So! Sony's discovered the Internet! This is obviously good news (unless they're spending a lot of time on UK Resistance, obviously). PlayStation 3 ships in Europe with a big fat online service, and while some of our friends from "the Continent" haven't got their own shop yet, I understand immigration is pretty easy these days, so really there's no excuse for moaning. Particularly when MotorStorm is one of the games that offers hot 12-player Internet action from day one. It's bloody good.
What it isn't is particularly bloody well thought out. I was given to understand people had made online computer games before, so the discovery that you have to go into a lobby and click on your own name or scroll down a list of all the players on the server in order to view your online statistics struck me as a bit daft. Reeling from that I was struck by a number of other "bit dafts", including the inability to re-order the server-list by connection speed, the need to click on a lobby first to see whether a race is in progress or if it's waiting for players, and a ranking system that's so open to abuse that I'm annoyed I've already done one immigration joke.
Each player is given a "Fame" label (Leroy, Bruno - wait, sorry - God, Hero, Legend, etc.). You'd think becoming "God" was quite hard. You wouldn't be able to do it with a win percentage of 23, for example. Well, you can. What's more, if you set up a friends-only game with a pal and play for ages, you can easily boost your stats immensely. What's silly is that coming second or third in a field of 12 MotorStorm racers is actually a bit of a feat when you're starting out, particularly if you haven't spent a lot of time with the single-player career mode. Having it reduced to a "loss" statistic is a bit mean. Still, can't fault them too much for the stats, as they've gone one better than most developers and included a "drop-out" number.
Speaking of single-player, we've already dealt with that fairly thoroughly in our Japanese MotorStorm review, and since I wrote that I'm simply going to absorb all its views into this page rather than repeating them at length. You deserve a bit more than a link-through though, so let's paraphrase quickly: MotorStorm is a racing game that mixes every manner of off-road vehicle together, throws them onto sprawling tracks full of shortcuts, and, as you're buffeted along by the terrain and dashed against rocks by your opponents, it all comes together brilliantly. There's a genuine sense of exposure on the manoeuvrable little ATVs, solidity to the trucks and zippy frailty to the rally cars. And while there aren't many tracks, and it's sometimes the game's fault you blow up, it's still worth a big score.
The multiplayer - added since the Japanese launch in mid-December - had the job of transferring that experience into the online world. The bad news, as we've already heard, is that it struggles to articulate itself with the same competence as hardened multiplayer games. The good news is that the racing works exactly as it should.
Setting up a lobby on the European server allows you to pick one of the game's eight circuits, allow or disallow whichever vehicles you like (hint: don't let me near an ATV on Rock Hopper - you won't even be able to eat my dust), change the time of day to alter the ambience, fiddle with the number of laps (up to five), allow catch-up (think elastic AI, but for players), or set the games as friends-only. Helpfully, your friends don't have to navigate the global lobby system to find your lobby, either - they can just select your name on their Buddy List, which draws its contents from the PS3's overall Friend List, and join in. Think Xbox Live, although don't think too hard about it or you might find it annoying you can't add friends in-game.
You can also rename your lobby - otherwise it takes your handle. Another good option, though less publicised, is the ability to use a USB headset to chat with people. Indeed, some have set up headset-only games. The quality of discussion probably isn't impressive enough to demand them, but each to their own. Once you're set up, everyone picks a car (eventually - the load times for car selection are another "bit daft"), and then, 48 paragraphs later, you're off!
And you really are. Lag - indicated by a little traffic light icon in the bottom right of each lobby - was surprisingly slight for such an epic racing game, often forced to track 11 other people on a huge map, with persistent terrain details like movable car-wrecks and strewn tyres and so on to worry about too, not to mention player-on-player collisions. We faced a few games where players were having connection difficulties, and thanks to their names being hung above their heads, the effect was weird green and blue labels flickering in and out at random points all around us, like a sort of resonance cascade scenario. But the majority were fine, and with the margins set the action flowed enjoyably, and it wasn't hard to find lobbies full of people who knew the tracks and gave a good game.
Indeed, the relatively short track-list benefits the game in this sense, because it doesn't take long for everyone to learn the terrain; to know the angles to take off certain jumps, and more importantly the best point to nudge someone who's leaving one at the same time as them; and it doesn't take people long to make up their minds about which shortcuts work best, and then bottleneck them ten seconds after the start leaving you to zip round the other way. Wee! The precariousness of a lead is all the more apparent, too, in a field of real players, many of whom are just as good as you, and only need you to make one mistake in order to steal position. Evolution Studios' wisdom in leaving out projectile weapons and other genre staples seems vindicated by this sensation.
Unfortunately, as with the single-player game, that's not to say that you don't face frustration. Spawn behind somebody on the starting grid and race the perfect race and there's still the potential for them to finish ahead of you. That's rare, though, compared to the regularly common annoyance of exploding, and losing several vital seconds to the infuriating (albeit beautiful) slow-motion spectacle of doing so, because you skipped up off some indiscernible bump. The worst examples of the game killing you are weird inexplicable blow-ups as you cross the threshold between two types of terrain. There needn't be any kind of incline or game object here to puncture your composure - sometimes it just happens. It is frustrating.
Still, changes will be coming in future patches, including a Time Trial mode, so hopefully they will sort that out. Not that I'm banking on it. And irrespective of that, MotorStorm, it turns out, is one of the best new racing games in ages whether you play it alone or with friends. What's more, there's no obvious way it could be done on a previous PlayStation. Believe me when I say I'm as shocked as you are - but not shocked enough to stop me pinching points for a lack of tracks and modes. More please, Evolution. Your name demands it.