Originally shown as one of the demo/teaser titles alongside Killzone 2 when the PS3 was originally announced, Motorstorm naturally draws a little more attention as a PS3 exclusive franchise. Now three games in as a Sony exclusive, does Motorstorm approach the targets set by the 2005 reveal videos as Killzone has? Back with a new disaster-torn city environment and a ton of potential, unfortunately Motorstorm Apocalypse does not.
Let me be clear. I love racing games and I want to love this game. I think the premise of the Motorstorm games is excellent, especially the new city locale ravaged by disaster. The possibilities for track designs and the idea of disastrous events changing the track layout in real time, shamelessly borrowed from Split Second, are fantastic. Yet, it all doesn’t come together as I’d hope and as it could have. The potential is there and this game could have been so much more but unfortunately it falls flat on its face.
Motorstorm games are about a renegade, “extreme” racing festival that travels to exotic and dangerous locales. This time, Apocalypse is set in a San Francisco-like city environment in the process of being destroyed by natural disaster. While the city is evacuated for the most part, certain factions of folk are still present and even impose a threat to you as a racer. This “city falling apart” environment oozes potential but also may be the biggest issue with this game. As you race the various tracks buildings will fall, things will blow up, and chaos generally occurs around every corner. That’s the great part. You don’t control these events as you do in a game like Split Second, but they’re still impressive as hell to look at. The problem is that these tracks are often extremely tight and littered with objects. While this makes the environment believable, it is a complete crap shoot as to what will crash your vehicle and what won’t, but more on that in a bit.
Further to the standard Quick Race options, the core of the game is a decent sized single player campaign. There are three difficulties (easy, medium and veteran), two of which are available at the start. While you can start on medium difficulty, I recommend you start with Easy to get the benefit of the whole story. It’s nothing ground breaking and it really isn’t that hard or long. If you finish first in each event you unlock a hardcore version of that race. This gives a little incentive for completionists out there who love to finish everything. Also there are two or three “cards” hidden in each race on the various tracks and their shortcuts. You kind of have to figure this out yourself since there’s almost no mention of them or what they do in the manual, or the game, when you start to play. Silly.
As I alluded to earlier, there are far too many random wrecks that cause this game from being truly enjoyable. You will be pulling your hair out with unexplained crashes as there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to what causes you to wreck and what you can ram. And don’t think about winning if you wreck during a series of gap jumps (say between buildings, which happens a lot). You get re-spawned right in front of the gap with no room to accelerate, or even boost, to get to a high enough speed to clear it. Wreck, wreck, wreck, and by the time you’re through with the repetitious wrecking you are in last place.
Speaking of AI, I never really felt like I was racing for first place. Rather I felt like the field comes back to you over the course of a race regardless of your performance. So unless you completely poop the bed you will be able to compete for whatever spot you need to get to qualify to continue. Considering all the cheap crashes, getting first in the races seems more to do with luck than skill.
My frustrations with this game were further exasperated with its loose controls. I found it overly difficult to keep my vehicle pointed in the line I wanted to take. I realize that Motorstorm is off road racing, and you should be bumping and bouncing around, but there’s a line between it being fun or it being frustrating, and for me it was decidedly on the frustrating side. While racing, you can cool down your boost meter faster by letting off the gas and boost while in the air after a jump. I highly suggest you master this technique because if you land off line while on the throttle you’re going to pay for it.
Some new vehicle types are added to the mix, but for the most part vehicles don’t have a lot of character. Bigger, heavier vehicles do better off road as they push others around more often, but they are slower. Smaller vehicles, like bikes, sacrifice off-road handling and stability for speed. We’ve seen this all before. The mention of speed brings me to another thing I didn’t like about this game: There is no indication of speed whatsoever (ie. a speedometer) and it is a huge oversight in my opinion.
We all know the current issues with the PSN, so I am unable to provide any thoughts about the online play. Apocalypse does support up to 16 players online and supports matchmaking (nice). It appears to offer a few interesting features such as the ability to bet some in-game currency and add different “perks” that can affect boost, handling or combat during races. Hopefully once PSN is up and running again we can provide some more thoughts in this area.
Aside from my criticisms of the gameplay, Motorstorm Apocalypse looks pretty good and the environments steal the show. The city looks great and it is populated with enough junk to make it look like a real disaster hit the areas that you are racing through. There are some really great visual moments here. Of particular note are two sequences. The first is a really great sense of scale when you are air dropped on to the top of a sky scraper that’s beginning to topple at the start of a race. You get a tremendous sense of height and scale as you race off the roof top to the next one as the horizon tilts downward and you see the ground way below. There’s another notable sequence at the end of the easy portion of the campaign as you cross a suspension bridge during an earthquake. Everything feels incredibly organic and alive as you tear across the bridge that’s fluidly swaying and buckling from side to side. This stuff looks amazing.
Everything also moves along well enough. Its not 60fps, like the more hardcore racers out there today, but its a solid 30fps. The vehicle models are no help though, nor are the crashes, which don’t even approach a Burnout level of destruction. Rag doll physics are okay, but if you’re going to force me to watch the crash in slow motion part of the novelty of it all is seeing the destruction. Evolution and Sony play it safe for the Teen rating here I think with no real carnage and/or blood. I should also note that I am not a big fan of the stylized, post-apocalyptic art style as it feels to me like a bad combination of Road Warrior meets Valley Girl.
Apocalypse could also really use some sort of brightness or gamma correction option in the menus. Sadly there isn’t anything to speak of in this regard. Whether it be at night or in a rain storm, many of the race levels are set in pretty dark and gloomy environments. While there are occasional arrows or flares to indicate the direction you’re supposed to race, it can be extremely hard to know which way to go, especially the first few times playing any one given track. This was incredibly frustrating for me. Yes, I know I can adjust the brightness on the TV, but is it really too much to ask for a menu option like most other games out there?
When I consider the aural part of the game’s presentation a few things come to mind, both good and bad. The good is definitely the soundtrack and the environmental sound effects. Normally I’m not a big music guy, but the music during races is a catchy blend of techno and rock beats that I enjoyed. It’s a little loud in the overall mix at first, but thankfully you have the option to turn it down. The various sound effects around the city, basically when stuff blows up or falls down, are great and meant to be played with a great surround sound system. Things sounded great on my Turtle Beach PX5’s (shameless plug I know).
With the good comes the bad though. The voice acting in this one is laughable. It’s not a big part of the game (cutscenes between races) and doesn’t impact the overall gameplay, but what is there is stereotyped to the N’th degree. If they’re going for a cheese factor here they’ve missed it. Furthermore, the engine sounds are all over the place in this game. Every vehicle seems to have a million gears on it and the engines almost seem to be a looping sample of a vehicle accelerating. In a game like this, I want to here the engine working, not just going through the cycle that is there. Boo.
Normally I wouldn’t spend this much time on a game that scores towards the lower end of our scale, but I really think this one could have been amazing and expect more from such a high profile exclusive. Motorstorm Apocalypse simply just doesn’t measure up to the gold standard of Sony exclusives and it comes nowhere near the potential of what was shown back in 2005. I said it earlier in this review, and I will repeat it again, I really wanted to love this game. It has all the elements and a ton of potential, but it just falls way short in its execution. A real shame because this one could have been really, really good. Let’s hope for better in the next game.