Say you’re racing along the side of a toppled-over building in your Superbike as anarchist lunatics run around chucking flaming Molotov cocktails in your direction. You can see the finish line now, it’s right around the next corner. A first place win seems assured… until a mud-spattered Monster Truck comes rumbling up behind you. One of its massive wheels catches your bike’s tail and off you go, sailing over the side of the fallen skyscraper. Your race ranking dips, from first place to second, then third and on into double digits.
Your bike breaks apart into tiny bits of flaming wreckage at almost the same instant your DualShock controller shatters against the wall, thrown there in frustration after your seventh near-win loss in a row.
Welcome to MotorStorm: Apocalypse.
MotorStorm isn’t just one of the PlayStation 3‘s premier racing game series. It is also one of the most damnably challenging racers out there. It is a constant test of patience as confusing, largely open-ended track layouts and the downright merciless A.I. opposition seek to ruin your day at every turn. Literally. MotorStorm: Apocalypse is the latest release in the series, and the third for the PS3, and it is easily the strongest of the bunch.
Welcome to the Future. Sorry About the Mess.
The natural environments of the previous games make way in this outing for more of a scorched Earth setting. It’s not quite the apocalypse, but the city that serves as your constantly transforming racetrack has been evacuated due to the looming danger of a massive earthquake. The city is rapidly falling apart as increasingly powerful tremors shake buildings down to their foundations. From subways to rooftops and everywhere in between, a series of off-road racetracks have been prepared to serve as the site of the latest MotorStorm Festival.
The first big difference you’ll notice about Apocalypse — after the change in setting, that is — is the newfound focus on narrative. Past games have pretty much just tossed you into the racing action. The game didn’t really need one, but there’s a story this time around. You’ll play from the perspective of three different racers — Mash, Tyler and Big Dog — as everything unfolds, with the time between each race filled by motion comic-style cutscenes. It is a serviceably goofy story, totally unnecessary but easily skipped if you grow bored with it. The only point that may rankle some is the fact that story-focused races force you to use specific vehicles.
Really, the story best serves to acquaint you with the game’s many vehicles. All of the old ones are back, of course, and five new ones have been added to the mix as well: Supercars, Superbikes, Super Minis, Muscle Cars and Choppers. Once you’ve earned your stripes — and the story mode will see that you EARN them — you’ll be all set to take on human competition online or in split-screen for up to four players, on both the vehicle and the track of your choice.
The World of MotorStorm
If you’ve played MotorStorm before, the basic mechanics of everything should be immediately familiar. You have gas, brake and e-brake buttons, as well as a recharging boost that will cause your vehicle to explode if used for too long. Driving over patches of water cools your boost jets more quickly and driving over fire does the opposite. You’ll see both elements plenty as you race around the crumbling city.
The track layouts are a highlight in this game. MotorStorm is recognized within the genre for (among other things) its open-ended tracks that offer players multiple routes to the finish line. Which path you can or should take depends largely on which vehicle you’re in. A Monster Truck, for example, won’t be able to handle the same jumps that a Superbike can. Conversely, any Superbike that sticks to the middle of a wide-open, truck-friendly roadway is just asking to be squashed.
In switching to the chaos of a shattered urban wasteland, Apocalpse also serves up some of the best and most varied visuals in the series. This is spectacle defined. Buldings topple, helicopters zip by overhead and the physical makeup of each track changes as you go, on a lap-to-lap basis. Sometimes the roadway narrows or veers off in another direction, and sometimes it even disappears entirely, forcing you to react quickly and find a new path.
Unfortunately, Apocalypse is just like its predecessors in terms of the difficulty. This is a hard game. Your racing opponents are cheap, and the game fudges their progress to always keep them on your tail. It’s exhausting to play, and not a good choice for those who are prone to lose their temper. You will break a controller out of frustration, railing against how unfair it is when a rapid-fire series of wrecks send you back into last place. Hilariously, this is also the MotorStorm with the gentlest learning curve. Early races throw up a challenge, but nothing compared to what you’ll experience once you’ve tried out most of the vehicles.
The controls also aren’t doing you any favors. Vehicle handling is less than adequate, with all of the game’s vehicles feeling just a bit too responsive. It helps with the smaller vehicles, like the new Superbike, allowing you to cut sharp corners with ease. It is all too easy to push too hard in one direction or another and send your ride careening off the road. Which is really no different from previous MotorStorm games.
Outside the story, there are Time Attack races, Hardcore races (more challenging versions of the story races) and multiplayer match-ups, both online and in split-screen mode. Players can also customize their experience with unlockable vehicle skins and vehicle-specific customization parts (cosmetic only), as well as drivers. In addition, MotorStorm: Apocalypse lets you assign attribute-enhancing perks across three categories (Handling, Boost and Combat); only a couple are unlocked at first, but more open up as you progress. Anyone familiar with Perks in Call of Duty knows what to expect here; effects can be anything from taking less time to recover after a crash to using less boost when performing ramming sideswipes.
Unfortunately, ongoing issues with the PlayStation Network prevented us from reviewing MotorStorm: Apocalypse thoroughly. Consider this an advance look at the game; this review will be updated with multiplayer impressions and a proper score once PSN is back online and we are able to test out the online play.
Until that time, it isn’t really fair to give MotorStorm: Apocalypse a grade, as a large portion of it is unplayable through no fault of the game. Once the PSN is up and running and we have had time to run the multiplayer through its paces, we will update the review with our official score.
UPDATE! With PSN back online, we’ve finally been able to take MotorStorm: Apocalypse for a spin against other living players. The racing experience is fundamentally the same, though skill levels obviously vary quite a bit more than they do against A.I. opponents. You can participate in either standard races or elimination matches, the latter of which is basically a demolition derby set on a “proper” — that term is used loosely in the case of the game’s shredded urban environments — race track. The above-mentioned perks don’t change the gameplay dramatically, but they offer some tantalizing dangling carrots that effectively keep you coming back for more. In short, Apocalypse shines in multiplayer. If there’s any downside, it’s that the online community hasn’t fully returned since last month’s PSN outage, so there’s not a ton of action happening online right now.
Score: 8 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 on a copy provided by Sony Computer Entertainment)