Given Evolution's strong and oft-overlooked history developing rally games, it was no surprise when MotorStorm skidded into view on a slick foundation of variable surfaces; specifically, surfaces that remembered your path through them, bearing the scars to those who followed. But it was a surprise that it wracked up so much debt to the likes of SSX.
The relationship between the two seemingly disparate series isn't so hard to fathom, though. Throughout the original game's half-dozen tracks, there was a feeling of carving your vehicle through mud-slicks and rubble like a snowboard digging into the powder, and desperately boosting and wrenching the analogue stick in hope of grinding enough of the world beneath your wheels to stay on course. Track position - most often the path of optimal grip - was a resource fiercely guarded and easily lost.
Much as we liked the effect though, leaving ruts in the mud was probably a bit inconsequential as you drove through boneyards at 90mph. Playing an 80 per cent-complete version of Pacific Rift, you suspect the devs felt the same. With the reduced focus on terrain deformation, the grip thing now has a new and more important playmate: potent secondary routes. More than just a winning high road and losing mud-slick below, the alternatives here benefit from increased boost-cooldown from water pools and other options to test and then reward accomplished players. It's no longer about whether you're good enough to hold the high road; it's whether you're good enough to make the most of the road you're on.
You still use boost constantly, waiting impatiently for it to cool off or timing peak usage to coincide with huge jumps, so that you can let go as you soar through the air, or to end just before a section you can't help but slow for, but the introduction of water pools to cool your vehicle is impactful and when done right, as Oli pointed out last month, it's an object lesson in track design. Tracks also do well juggling MotorStorm's many vehicle types, with thoughtful ramps and jumps, each of which has differing implications for the cast of bikes, trucks, buggies, ATVs, and now of course monster trucks.
Cascade Falls, which we've played in every build so far, also improves on every lap. Its deep-water ponds with marked out shallows, barricaded shortcuts with mouse-hole entry points and layers of foliage present new challenges, backed up by more traditional obstacles: narrow high and low bridges and ramps to potentially switch low to high, tightening corners on mushy surfaces to punish overzealous boosters, and a final wide, banking half-pipe corner to reward those who've kept a bit in the tank. There are also hot-air balloons in the background, of which we approve, obviously.
Cascade Falls is one of the Water tracks, but there are also Air and Earth alternatives and of course Fire, which we hadn't seen before. When we do, the Wildfire circuit immediately threatens to disrupt the game balance with semi-molten magma piles strewn across its smoky, volcanic terrain, which prove fatal on contact, but in practice they're only damaging when you short a jump and end up going for a boiling swim, sinking (rather unconvincingly) into the surface texture and, more importantly, having to reset to track and losing vital seconds.
The other implication of all this heat is boost that heats up faster, and to offset this Wildfire is host to several large misting tunnels for drive-through hosing. As ever, you learn the hard way which are on the best path; it might seem obvious to swing wide at the last corner to cool off for the final lap, but if you put the boost into the red at the brow of the previous hill, and then hold off as you fall to earth and navigate a tight, boost-free corner to the start/finish line, you're better off anyway.
Finally we get to tackle Rain God Spires again in split-screen two-player, which is equal in frame-rate terms to single-player although perhaps a bit toned down in texture quality, with a vertical split dividing the two players' viewpoints. Bashing the other guy around is fun (especially when the other guy is Eurogamer's Rob Purchese), but coming-togethers are inevitably infrequent because of the way MotorStorm packs tend to stretch out, despite more forgiving AI. We fancy the split-screen feature more for four-player, which we've yet to see but are assured will be included. Rain God Spires is also likely to be the track released as part of the Pacific Rift demo this week, so you might get to make your own mind up soon.
Throughout the latest build, we're also able to put the monster truck to the test, and it's worth revisiting because our initial assumption - that it would lack in grip but compensate with strength - appears to have been back to front. The monster holds the track surprisingly well, and is certainly resilient, surviving barrel rolls and on-track collisions that cripple others in the field.
But it's also easy to push into a lateral roll, and while it stomps ATVs and bikes and happily surfs across everything else bar the big rig, riding gratuitously over a racing truck is more likely to slow you down than anything. There are tweaks to the other vehicles, too, including the oft-mentioned bunny hop and duck manoeuvres for bikers and quad-riders (both accessed with d-pad combos), but we haven't been able to play the whole lot yet so we'll leave it at that for now.
Probably the biggest surprise in the latest build though is, well, how drab it looks. There are times when there's cohesion between the beautiful, mountainous horizons and less exotic foreground visuals, but it still looks better in replays than it does on the go, as miles of monotonous volcanic rock and dust and mud rush beneath your tyres anonymously and the magma piles at the track edge look like lumps of mouldy jelly, although the embers on the breeze and juxtaposition of heat haze and water mist compensates to some extent. Rain God Spires and sections of Cascade Falls are much prettier, but The Island still has some way to go before it matches the best Monument Valley offered two years ago.
That said, at this point we've seen most of the environments in MotorStorm: Pacific Rift (and over a quarter of the game's 16 tracks), and played with most of the vehicles. Leaving the four-player split-screen (which, we agree with Evolution, could be an excellent addition) and hopefully extensive online multiplayer aside, what we've seen suggests the same game with different tracks - but also better tracks, with more thought in layout and how to reward wily players and measured boosters, and less on how to package and broadcast technological advances to the press. Not a bad road to be on; let's hope they make the most of it.
MotorStorm: Pacific Rift is due out exclusively for PS3 in November.