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A Racing Milestone: Mud Preview

A change of direction for the resilient Italian studio.

Racing studios are, sadly, a diminishing breed, and those that still stand are having to adapt to survive. Following the closure of Bizarre Creations and Black Rock Studios last year, existing developers are finding new paths to explore - Codemasters steering its Dirt brand toward the downloadable route, while Slightly Mad turns to the strange new world of user-generated content for its ambitious and intriguing Project Cars.

There's one studio that's weathered the storm well enough, however, and which, despite the struggles elsewhere in the market, still manages to produce up to three boxed racing games per year. And it does that with a thinly stretched team of 90, spread over three floors of a slightly scruffy studio near the centre of Milan, Italy.

It's this team that put out the functional yet entertaining WRC game and its somewhat underwhelming sequel, and that in the SBK series has produced arguably the best bike game on the market; not a particularly impressive feat when its sole competitor, Capcom's MotoGP games, has seemingly slipped into obscurity, but a noble one nevertheless.

'Terrain is, like in Sega Rally Revo, deformable, though its implementation doesn't seem quite as dynamic as that particular game yet.

And if Milestone's games are often wanting for polish, they at least possess a heart that's pumping out pure petroleum. What it lacks in resources it makes up for with its passion - strolling the studio, alongside copies of games like Screamer and Superbike 2001, the games that helped make its name, you'll see walls plastered with dog-eared posters of thoroughbred cars and bikes. This, combined with the heavy musk that comes with a young male workforce and the low hum of hard drives, makes for an atmosphere that's equal parts teen boy's bedroom, auto garage waiting room and game development studio.

It's all indicative of a passion that has made Milestone's games endearing and, for the motorsport enthusiast, incredibly engaging. But now it's time for a change of pace at the studio, as it moves to adapt to a new and rapidly evolving market. The first sign of this change is in its first release in 2012, Mud.

It's a motocross game, and one that's a little outlandish in its approach to the sport. Jumps are stupendously high, speed is exaggerated by a branded energy bar and handling's feather-light and completely forgiving, while the backdrops stream past in a blur of impossibly bright colours.

An arcade racer, then, but one that's built around the official FIM Motocross licence. It's a licence lightly leant on, with the locations pulled from the real world tour but all given a little once over, tracks marked out with orange plastic in anonymous fields replaced by arenas full of a little national stereotyping (France gets itself a quaint cottage, Brazil has tropical trees while Germany, bizarrely, gets a superhuman industrial saw looming over the riders).

And the action itself only lightly leans on its real-world inspiration, drawing on the essence of motocross and extracting and exaggerating it. It's about pack racing, with 15 other riders jostling for position (a feature that was sadly absent in our time with the game, the difficulty lowered to the point where we rode alone ahead of the throng).

Multiplayer supports 12 players, replicating the bustle of offline play.

It's also about stupendously large jumps, and about those weightless moments spent suspended in the air. Mud's tracks send you skywards at any given opportunity, and such moments are given a little depth by the addition of the 'scrub', a simple one-button trick that must be executed with precision timing to fill the game's adrenaline bar.

Tricks, the mainstay of many other motocross games, make only a fleeting appearance in Mud's core racing (a separate trick arena, where 30 different moves are supported, was originally intended as DLC but Milestone is bundling it with the game proper). It gives the racing a purity, even if as it stands it's hard to see where the depth will come from.

A career mode is there to add some potential for more long-term engagement, with official takes on the MX1, MX2 and FIM Motocross of Nations complemented by a vibrant and imagined single-player campaign. With three stylised avatars to choose from, each with their own upgradeable attributes, it's highly reminiscent of MotorStorm Apocalypse's own career - and Mud's debt to Evolution's game doesn't seem to stop there, present as it is in the colourful front-end and slick, forgiving handling. It's a world away from Milestone's typically more staid take on motorsport.

"This is a different vision for us," Irvin Zonca, the physics game designer, tells us, "not only in the physics and in the visuals, but also in the UI style, and in the way the career is styled. We wanted to be up to date with the things that are happening in the world now - everything's customisable, easy to understand. It's more about having fun and chilling out with the game rather than having some difficult game. Everything's fast and there to be enjoyed."

Milestone's change of direction is made all the more interesting given the fate of other racing games with an arcade bent, but Zonca is optimistic about the state of the genre - as well as his own game's place in it.

"You have to be eye-catching to attract people. But for me the racing game is doing fine - and for me, the beat 'em-up is having a worse time right now," says Zonca, before going on to address the myth that only sim games can survive in the current climate.

"It's a strange thing," he says, "because it's true that Gran Turismo and Forza have sold. They're simulations, but they're not really simulations like GTR and R-Factor. They're both great games to play, but they're also killer apps for consoles - for example, Microsoft is really pushing Forza, and the same with Sony and Gran Turismo. People buy those games not only for the physics, but because they offer great graphics, and a huge amount of content. If you made an arcade Gran Turismo it would sell as well."

Mud's direction will likely have an effect on Milestone's other games - expect new looks for SBK and WRC this year.

As for those very public casualties in the arcade racing market, their fates were decided, in Zonca's view, by some unique circumstances. "It really shocked me," he says of Bizarre's closure last year. "I played a lot of their games, Project Gotham and even back to Metropolis Street Racer. They were really good games. With Blur, I think they probably spent too much money on the project, because they had to remake everything. The main cost when you start a project is having to create a new engine.

"With Black Rock, they were really great games that were not understood by people. I read some comments on a forum that shocked me. Someone was saying that Pure's a really good game, but they'd never buy a game from Disney. I don't know why! They're missing out on a good game, because they're in a core mindset. The market is really strange."

A strange market indeed, but it's one in which a company as eccentric, committed and industrious as Milestone deserves to survive in - and Mud's a sign that the studio's happy to move with the times.

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