The lengths some people will go to for a laugh. Paul Hollywood, garrulous creative director of MotorStorm Pacific Rift - you might remember him from Tom's preview - knows all about it. He put Evolution, developer of the Sony-published PS3 racing sequel, through months of painstaking work and agonising waiting just so he could relive memories of a misspent youth.
"I really, really enjoyed playing Mario Kart on the SNES," he says. Who didn't, Paul. "I lost many months of my life to it, and my friends did as well. That sort of pure arcade experience is what I'm after." But there was something missing from that goal - split-screen. The first MotorStorm's multiplayer was online only; this sequel supports up to four players on a single machine. A welcome decision, but as Hollywood reveals, it was a costly one.
"We set off down a path with the technology of MotorStorm 1 where all our rendering was single-viewport-based. Then we were like, we want to do multiple viewports, and the tech guys were like, alright, we're going to pull the engine out, we're going to strip the car down and lay all the bits on the garage floor and then we're going to rebuild it. And it's going to take a long time. And it did."
MotorStorm was out of action for so long Hollywood and his colleagues had to go back to playing the first game for reference. When Pacific Rift's rebuilt engine finally spluttered and rumbled into life some six months ago, "it was like an old friend had come back", says Hollywood. After an extensive playtest - multiple races on four tracks in three of the game's four zones - we have to agree.
MotorStorm isn't the only old friend paying us a revisit. It's interesting that Hollywood mentions Mario Kart, because Pacific Rift reminds us of recent editions of Nintendo's cartoon racer in a lot of ways: the intricate boost mechanics; the capricious, knockabout aggression of the AI racers; the sprawling, eventful, multiple-choice, tight-but-loose track design.
A revamped structure - still focused on a fictional festival of off-road racing - now breaks MotorStorm's linear progression into four, each thread focusing on one of the four themed zones of the Hawaiian setting: Fire (lava flows and volcanoes), Air (high altitude mountains), Earth (thick, muddy jungle) and Water (beaches and rivers). There's still some limiting of the vehicle classes you can use in each race as you unlock them, but it's generally less constrictive, and you can pick a favourite vehicle for each class in your garage to cut down on menu time.
When we visited, Evolution didn't have any Fire tracks available to play, but we had plenty of time with tracks from the other three zones. Kanaloa Bay (Earth) is a sprint across an open, lagoon-studded beach followed by an inland circuit of the kind of rocky, split-level terrain familiar from the first game's Monument Valley. In Cascade Falls (Water), vehicles push through a frenetic tangle of vegetation and plough through rivers and ponds before arriving at the money shot: a spectacular, sweeping banked turn under huge waterfalls.
We also try out two Air tracks. Rain God Spires takes place at an altitude of 8,000 feet, and features treacherously narrow runways over towering cliffs, and some stupendously over-the-top jumps. Meanwhile, Caldera Ridge - probably our favourite of the four - is an atmospheric pelt around the blackened summit of a volcano which threads through a ruined observatory before barrelling down a vast, wide-open slope. We also catch glimpses of Scorched - a Fire track on an active volcano, smothered in heat-haze - and Sugar Rush, a semi-indoor track weaving through a ruined sugar refinery, littered with hazards.
Although there are still some sections where the vehicles carve their way through deep mud, there's less emphasis on track deformation in Pacific Rift than in the first. Terrain variety and dynamic, destructible track furniture move to the fore. The game's physics technology is very flexible and impressive, considering the sheer quantity of chaos MotorStorm throws around the screen. In the circumstances, it's not surprising to see the initial promises of fields of 20 racers reduced to 16 in this build of the game.
Water has drag and current, pushing vehicles off course; vegetation is flattened by big rigs, but can whiplash motorbike and ATV riders out their seats; piles of tyres, wooden water towers and sprung gates can be used as traps for your rivals, especially if you're driving a heavier machine. The new bunny-hop and duck abilities for the bike and ATV come in very useful in picking your way through these hazards, but your reactions will need to be very sharp. We loved the emergent unpredictability of the hazards, and sense of tactile connection to the game-world, but the physics is annoyingly inconsistent at times, with even the new monster trucks occasionally coming a cropper against fragile-looking sticks of track furniture.
Less attention-grabbing, but even more rewarding, is the new engine temperature system, wherein you can cool your engine (and so keep boosting longer) by driving through water, while passing near heat sources such as lava does the opposite. Only water came into play in the tracks we raced, but weighing up the delicate balance of temperature versus water drag versus racing line was an intriguing and satisfying new racing challenge. It's hard to see equivalent depth and interest in avoiding heat (or, presumably, sacrificing boost for short cuts), but it's up to Evolution's track designers to prove us wrong.
We wouldn't put it past them. The placement of water in Cascade Falls and Kanaloa Bay is extremely well thought-out, an object lesson in track design. MotorStorm's remit - wide-open, branching tracks, with multiple racing lines and balanced for multiple vehicle types - is perhaps the hardest design challenge in racing games, and the first game was consequently a little basic and messy in places. You can already tell that Pacific Rift is a tighter ship - in vehicle classes as well as track design, this game is looking much better tuned and balanced than its predecessor.
Unfortunately for Evolution and Sony, you can't put "it's just better" on the box. In terms of new features, Pacific Rift doesn't have much to boast beyond that split-screen play, and the one new vehicle class: the lolloping, bouncing, smashing, not-really-turning monster truck. There's a photo mode, mostly useful for pausing and slowly spinning the camera around the abundant moments of slapstick carnage in lush natural vistas.
There is a broader range of attacks, with left and right rams on the shoulder-buttons providing an irresistible, but rather dangerous, dart to the side that uses boost. The Sixaxis' motion sensors can be used to right a toppling vehicle after awkward landings and shunts, useful for the monster truck. There will be a proper matchmaking system for online multiplayer from launch this time. Best of all, there are 16 tracks to the original's eight.
It's all good stuff, but is it enough to push Pacific Rift? The first game sold a healthy 3.5 million copies on the back of the PS3 launch, but Pacific Rift has to elbow its way into a much more crowded line-up, and it's difficult to get excited about - superficially, at least. It would be a shame if this technically impressive, thoughtful, polished and exhilarating sequel ended up left in lesser games' dust.