After that tech demo video at Sony's now legendary E3 press conference of 2005, it was hardly surprising that people harboured serious reservations over whether Motor Storm (and more specifically the PS3) could live up to Sony's lofty claims. Lest we forget, the pre-rendered video footage ("shot to spec") showed a literally unbelievable degree of detail that had attendees shaking their heads over whether a ) it was gameplay footage, and b) could the PS3 really be this powerful a system.
Now that the dust has settled somewhat, it shouldn't come as a major surprise that work only actually started on the game 12 months ago (meaning that what we were treated to was little more than concept fantasy), but Evolution Studios came out fighting at this week's E3 to face the scrutiny of the press with its first playable demo.
The team's amiable Scouse senior producer Pete Smith quipped his way through an impressive half-hour presentation on the game, before we trooped off to play a slightly less impressive demo on a sectioned-off part on the roof of the Sony stand in the West hall. Early conclusion? The Liverpool team has its work cut out over the next few months to get the game up to the level of its own massive expectations, never mind everyone else's.
Where's Mel Gibson when you need him?
But before we get onto the nitty gritty of our (slightly limited) hands-on thoughts, the presentation session kicked off with a throaty scene-setting speech, delivered by Voiceover Man in true Marlboro fashion. Talking of a "new breed of warrior" being born to "rage against the silence" of an ageless valley and suchlike, it conjured visions of a lost Mad Max design doc. We half expected Tina Turner to burst out on stage and declare her contempt for heroes. Sadly, this half hour session was to be purely focussed on the type of 'Brutal Off-Road racing' "never seen before", albeit pitched to us with a warm Merseyside twang entirely lost on most of the assembled who probably struggled to keep up. It's ok guys, that's what we're here for.
Essentially, Smith's barely disguised glee of being "released from the shackles of [WRC] licensed games" was plain to see. "With PS3 we've really gone to town with a unique racing experience. It's more than just finishing first and taking the right line - itís about beating your opponent. If you take your eye off the action you'll be taken out, it's as simple as that."
"We're trying to bring the racing to life. It's basically about the attitude of the drivers in Motor Storm - they'll constantly try to hit you. We're trying to get the brutality of the race into the game. We've invested [a lot of time] in the damage system [to allow this to come across]."
"It's a game where you're always in the thick of the action," Smith reckons, "where the action is staged to unfold in front of the player". Apparently we can expect to see an enormous amount of debris at all times flying towards you, be it broken bits of other cars, wheels, rocks, dust, smashed up scenery, you name it "The player will never be alone," he says.
With the game only 50 per cent complete, it's still perhaps too early to judge it just yet. In fact, the playable demo (running at 720p we were told by Evolution's design lead) features just seven vehicles on one of the shortest tracks in the game, whereas the finished article will boast 20. But more on vehicles in a moment: we need to talk surfaces.
That might sound like the most boring segueway into another paragraph in the history of words, but it's something you'll be finding out a lot about over the coming months as we learn all there is to know about Persistent Terrain Deformation. It might sound like this year's HDR, but unlike so many buzzwords of the part, this particular innovation has real gameplay potential that begins to demonstrate that not all next gen chit chat has to be about high def, physics and prettier visuals.
In simple terms it means this: when the race starts, each track's surface is undisturbed: pressed in, and largely flat, but as you drive on it, your wheels will quickly churn up the surface. Any impact you (or your opponents) have on the mud/gravel/whatever stays there so that when you come back for subsequent laps, the deformation is still there ("You'll never race the same lap twice").
If this was simply a visual thing, that would be quite cool on its own, but, in fact, the ridges and grooves that everyone creates have a direct impact on everyone's handling from then on. Which brings us neatly back to the vehicles and how they cope with that. Phew.
Surface to air
"The surface type is incredibly important," asserts Smith, "because different vehicles have different strengths. Driving on mud or rock is a very different experience, and your opponents know what [type of surface] they want to be driving on, and what you don't want to be on." So, for example, if you're driving a buggy, you'll go slower in mud and churn it up even more, and your opponents will do all they can to take advantage of this weakness. "They will try to knock you onto it," Smith nods. After 20 cars have driven over one lap, it will be "a completely different experience" the next time. Maybe the Emotion Engine is finally ready, eh?
And it's not just a cunning surface trick, either. The deformation extends to the rest of the track too. "Sometimes you might take a ramp out or a shack to reveal a new route," he says, which in itself might force - for example - the bike riders to completely change their route, possibly diverting them onto a surface that doesn't suit them. And it's not just car tyres that deform terrain. "It might be a driver's leg, head, or debris falling from a bridge which is kinda cool," notes Smith.
"The race constantly evolves. Because of the changing surface types there's a real strategy involved...and you always have to look at what's ahead. Because of this real-time track deformation, we've had to invest heavily in the particle side and want it to get really messy." It certainly is one of the filthier games around, and not only is there plenty of crap being kicked up behind vehicles, the vehicles themselves quickly become covered in dirt, making them look practically unrecognisable within a lap or so. Factor in the general damage modelling and it's a game that gives instant visual cues as to the state of your ride.
In terms of the vehicles, Evolution has termed the selection process as "Choose Your Weapon" given that the racing is just as much about blatting things around as being first past the post. In all, there are seven types to choose from (Bikes, ATVs, Buggies, Rally, Racing Trucks, Mud Pluggers, Big Rig), and five versions within each, giving room for retro choices among those.
As you might expect Bikes are nimble and fast, but very vulnerable ("You'll need nerves of steel to choose the bike against big trucks"), ATVs "love the mud", Buggies are "light but very affected by the surface and really bounce around", Rally vehicles offer "great slide, but low chassis, so you have to be careful about the surface", while Racing Trucks are "pretty good at everything, fairly sturdy and stable", Mud Pluggers presumably do mud well too, and Big Rigs are "big and bullish". But Smith was quick to point out that "none are slow - this isn't about driving a milk float".
The whole premise of all this racing is that you're part of "the greatest show on Earth," which is to say some kind of three day festival set loosely in Monument Valley ("Mother Nature's Playground"), but Smith insisted "we're not worried about reality - we're worried about gameplay. We want to deliver a really intense experience. It gives us a huge amount of variety for the racing - though it looks like a desert, there is lots of variety: rocks, gravel, dust, mud, and sand."
"You all pile down at a day's notice and wreck the place, and we're using that as a theme for the game. The track surroundings, music, etc, will reflect that festival vibe," he says, with the ultimate aim of the game to become the Motor Sport champion in the game's career mode.
But single player is expected to be only half the story, with 16 player online being touted as a key feature. "It'll be total chaos, all those vehicles on that sort of track will be top fun," Smith grins. Downloadable content is also set to feature, with vehicles, tracks, liveries, race types all said to be available at some stage.
Users will also be able to customise their soundtrack, but in a cunning new way that Evolution is calling 'Live-Fi', whereby some nifty DSP post processing techniques apply an ambiance to your songs that make it "really sound like you're there [in a desert race]". And while we're talking tech, the HDR techniques used make the game "look more like a movie than a game" while. "tone mapping gives us depth between light and dark"
Other stuff? There's almost too much to cram into one article. Scanning through our notes there's stuff about proper AI that battle against each other and not just you, hingable parts on every vehicle, fully animated characters with advanced ragdolling, the slo-mo 'Smash Cam' that shows wheels and parts squirreling off in exquisite detail, driver taunts to let you give your opponents the middle finger and more stuff that wasn't possible to note down in time.
Asked if he was disappointed that the game wasn't part of Sony's press conference, he explained away the absence by claiming that "we're making huge progress every single day. We went in just two days from a point where we weren't happy to being where we are now. We think we'll surpass the footage, it was an incredible visualisation, but we're delivering an incredible interactive experience and we really think we'll go beyond it."
At this point we could say "take that doubters", but having played the demo for a few laps around the track, there's still far too little on show to give anyone even a vague idea of how it will turn out. If you just sidled up to the stand and didn't know anything about the game, you could just as easily dismiss it as another desert racer in the vein of ATV and wander off unenthused. Visually it's getting there but there's nothing to suggest just yet that it'll be incredible, and with just a short three lap race to enjoy, there's precious little evidence of the persistent track deformation having the kind of effect on gameplay that Smith went to great lengths to discuss. In fact, stripped of rumble from the new PS3 pad, it feels...like it's missing that quantifiable feedback we've come to take for granted. One possible idea yet to be implemented is to utilise the tilt controls to "barge drivers off the track", which sounds fab, but it's totally unconfirmed.
With the title confirmed for PS3 launch, we won't have that long to wait to find out how good Motor Storm is, but if Smith's claims are even halfway true it stands a good chance of being one of the more interesting titles out on day one on November 17th.