Also available on: N/A
Developer: Evolution Studios
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
The racing genre is hardly a niche category, yet there have always been gamers who avoid it like a parking fine. If you belong to this demographic, then MotorStorm Apocalypse might just be the game to convert you. With an emphasis on blistering off-road action and striking environments, Evolution Studios' latest joyride proves there's more to driving games than how many cylinders your engine packs. The devastated courses are certainly a spectacle, though overcoming the handling issues that have plagued the series since day one was always going to be the developers' biggest challenge here.
The MotorStorm series has long favoured adrenaline over depth and realism, and its fourth instalment is no exception. Having already tackled every variety of harsh terrain the planet has to offer, the doomsday scenario feels like a natural step for the franchise, and fits it like a glove. The game takes place in a futuristic version of California's Bay Area, which is in the midst of a natural disaster of biblical proportions. Craving the kind of thrills that can only be derived from speeding around smouldering ruins, a group of racers bring their their annual 'MotorStorm Festival' to the region to pit their driving skills against nature's wrath.
Unlike its predecessors, Apocalypse has an overarching story that plays out between races. It centres around three contestants - The Rookie, The Pro and The Veteran, adding narrative, context and personality to the package. The plot itself is largely pointless, bogged down by obligatory love interest side stories and needless exposition, but the motion comic format in which the cutscenes are rendered is a nice aesthetic touch. It's clear that the developers have made an effort to immerse the player in the game's world, yet such endeavours are likely to fall flat since its target audience will be more concerned with matters on the race track.
Between Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit and Gran Turismo 5, fans of simulation racers are well catered for. However, those with a craving for gritty cinematics and arcade action aren't quite as spoilt for choice. Bizarre's Blur and Black Rock's Split/Second Velocity were both laudable efforts to appease the latter crowd, but Apocalypse is a bold attempt to provide them with the definitive arcade experience. Evolution has really taken things to the extreme. Towering structures crumbled around you, raging infernos spring up, earth tremors reshape the track, and warring gangs and militia attempt to impede your progress. There really is no other driving game on the market like this. Narrowly avoiding a collapsing building or leaping across a newly-formed chasm is certainly exhilarating, and the death-defying nature of such feats compliments the blistering action on offer.
Anything goes in the 'MotorStorm Festival'. There's as much benefit to ramming competitors into walls as there is to skilful steering. Core mechanics are the same as most other arcade racers out there. The majority of stages are simple racing affairs, though there are some elimination and chase missions sandwiched in between. The sense of speed and adrenaline leaves the need for technical prowess behind in the dust. Granted, there are multiple routes on offer on each track, but success is more down to mastering the booster function and avoiding the myriad obstacles in your path. The boost can be activated at will, though there is a danger of overheating if the gauge reaches its peak. With no vehicle upgrades to speak of, sparing use of this mechanic is the extent of the strategic prowess required.
You'll find yourself behind the wheel of a variety of vehicles throughout the story campaign, from motorbikes and cars to buggies and trucks. With 13 classes in total, there's no shortage of variation, but the player has no choice over which vehicles are used for each track. Handling varies greatly from one method of transportation to another. Several of the cars move over the uneven landscapes relatively smoothly, but taking sharp corners in buggies can be frustrating and the bikes feel cumbersome at the best of times. One of the biggest issues with the game is that the level of fun varies depending on what you are controlling. You'll holler with delight whenever a car stage crops up, only to roll your eyes when a buggy mission follows.
Considering this is a hard-hitting racer where white-knuckle tactics are encouraged, the developers could have made the vehicles a little more robust. Even experienced drivers will crash multiple times on each course thanks to the volume of debris littering the track. This wouldn't be so much of a problem if the vehicles (even some of the trucks) didn't behave like they were made from tin foil. Physics can be equally inconsistent. Once minute you'll plough through the burnt out shell of a car unscathed, then next you'll come a cropper riding over a speed bump. Although the urban ruins are a sight to behold, they don't make the most functional of courses. The roads are usually cluttered with obstacles or obscured by smoke or dust plumes. With so much happening on screen, it's difficult to see what's coming up ahead, and before you know it you've hit a wall head on and lost precious seconds. Losing the lead in this manner will leave you feeling cheated and craving something a little more sophisticated.
Multiplayer mode is somewhat more in-depth. Supporting 16 player contests online, Apocalypse is an engaging experience when played with friends. A rank system enables you to rack up points that can be exchanged for specific upgrades tailored to your own style of play. There's a wealth of other unlockable bonuses that ties in nicely with the game's 'My MotorStorm' social hub, enabling you to share photographs and other content with the community.
There's no denying that MotorStorm Apocalypse is a visual feast with some of the most imaginative level design in the history of the racing games. Unfortunately, these eye-popping stages don't always make the most functional race tracks, despite their adrenaline-pumping nature. Was it not for ropey handling and frustrating physics, this one might well have been a classic. That's not to say it won't strike a chord with sections of the PS3 demographic. Fans of off road action and the doomsday scenario will get more than a few kicks out of it. Others will come away hoping that Evolution strikes more of a balance between gameplay and aesthetics with the next entry in the series.
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