If there's music playing at the end of the world, it will probably be dubstep, the brutally slow, lurching concoction of industrial beats and weapons-grade bass distortion currently dominating the dancefloors of London and the teenage bedrooms of Antwerp. If there's music playing at crusty extreme sports festivals - like the festival of outlaw off-road racing that's the fantasy of the MotorStorm games - around the world right now, it's probably dubstep too.
So it's entirely fitting that it's dubstep assaulting our ears (and bowels) in the bowels of this spartan London nightclub while we nibble pastries and sip coffee at a completely incongruous hour of the morning. Fitting because we're here to see the new PS3 game that takes the MotorStorm festival to the end of the world.
In MotorStorm: Apocalypse, the rallying hedonists eschew the desert, volcanic and Arctic wildernesses of Sony's past three MotorStorm games for a nameless, abandoned city on the West Coast of the USA. (Screens leaked earlier this week suggest it was once identified as San Francisco.) The city's abandoned because there has been a terrible earthquake. In fact, there are terrible earthquakes still going on. It's not post-apocalyptic; it's just apocalyptic, according to Evolution Studios game director Matt Southern, who is quite Northern.
So, as you race through the deserted streets, the ground shifts beneath your wheels, buildings topple around you, bridges twist and lurch, routes are closed and opened dynamically by the chaos, chunks of masonry crash into the tarmac, explosions bloom in the motion blur. Let's point out that elephant straight away - at first glance, MotorStorm: Apocalypse looks exactly like Disney's recent action racer Split/Second, which had a different conceit, but a near-identical visual impact. And in terms of visual impact at least, Black Rock's slick turn will be hard to follow.
But then the dust clears to reveal a rather different game. MotorStorm: Apocalypse's main inspiration is actually Modern Warfare. Front-loaded with a focused, bombastic, seven- or eight-hour story mode, Apocalypse then segues into an open-ended afterlife of levelling, perks and customisation in an expanded single- and multiplayer Wreckreation suite. It even makes a further excursion into Sony's play-create-share manifesto with a game mode creator, allowing the community to write and share its own race rules.
It's an interesting application of thinking from other genres - shooters in particular - to racing: deliver self-contained bang for buck that can be devoured in almost a single sitting, then entrap your community with extra features and moreish grind. The latter's already evident in the likes of Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport, but new to this more immediate end of the racing spectrum. The former, however, might be the more controversial innovation.
Apocalypse begins with a playable prologue as the MotorStorm festival's custom aircraft carrier arrives at the devastated city; you'll drive off a landing craft and straight up the beach. You then play through three characters' perspectives on the events of the 48-hour festival, each representing a difficulty level: the Rookie, the Survivor and the Veteran. Every race will be an unrepeatable one-off event - a chapter in this racing tale - and in this single-player mode all the earthquake damage will be persistent. If a building falls down, it stays down. By the end of the festival the city will be in total ruins, and you'll drive out the way you drove in, in a playable epilogue, as the last of it comes crashing down around you.
"In terms of influences for the game, I've actually tried to pretty much ignore contemporary racers and look to classics like OutRun and the first Burnout games, and also movies like 2012. For example, the inspiration for the three difficulty levels came from StarFox," says Southern.
Playing as the Rookie, a stowaway MotorStorm fanboy, will be more "flattering" to the player than previous games in the series have been, he says, while the Veteran will offer the series' most technical races to date against a small clique of elite competitors. But the lawless racers aren't the only presence in the city as it falls apart.
There are two other factions present: a private military corp hired to defend the wealthiest parts of the city but now mad with power, and an anarchistic enclave of "crazies" clinging on to life in a disaster zone, equally antipathetic to the soldiers and racers. The military will shoot at you as you race, while crazies scatter across the track for you to mow down like ragdolls, lob molotovs and hijack vehicles.
To begin with this is all just part of the spectacle as they focus on the AI drivers, but soon they'll be impeding your own progress. "They also focus on each other and they create dynamic route changes, damage and destruction," says Southern. "If you had an earthquake on every single track it would be pretty cool, but it would get kind of tired. They're going to have a major role to play in terms of this idea that every single race is different."
The earthquakes will have a bigger role still, though, as they carve a world of urban order up into something more suitable for the wild off-road exuberance of MotorStorm. You'll race across rooftops, leaping from skyscraper to skyscraper, career down the side of collapsed buildings, blast through offices and homes, dive into the subways and sewers and across parks and the beach. There'll be night races too.
Still, the introduction of concrete and tarmac into MotorStorm's broad vocabulary of racing surfaces does invite new vehicle classes, and we get four: supercars, sports compacts, muscle cars and superbikes. "It's the fastest MotorStorm we've ever made, that's for sure, but they don't offer a particular advantage over the other classes as long as you race in the right way," says Southern.
Alongside the existing buggies, big rigs, mud pluggers and so on, that's now a bewildering range of hardware for Evolution to balance. The urban milieu and dynamic events also present a major challenge for another series trademark - wide, sprawling, open course design with multiple routes suited to different vehicles.
This is the most notable casualty in the short demo race we get a chance to play. At the wheel of a muscle car, I dodge crazies lunging across the track in a fuel truck, race under tower blocks as they list together, and am plunged into the subway when the road simply crumbles away under me. Triangle button prompts zoom the camera in on slow-mo stunts and catastrophes mid-race. It's thunderously effective, very direct, requires quick reactions to avoid wrecking out but hardly any technical cornering at all.
It's also very, very scripted. Every playthrough, the same events happen at the same moments, the track falling apart or coming together right under my wheels while my opponents herd around; it's not really possible to get ahead of or behind the mayhem, and there are very few route diversions, none of them meaningful. Southern stresses that, while it's representative of everything new in Apocalypse, it's not representative of the whole game.
"There will be plenty of tracks that are circuit-based that go way beyond just urban environments, and that have that classic multiple vehicles, each of which has a fighting chance because there are multiple routes," he says. But he admits that multiple routes are now just as likely to be about "spectacle and fun" as tactical choice. "It's very rare that you'll miss the cool stuff," he says.
"I'm trying to strike a balance between something that's controllable so it doesn't become unfair, and something that still has a very depth-y emergent layer to it... like the AI. So you might have a skyscraper that topples, and when you race it again it might topple in a similar way, but its contents are totally emergent, totally physics-based."
The other half of MotorStorm's reinvention is less contentious. Freed from the confines of continuity, Wreckreation allows open-ended, freeform racing that "is multiplayer at its core but it can be played offline if you want," according to assistant game director and Wreckreation mastermind Simon Barlow. "What we're trying to do with Wreckreation is bridge the gap between the online and offline play." It will support four-player split-screen and 16 players online - and both at the same time, with four players on one console able to take on 12 more over the net.
You'll get a slight taste of Apocalypse's advancement system during the Festival story mode, but Wreckreation lays it open for you, awarding experience points for your performance, style and aggression during racing. These feed into your ranking, which feeds into unlocks: items that allow you to customise the appearance of your vehicles, and perks.
Seen by the Evolution team as a natural fit for arcade racing (Bizarre would agree, having employed something similar in Blur), perks come in combat, handling or boost flavours. A perk might increase your armour or downforce, or give you a reserve boost tank. Each vehicle class might have ten of each flavour, but you'll only ever have three slots. "What I'm trying to avoid with a lot of this system is a completely linear progression where the guys that put the time in always get the rewards and are always going to be better. We don't want that," says Barlow.
Bearing that in mind, while some perks will be awarded for straight experience gain, others will come with short- and medium-term goals called accolades and medals (wreck five or 100 opponents, say). This will ensure that players always have something concrete to aim for beyond experience grind, that's relevant to their driving style or desired setup.
Nevertheless, less experienced or time-rich players are inevitably going to feel left behind - but Evolution has an answer for this too: gambling. In every game lobby, players will be seeded according to recent performance and you can then wager on beating one of them in the race. A top seed might be worth 1000 XP, a bottom one 50 XP, and after the race you can choose to either cash in your winnings or bet them again, in which case a multiplier applies.
"We're hoping the match-making's going to sort out the real gulf between the players, but say they're having an off night, it still gives them another way to earn experience," says Barlow. "But also it's just another way of sticking one over on your mates, which let's be honest, is really fun."
It's a neat trick to be sure, but in Wreckreation, Evolution has saved the best for last. The mode creator will allow players to write their own race rules, controlling dynamic events, conditions and scoring systems. Made in response to the way the MotorStorm community has created its own modes by consensus on the forums, the mode creator attempts to formalise this improvised creativity, using icon-based "if... then..." sentence constructions to form the building blocks of gameplay.
Barlow's reluctant to define what will be possible with it since that's still being worked out, but he does offer an example. "Let's say an infinite lap on a loop circuit, and say throw a bunch of player-controlled big rigs in and one player on a bike... and that player has to lap as many big rigs as it possibly can. We give the bike all the boost perks, make it the fastest vehicle - you configure all this in the game editor - and the bike's got to keep lapping all these big rigs. We can set up a rule to say if the player passes a big rig, give him a point, and if he gets wrecked out it's game over, give him one life."
Such a mode can then be uploaded, shared and rated on the game's servers. Designs set to open play will be entered in the full matchmaking system. But Evolution doesn't intend them to be static, with any player able to download, tweak and re-upload any mode they like. "We're hoping the community are just going to keep throwing these modes back and forth and tuning them," says Barlow. That includes the official modes that Evolution will write with the system to prove the pudding - it already has Eliminator and Hot Lap set up.
Evolution is hoping to use features like the mode creator to grow and cement the MotorStorm community, which, according to Southern, has been small but very vocal and committed to date. "It's the future really, not just for videogames but for an awful lot of popular entertainment," he says. "This idea that you go as mainstream as possible is a misnomer. Find a sizeable, loyal audience and over-deliver to them as much as possible."
If that sounds modest, it shouldn't. "Over-deliver" is a phrase Southern uses all the time, especially about the shooters and action-adventures that he feels have dominated this generation while racing games have been left stuck in a rut. As far as reversing this trend is concerned, Southern's hopes for MotorStorm: Apocalypse are sky-high.
"We absolutely believe that we're going to be the most ambitious [racing] game of this generation," he says. Having its thunder so rudely stolen has inevitably masked that ambition, and after playing this flashy but constrained demo, we're still anxious to find out where MotorStorm's purposeful new direction meets its free-roaming past. But the more you talk to the men making it, the sharper that ambition comes in to view, in the most unexpected places. It may look familiar, but MotorStorm: Apocalypse will be a racing game unlike any other: that much is certain.
MotorStorm: Apocalypse will be released exclusively for PS3 in 2011. "Probably first quarter," according to game director Matt Southern.