Version tested: PlayStation 3
Early last year, three talented British studios were preaching the resurrection of the mass-market arcade racing game. Racers were stuck in a hardcore rut, they argued. Players demand cinematic action, spectacle and storytelling, and fierce, ruthless competition, they said. We can be up there with first-person shooters if we just dream big enough, they claimed.
Then two of them released their games – Bizarre's Blur and Black Rock's Split/Second – and although they were both excellent, they flopped, sales dwarfed by games in the simulation 'niche' they were trying to escape. Blur's failure eventually led to Bizarre's demise a few weeks ago, a respected developer brought to its knees in two and a half short years.
You have to wonder if gamers are as desperate for the brash Hollywood racing experience as these studios thought. With Criterion staying out of the rhetoric and weathering the lean times in Need for Speed's impregnable brand bunker, it's just Evolution Studios – the Sony-owned Cheshire outfit located not too far away from Bizarre's now-empty premises – left standing in the pulpit, looking rather exposed.
Evolution has some advantages, mind. It's got platform-holder clout and a modest but loyal following for the MotorStorm name, established across two previous games. And in MotorStorm: Apocalypse, it has a game which may not be quite as refined as Blur or Split/Second, but is just as enjoyable, twice as loud, and much more serious about borrowing from contemporary action gaming than its rivals ever were.
This is most evident in the Festival campaign mode. Evolution has completely ripped out the arbitrary and complex unlock structures that are so typical of single-player racing, along with all the trendy advancement and customisation and, indeed, any semblance of player choice (though there is plenty of room for all this in multiplayer). Instead, it has set its sights on channelling the scripted bombast of the modern shooter.
In Apocalypse, the nomadic MotorStorm festival – a rag-tag bunch of crusty, lawless off-road racers who seem to have the funding of a middle-ranking African dictatorship (or Bernie Ecclestone) – leaves the desert and volcanic wilderness of the previous games for an urban crisis. A nameless, evacuated American coastal city that is very obviously San Francisco is in the process of being demolished by violent earthquakes, so the MotorStormers arrive on their private aircraft carrier to race around it while the world crumbles around them.
You play through this two-day festival three times, from the perspectives of a Rookie, a Pro and a Veteran. There's a story of sorts written around these three characters, presented in rough but snappy 'motion comic' cut-scenes between races: it's inconsequential, but doesn't take itself seriously or waste much of your time.
The great benefit of Evolution's approach is the sharp sense of time and place lent to each race as the light and weather change (there's a terrifying storm in the grey early morning of the second day), the quakes worsen, the city collapses and war breaks out between the mercenary and lunatic gangs also roaming the disaster zone. This is cleverly strengthened by the triple perspectives on the festival, giving you the chance to see the same locations at different stages of ruin as well as try new track configurations.