What could possibly be enjoyable about a racing game which sees you gloriously thrash the field for 97 per cent of a race, only to be shoved straight into a tire barrier six agonizing yards from the finishing line? And not even by a malicious human competitor, but through the seemingly entirely random behavior of a computer-controlled one? Life is spectacularly unfair at times.
Well, if it was just about any other game, the answer would be “to hell with it.” But this isn’t just any other game. This is MotorStorm, Sony’s hi-def, high-octane posterchild for PS3 gaming, and thankfully it’s a game of extremes - the excitement is intense, the frustration at times, is unbearable. Yet that nervous tension is merely the by-product of a game which will push you right to the edge. Believe us when we say you’ll slowly grow to love the rapid onset of pad-smashing fury. You’ll take it as a sign of how deeply and completely MotorStorm manages to burrow under your skin.
You’ve seen those slightly weird late-night shows of “alternative” festivals set in vast deserts, right? MotorStorm’s premise is a bit like one of those. It’s a huge desert racing festival, complete with arenas in the distance, multicolored flags flapping along the sides of canyons and helicopters hovering trackside - presumably to transport crushed competitors’ bodies to hospital. It’s made up of a series of events which you need racing passes to enter. By completing a set of races you gain the next pass, and so on. It’s simple, there’s nothing you’ve not seen already, yet it suits the stripped back racing on hand down to a tee.
So you’ve got dusty, wide open spaces, ramps, even bigger ramps, a demon boost and a field of big rigs, motorbikes, rally cars and buggies. That sounds like a recipe for balls-out joyriding, Burnout-style, but to approach MotorStorm with “drive like a maniac” mode engaged is to miss the point. Sure, the levels of carnage are among the finest and most brilliantly sickening ever seen, but the object is to win races. So while the crunches and explosions look great, you’ll want to stay well clear of them or else your hard-fought-for pole position will disappear in a tailspin.
The good news is that although you’ll be hurling enough obscenities at the screen to make David Cross sound like Mother Theresa, MotorStorm never feels unfair. Had your lead wiped out because you collided with a boulder? That’s not the game’s fault - you should have been watching where you were going. And don’t be thinking this is one of those games where you bounce around the back of the field while every other driver is a model of ruthless efficiency, because it’s not. It’s pleasing - sometimes hilariously so - to see a cluster of four or five close-knit vehicles pile into a wall and explode, or a pair of dueling cars bounce clean off the side of a mountain. Your rivals aren’t idiots - far from it. Bikers, for instance, will take swipes at you as you pass, while big rigs will simply try to grind you into the dust, but the sight of them making the same mistakes as you do makes the playing field seem more level.
The courses in MotorStorm are a real strong point. Well designed, they’re challenging, but they also let you have fun. There aren’t too many on hand - just eight - but every one of them is a sprawling playground for you to muck around in. And we mean muck - in the dustier arenas, the continuous churning of the dirt tracks leaves deep ridges and slimy trails to negotiate, and each course will combine a variety of surface types to really keep you on your toes. The brilliant vehicle physics react to whatever passes under your tires very believably - thick mud sees your ride handle more like a speed boat than a car or bike, whereas driving on unforgiving rock will have springier vehicles bouncing around like Fergie’s lady-humps on a waterbed. The Rockhopper course in particular is an excellent all-rounder, with its gravity-defying jumps, vertigo-inducing drops and multiple routes.
Get the most out of your vehicle on the trickier tracks by using your boost as cleverly as possible. It not only gives you a speed injection, but acts like a steering aid, much like the smaller rockets on space shuttles. Judicious boosting will save your skin in many precarious situations as you get the kick needed to stop yourself hurtling into more killer topography.
The counterpoint to this is the engine temperature. If you keep hold of the boost button (“X”) too long you’ll overcook, violently combust and be treated to a cool slo -mo close-up of your handiwork. The temperature gauge is the most important meter on your screen - and there’s no need for a speedometer. You’ll know when to slow down because you’ll see the racers in front of you exploding when they smash into roadside obstacles.
PS3 generally handles the heavy workload of pushing up to 15 vehicles around huge environments and high speeds very well, although we spotted a couple of instances of slowdown, usually when all the vehicles were on screen at the same time. However, the screen did shudder once when there was only open desert ahead of us.
The soundtrack deserves a mention, too. The very fact that there’s no wailing cock-rock guitar solos deserves praise, but the inclusion of Spiritualized’s druggy Electricity and some choice cuts from the likes of Primal Scream and Kings of Leon only underline the game’s overall quality. The music’s even been mixed to sound like it’s pumping out across the desert from some stage in the distance. A nice touch.
While your opponents in the single-player game are no idiots and will try to ram you off clifftops, take swipes at you and frequently screw themselves up at the most inconvenient moments in a hail of shattered metal, there’s no substitute for utterly ruthless, risk-taking humans doing everything in their power to stop you from winning.
You can learn every inch of the course and practice as hard as you like beforehand, but once a race against other players begins, there’s really no way of telling what’s going to happen. Some races descend into all-out demolition derbies as players gang up on weaker drivers only to turn against each other a few seconds later, while others are fairly clean (well, apart from the gallons of mud being sloshed around everywhere) as the majority of drivers decide to rely on their own magic behind the wheel rather than muscle. Ultimately it’s a combination of brains, brawn and sheer luck that sees you across the finish line first in one piece, and there’s no guarantee how the chips will fall.
This slightly random element is a true leveler, which is good news for those who’ve never ventured online for fear of being completely outclassed straight away or sneered at by veterans for being a so-called “newbie.” We’ve seen races - hell, we’ve even had it happen to us - where the leader goes through most of a course trouble-free only to become complacent, come into misfortune on the last corner and end up at the back of the pack. It’s such a fine, frustrating line between glory and the humiliation of spirit-crushing failure that listening to the obscene banter and players verbally abusing themselves over voice chat is just as entertaining as watching a race. We highly recommend you invest in a headset - you won’t regret it.
MotorStorm’s tracks are still its strongest point, managing to be both challenging and fun even when your vehicle explodes just because it’s grazed a rock. Certain vehicles adapt better to certain conditions and even particular sections of each track, so there’s no excuse about driving a weaker vehicle when you lose a race. It’s also entirely in your hands how you use boost. Boosting like a bastard on a straight is fair enough as long as you keep some left over to help you navigate a tight bend and avoid an embarrassing cliff plummet. Players more in tune with the game soon realize that using boost is equally important as a steering aid.
MotorStorm succeeds spectacularly. It’s quite possibly the finest game yet released for PS3 (Virtua Fighter 5 is in there, too), and the perfect tonic for dispelling any lingering doubts about the machine’s potential. This truly is PS3’s killer game and one we’ll still keep revisiting years from now. Get ready to eat our dust very soon.