competitor is just another thing you can do as opposed to an integral part of the game. At least that earns you trophies.
Finally, the rivalries between characters could have made for an interesting championship series if it had been applied to an actual tournament. Sure, the festival has arrived to experience the thrills primarily, but if massive chevrons, branded billboards and flags can be organised, I'm sure the implementation of a points system wouldn't be too much to ask. As it is, you simply have to 'place third or higher' to progress.
But the game isn't meant to be about the racing. It's meant to be about the spectacle and the fun that comes from throwing around your little ragdoll rider around by overheating the boost and blowing him sky high.
And in that sense, it does work. Not quite as well as the original, perhaps - compared to the first game, it's only the set-pieces here that truly feel big-budget. The vehicle handling, texture quality, reliance on sprites for detail and lack of vehicle chassis deformation is just a little bit low-rent. Not enough to make the game bad, but perhaps not as impressive as a new MotorStorm should be. It should be as deluxe as the visuals in Killzone 3 and it isn't quite there.
Above: The game wants you to be looking at the collapsing bridge, not for the next overtaking opportunity
MotorStorm's suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. Side-swiping shove attacks, armed pedestrians, environmental destruction... it all clutters the racing to the point where it doesn't truly satisfy on any level other than 'wow - look at that'. But 'wow - look at that' is exactly what a lot of gamers will want from their PS3 racers, so none of the other complaints will really matter to them. As for the gamers looking for a fun racing experience, only the online mode really satisfies.
MotorStorm: Apocalypse gets most of the technicalities right and genuinely looks amazing at times. But perhaps the basics should have been nailed before the twisters and skyscrapers were put in.
Split/Second? No. MotorStorm's environmental hazards can't be triggered by the player, which means they don't add any tactical depth to the gameplay. Split/Second's set-pieces like the crash-landing jet plane are just as good-looking as the collapsing skyscrapers, and arguably more varied too. There's also an emphasis on driving in Split/Second, which is sorely missing here.
Excite Truck? No. Excite Truck has track deformation, vehicular smashing and shortcuts galore, just like MA. But it also has a scoring system and the ability to affect other riders by triggering environmental effects. Sure, it's on Wii and subsequently looks a bit crap, but playing it is way more exciting than playing MotorStorm Apocalypse. It doesn't have bikes, but it has trucks and buggies so it's mostly there. Also, it did engine cooling by driving through water and boost exploding before MotorStorm did.
MotorStorm? No. The original MotorStorm may have lost a lot of its impact in the few years since its release, but it's still an enjoyable and challenging racing game that looks super-sharp and has a feel all of its own. You can tell it had a lot of time and money spent on its development and, while I'm sure the same is true of MotorStorm: Apocalypse, the result is more assured and less eager to give you everything all at once than its new sibling.
This is a loud, often spectacular dash through countless set-pieces and ragdoll pedestrians. However, 'trying not to crash' isn't as fun as racing or combat, but that's what you'll be doing for 95% of the time. It's just not as fun as it should be.
31 Mar, 2011
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