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MotorStorm swaps deserts and volcanic hotbeds for an urban cataclysm...
The latest MotorStorm offering from developer Evolution Studios shifts the focus away from epic desert and plush tropics of the first two PS3 titles and into the city. A post-apocalyptic city, to be precise. Actually, make that apocalyptic, because the nightmare is still going on. A series of natural disasters (and some good old man-made anarchy) are in the process of obliterating the city, although that is not going to stop the famous MotorStorm Festival from taking place. This time around, the game's single-player centrepiece offers a more story-driven experience with the game divided into three sections - Rookie, Pro and Expert, - each with its own central character and storyline.
The brief comic book-esque cutscenes between each race aren't exactly jam-packed with interesting characters or plot, but Evolution has done a pretty good job of establishing a bit of context. It all feeds into the gameplay and makes Apocalypse feel like more than just a series of unconnected races. For instance, not all your races in Festival are about beating competitors and some exist as part of the story arc, like when you're forced to flee the city and make it back to the safety of the aircraft carrier (the MotorStormers' HQ) before you and your fellow competitors are swallowed up by the apocalypse. When you're racing through a city that's falling apart around you, it's nice to know why.
And the city is undeniably falling apart - earthquakes, devastating weather conditions and well-armed nutters cause the tracks in Apocalypse to alter in real-time meaning you'll need your wits about you. Tornados rage, buildings collapse around you, routes change and the remaining residents of the city (the Mercs and the Crazies) battle it out around you as you race. Sure, it all sounds a little Split/Second but you have to pay Evolution its dues, because it knows how to pull off a big scripted event with bombast and a fair degree of style. Whether you're avoiding a falling tower block or clinging to a contorting suspension bridge, the big scripted events feel like, well, big scripted events. And to be fair, it adds a welcome new level of depth to the satisfyingly simplistic gameplay at the heart of the MotorStorm franchise.
Festival mode isn't about shaving a millisecond off your lap times or customising the hell out of your ride; your vehicle is chosen for you, you're plonked on the track and you race. It's that simple. As always there's a nostalgically old-skool feel to the handling model - it's all about grip and avoiding understeer rather than sliding sideways around corners. Indeed, you'll probably find yourself cursing the scandalous level of understeer on some vehicles, at least until you realise that, more often than not, you can boost your way out of trouble.
Apocalypse, like its predecessors is essentially a boost management game. You'll need to time your boosts wisely to get ahead and avoid overheating your engine. Overheat and your handling becomes hideously erratic for a second or two before you explode. Remember, you should always be not exploding. Thankfully, engine cooling can be achieved in a variety of ways. The simplest method is to simply ease off the boost but, as it's the slowest way to cool down, you may find yourself losing places to your competitors. Water works much more quickly but, thanks to some fiendish placement by the developer, you might have to stray a little from the racing line to hit it. A new feature in Apocalypse is jump-cooling which allows you to cool your engine by releasing the accelerator and boost buttons mid-jump. It sounds simple, and I guess it is, but it's also bizarrely engaging as you strive to maximise the efficiency of your boosting, stringing together jumps and trying to make sure you hit maximum boost just as you leave a ramp.
The simplicity at the heart of the game is enhanced by these little gameplay tweaks and, when you factor in the multiple routes and collectibles on offer in each race, you'll find a smart, and surprisingly deep, single-player experience in Apocalypse. And, it's worth noting that the story-driven focus of Festival mode means you get to see events play out from various perspectives as you revisit tracks that have often altered dramatically since the first time you raced them. Evolution is clearly aware that a lack of variety in racing games can often be their downfall.
That's not to say, however, that there aren't a few niggles in Apocalypse that can occasionally sour the experience. The handling obviously varies with the vehicles you're driving, but some feel frustratingly sluggish, while others (and I'm thinking Superbike here) just don't feel convincing, even bearing in mind the arcade focus. Sure, a bigger vehicle means you can stomp all over smaller ones using the new attack left and right commands (square and circle), but this highlights another problem. The attacks basically lurch your vehicle to the left or right in the hope of smashing your competitors to bits but far too often they seem ineffective and serve only to drag you away from the racing line just long enough for you to plough headfirst into a wall. Which, at least initially, will happen a lot, although you have a 'reset to track' function available which is a mixed blessing. Annoyingly, it's pretty unreliable too and it can sometimes take what seems like an age before you are back on track.
Nevertheless, these are all pretty minor issues and it's fair to say that in Apocalypse, the good certainly outweighs the bad. Festival mode makes for a frenetic and engaging single-player experience and catastrophe fans will be glad to know the big, scripted events can also be turned on in the freeplay (and pun-tastic) Wreckreaction mode. This also encompasses multiplayer which we were sadly unable to test, but with 4 player split-screen available both on and offline, and a reward/perks/customisation system in place, as long as the netcode holds up it has every chance of being as good as the single-player game.
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