Version tested: PlayStation 3
Released alongside PlayStation 3 in March last year, MotorStorm was a raw, single-minded distortion of the successful WRC series that gave Evolution Studios the opportunity to make it in the first place, introducing multiple vehicle classes to the same track and playing host to the seemingly cunning technical innovation of persistent surface deformation. But while the rutted surfaces left in the wake of each lap's storm of thundering metal - and the implications for those that followed - made for easy headlines, given that they planted a flag for things that the then-four-hundred-quid console did over and above its predecessor, they never defined the first game. Instead we eulogised sensations dormant since the heyday of EA's SSX, which are now enjoying a renaissance best exemplified by the critical success of Black Rock Studios' excellent Pure a few weeks ago.
For MotorStorm: Pacific Rift, the sequel of only 18 months' construction, Evolution has left surface deformation alone to the extent that it's completely anonymous, preferring to spend its time delivering a measured response to criticisms of the first game. That means more definition for each each vehicle class, a tweaked boost system, and alternative routes designed to emphasise these changes across more numerous circuits. Impressively, the developer also finds time to repatriate split-screen racing after the former genre staple's spell in the downloadable wilderness.
This is always-on racing, another 16 tracks of constantly fighting for grip, dodging obstacles, searching out the optimal route, and straining for speed across grass, mud, rock and water, where you can never resort to autopilot because smashing your vehicle up inevitably follows, and having to rebuild speed is a price too high to pay often and still succeed. Making the most of your vehicle's turbo boost is still vital, and fiery lava levels and pooled water elsewhere play into the way you approach each track. Water has implications that taper from the biggest to the smallest vehicle classes, uncorking relentless top speed for big rigs ploughing the pacific surf and easing but not eliminating the heat build-up in other, faster classes like bikes and racing trucks, while nearby lava accelerates overheating considerably.
Individual circuit design is more elaborate than before, and each track now resides within a distinctive overarching label. Earth tracks are predictably dense and muddy affairs, while Air magnifies the first game's occasional rock-hopping and multiplies the number of big jumps to accentuate frantic last-minute adjustments before each ramp, often teasing you with several options. Fire tracks are a battle to avoid the grim, scorching embrace of molten rock gathered around unpredictable plateaus, inclines and tunnels hewn by the volcanic activity shown off in the background, and Water circuits are similar to Earth, but with more emphasis on plotting a route to either match your vehicle to or divide it from the streams and pools that will embolden or drown it. All are full of interlinked pathways that add or subtract from your momentum depending on what you're driving.
Some of these tracks are brilliant. The Edge takes Rain God Mesa's sliding-off-a-cliff bit and drags it out for most of its rocky duration, pocked with subtlety, and Caldera Ridge begins with a brilliant downhill rush trailed by a brief tweak to the camera angle, which also dares you to cut the corner with a jump that has to be inch-perfect. Sugar Rush is another highlight: a fantastic dash through a Swiss-cheese warren of rusted metal buildings, dividing its routes across several floors with patchwork ramps and gangways before sending you through a plantation thick with threat.
The rows of sugar cane pulverise bike-riders and overturn buggies and even heavier vehicles, but a monster truck can beat a path through them that weaker classes can follow, and while these little inter-vehicle harmonies are more occasional than perhaps expected, the different vehicle classes are individually refined too, most notably with the excellent bikes, for which steering is now responsive enough to justify their fragility. Buggies can boast of the same considered balance, but the tracks make different demands of them, and the new monster trucks are towering, top-heavy bullies. The main Festival mode, where players tackle around a hundred events gradually unlocked by an experience-based ranking system, plays on these distinctions to compensate for its inevitable repetition, and there are some great individual battles among its many race 'tickets', peaking with a lone bike fighting through a 15-strong pack of monster trucks and big rigs.
But these moments of inspiration are ultimately fleeting. The bumpy downhill rush of Caldera Ridge is unique, despite its obvious potential, and the majority of tickets attempt to perform too many of the game's many instruments in chorus, which comes across as noisy and indistinct. Equally, too many of the tracks force you into uphill struggles that emphasise a general lack of speed, while some of them layer on too many branching paths until you actually get lost; and although the bikes and buggies are almost always great, other vehicle classes are weaker or still too similar to one another: the big rigs are ponderous, rally cars have many of the buggies' weaknesses but few of their redeeming features, and the mudplugger's mundane handling is less flattering even than its name. Monster trucks are best in the hands of the AI, where they're used to smash and intimidate you, but they're too often lost for balance or grip when you get behind the wheel. The tickets force you to use all the vehicles at some point - a decision no doubt taken to show you around the game, but one that backfires occasionally when the choice is only between tedium and obsolescence.
In amongst the traditional 16-vehicle races there are also Eliminator and Speed events, which have to be unlocked by avoiding crashes or finishing within a certain time limit in the preceding race. Eliminator, where the last-placed car is blown up every 15 seconds, is good but inessential, and Speed, where you manoeuvre between checkpoint gates marked by flares, is ultimately frustrating because the game only shows you the next checkpoint, rather than the next two. With grip at such a premium and speed obviously a necessity, you almost always need several attempts to memorise the route before you can orientate yourself correctly each time and get on with the business of trying to get to the end with time left on the clock.
Visually, Pacific Rift has turned out better than we had been led to expect by preview builds and trailers, as the lighting conditions, which change depending on the time of day, and draw distance and horizon graphics restore a reputation blemished by a few ugly near and middle-distance textures. The first game's troubling glitches have been all but eliminated, too: we only blew up at a terrain transition once in the whole game, whereas the original was often guilty of letting you down in that regard. Negligible load times for the simplified vehicle selector and a near-instant restart from the pause menu are much-needed additions as well, even if tracks do initially take a while to load, and online there's a ranking system, better matchmaking and very little noticeable lag to record, while the promised split-screen racing sacrifices less detail than you would expect, even with four players. The frame-rate rarely tumbles from 30fps in the ten hours it takes to reach the latter stages of the Festival.
However, the inconsistent quality of Pacific Rift's tracks and vehicles ultimately gets the better of it, and there are other problems to compound these drawbacks. It's all too easy to dominate for half the Festival's duration, and when the difficulty does ascend as you graduate to ranks 5 and 6 you're allowed almost no mistakes in the quest for a top-three position. As a result you start to feel worse about being taken out when you can hardly anticipate it - rejoining a thoroughfare on a bike just as a monster truck surges through at improbable speed, for example. You have to let go of the urge to only move on when you achieve gold medals in order to stave off crippling frustration, and despite an experience system that unlocks more events even without the shiniest medals, the challenge of levelling up is only really relevant just as the Festival tightens toward its conclusion, by which time the contrasting sensations of repetition and frustration have almost squeezed out the moments of real entertainment that are intermittently promised by the first few hours of easy progress.
Those moments, when MotorStorm: Pacific Rift is at its best, are the ones where it lives up to its name - dragging a flimsy bike or buggy around searching for grip in the path of the devastating storm of your opposition - and of its 16 circuits around half are clever, challenging and memorable, at least in spurts, and serve the enjoyable multiplayer better than the patchy campaign. There, too much of your time is spent grinding second-choice metal in search of elusive pace, or cursing imperious AI and unpredictable catastrophe, and in the battle between the game's infrequent but electrifying highs and its frustrating lows, the result is too close to stalemate to match the first game's understated achievement.
7 / 10