Version tested: PSP
MotorStorm: Arctic Edge is not a pretty game - and not just because, like its big console cousins, it's concerned with rough-and-tumble racing through perilous terrain in angry, roaring machines.
No, MotorStorm's PSP debut simply isn't very good looking. Vehicles are boxy, their deformation patterns strangely triangular, details a tad smudgy. This is partly due to the game being developed simultaneously for the PS2, but mostly it's because developer Bigbig - a subsidiary of MotorStorm creator Evolution - has made a very wise design decision.
Wipeout's handheld outings could get away with both glossy good looks and ferocious gameplay because their slick, focused racing takes place on narrow, linear tracks. MotorStorm's blend of multi-vehicle mayhem, played out across sprawling open-air courses, criss-crossed by dozens of different routes all with their own surface dynamics, is a beast of a different stripe. That's a lot of dynamic variables to juggle on diminished processing power. Something had to give.
It takes balls to abandon shiny high poly-count visuals in this shamelessly surface-led generation, and Bigbig deserves a pat on the back for not short-changing fans for the sake of an easy sell. The pay-off is a game absolutely stuffed with content, unmistakably MotorStorm in every aspect, albeit understandably compromised by its new home.
One hundred events await you in the Festival career mode, drawn from twelve courses set in the Alaskan wasteland. It's a curiously anonymous selection though, no doubt impacted by the limited graphical assets available. Only Log Jam's slushy lumber yard and Vertigo's self-explanatory, high-altitude daredevilry make much of an impression to begin with. Other tracks do start to reveal their unique charms after repeated play - witness Snowgod Canyon's leap through a demonic scrap metal maw - but too many of the others never shake off the patchwork feeling that you're seeing a lot of interchangeable banked turns, sludgy valleys and winding tunnels.
Eight vehicle classes are available to battle it out with, each offering three models, with snow ploughs and snowmobiles replacing racing trucks and mudpluggers for a more appropriately frosty line-up. All have a distinctive feel, even if the nuances that were possible on the PS3 don't materialise here. The smaller, more agile vehicles perform best on the PSP's stubby stick, while the lumbering Big Rigs are held back by the hand-to-eye disconnect between their mass and momentum and the tiny amount of travel available on the controller. It can feel like you're pushing a concrete slab down a mountain and trying to guide it with a toothpick. Rally cars, meanwhile, have the opposite problem – their natural tendency to oversteer makes subtle course adjustments elusive at first.
These initial grumbles are easily overcome however, and the game compensates - even overcompensates - with some forgiving AI opponents. The series has never been known for its intelligent racers, preferring the buzz of the herd to keep you on your toes, but while they'll take the appropriate path for their vehicle type, they rarely follow the best racing line around these routes. It's far too easy to slip past them on the numerous wide corners and, apart from the occasional tussle on the starting grid, they'll blithely let you past rather than move aggressively to block you. Sometimes it feels like the physics has rolled a dice against you – a criticism that lingered over the first two games – and so you're usually at more risk from the environment than the other racers.
I'd describe my expertise on the PS3 games as average at best, yet I was able to cruise through to Tier 4 of Arctic Edge in one unbeaten run, earning a gold medal in every event along the way. Once you're in first place, it's not hard to build up a sizeable lead and then never see another vehicle for the rest of the race. Fans of the originals will be pleased at this handheld version's fidelity to the source, but they'll probably also resent having to grind through a lot of these easy races to get to the challenging stuff.
Events are unlocked in an ascending spiral, made up of eight ranks and punctuated by invitation events. Placing in the top three in a race earns points, which unlock the next tier when the relevant total is reached. With so many races and only twelve tracks repetition can't help but sneak in as you work your way upwards, but the game mixes things up with different objective-based events. Some, such as new addition Time Ticker, are welcome changes from the norm, constantly escalating your points depending on your race position. The first to hit 999 wins the event. Others, like the blandly titled Speed events, are simply solo checkpoint dashes that fail to inspire.
When it hits that sweet spot, however, MotorStorm's unique approach to off-road racing still pays dividends. The buzz of the starting grid is inherently addictive, with vulnerable bikers zipping between enormous behemoths in a cacophony of grit and smoke, and the myriad ways to approach each course ensure that you'll always have new ways to shave a few seconds off your personal best. Sailing over a thundering truck on an ATV offers the sort of gaming joy that never grows old, and the fact that the game never misses an opportunity to let you create those moments on the fly does much to balance out its shortcomings.
Beyond the single-player career, there's the obligatory Time Trial option, as well as Free Play. A practice mode by any other name, it lets you experiment with whatever vehicle and course combination you'd like. There are also rudimentary customisation options in the Garage, and a suite of Trophy-style badges to be earned for superlative play, as well as secrets to find along the way drawn from other Sony franchises like LittleBigPlanet and Killzone. There's support for ad hoc and online multiplayer, with up to eight racers, but unfortunately the servers hadn't been switched on at the time of writing. Unless something horrible happens it seems only fair to consider this feature a tick in the "pro" column, given that a good chunk of MotorStorm's enduring appeal lies in its multiplayer.
If the aim was to recreate the PS3 MotorStorm experience for the PSP, then there's little doubt that Arctic Edge is a success. It looks more like Destruction Derby on the PSone, but always feels like a natural fit with the HD titles by sticking closely to the mantra of fast, dirty knockabout thrills.
However, MotorStorm: Arctic Edge has inherited a few too many of its predecessor's weaknesses as well: a lumpy single player campaign, some arbitrary physics made more noticeable by the less sophisticated engine, and a tendency for the less inspired tracks to merge into one grimy muddle. Along with the flimsy challenge of the AI opponents, that's sadly just enough to keep it from the joining the PSP's top tier of racers.
7 / 10