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.
It's hardly sophisticated storytelling, but from the prologue (Medal of Honor beach landing) to the epilogue (fleeing the final catastrophe on a bucking and twisting suspension bridge, Halo-style) it certainly takes you on a journey. Writing about F1 2010 last year, I remarked that "racing games are universally terrible at context"; chalk Apocalypse up as another step forward for the genre in this area.
Each race is a unique event and track, with your vehicle decided for you and a condition for moving on to the next. That's it. There are a few Eliminator and Chase variants thrown in but for the most part, it's straight racing on circuits. Many of these change dynamically through the race as quakes, explosions and collapsing buildings close and open the MotorStorm series' trademark multiple routes while serving up gob-smacking spectacle and physics chaos that eclipse even Split/Second's explosive gambits.
It's so eventful and free of repetition that the strict linearity of the Festival isn't at all unwelcome (except when you hit one of the rare but enraging difficulty spikes). It also helps that the no less than 13 vehicle classes – bikes, cars, buggies and trucks of every stripe – have all been created equal. Their strengths and weaknesses are finely balanced and they're all astonishingly quick from the off, with no grinding through slow models to get to the good hardware.
The handling is grippy, bouncy and a little unsophisticated – but MotorStorm never was about precise cornering or artful drifting. Its concerns are route and surface choice, physical jostling (you can barge to the sides), jumping and boost management. Boosting heats your engine to the point of explosion (as does driving through fire), but water butts and pools and even rain can cool it quicker.
Apocalypse ties boosting and jumping together with a new mechanic whereby you can cool your engine quickly by lifting off the throttle while catching air. This small but utterly inspired tweak turns the game into an intoxicating spiritual successor to Excitebike (or, um, Tiny Wings) as you seek to maximise speed by boosting from one ramp to the next in a series of graceful, weightless, rhythmic leaps, cornering in thee dimensions.
Given Apocalypse's reliance on show-stopping shock and awe, its relatively untechnical track design and handling, and the often capricious, crash-prone races, it would be easy to assume that Evolution's latest was playing in the shallow end. But the proof of any racing game's worth is in time trial, and Apocalypse is completely engrossing in this mode. Optimising a route for each vehicle class on each track is a game in itself, involving puzzle-solving as well as skill.
The superb Time Trial also shows how hard Evolution has worked on the online, open-ended half of its game, known as Weckreation. You can download up to three ghosts and race against no less than six; so you could, for example, test yourself against the world best time for that track, the best in your vehicle class, a friend, and your own times in your current class and two others.
It's typical of the game's thorough and well-implemented feature set. Netcode is strong, matchmaking swift, leaderboard integration is great across the game and the interface is speedy and sensibly organised. Four-player split-screen is supported, both offline in Quick Race and in the 16-player online races. You can unlock a 'Hardcore' version of all the Festival races here, and turn dynamic events on or off for certain tracks.
In online multiplayer, you earn 'chips' – XP, in other words – and medals for various actions and race results. These rank you up and unlock perks for online racing, while vehicle-specific medals unlock new models and customisations for your rides. You can also earn chips by betting on the results of a race – a nice way to bump up your income if you're struggling to compete.
Whilst having a minimal impact on performance and balancing, the perks and customisation are fun to tinker with and a decent motivator for investing time in online play. It's a shame that you can't earn chips and rank up in offline racing at all – not even Quick Race – as this would have been a decent extension of the game's lifespan for the solo racer.
More on MotorStorm: Apocalypse
Interview: Architect of the Apocalypse
MotorStorm Apocalypse designer Simon Barlow on balancing gameplay with blockbuster bombast.
Shooting the breeze about burning rubber.
Hands On: MotorStorm: Apocalypse
Highway to hell.
Presumably this decision has been made for balancing reasons, but it's still a disappointment. An even bigger disappointment is that the mode creator promised at the game's unveiling, which was to allow players to write their own race rules and scoring systems, has not made the cut. This was a promising alternative form of user-created content in racing games – probably closer to what players really want than the usual track editor – so we hope it can be patched in at some point.
On the other hand, MotorStorm: Apocalypse is a standard-setter for Sony's big push into stereoscopic 3D. I've not tested it, but Eurogamer TV editor Johnny Minkley reports that "the 3D effect is the most striking, immersive and downright spectacular of any PS3 game I've played. Knocks the spots off GT5, not least through the sheer intensity of the races, with a multitude of objects littering the track that can fly out at you... I've also experienced little issue with ghosting (compared to, say, Killzone 3), even with 3D whacked up to 100 per cent."
It works because it's not subtle. Not much about Apocalypse is, from the crushing orchestral dubstep soundtrack, through the astounding visual assault of bounding cars, flying masonry, landslides, dust clouds, twisters and moody, filtered light, to its sheer breakneck speed. But beneath all this clamour you can detect the stable, confident hum of a decent racing series finding its feet – in its improved boost mechanic, substantial feature set and streamlined campaign.
Britain's fight to save the arcade racer continues, undaunted. We can only wish Evolution better luck than its brothers in arms.
8 / 10