MotorStorm: Apocalypse is the fourth game in Evolution Studios’ popular racing franchise. It breaks the trend set by it’s older siblings, being the first game in the series set in an urban environment as opposed to the brutally organic settings of the first three titles. You race through ‘The City’, a town based loosely on America’s west-coast which has been and continues to be, ravaged by a series of natural disasters.

Aside from the move from mud and palm trees to a dense metropolis, another major change in Apocalypse is the introduction of massively destructible environments as aftershocks rock the city. Buildings crumble around you, suspension bridges buckle and twist and you charge across them and tornadoes tear through the track ahead of you. This, combined with Molotov cocktail-packing looters around every corner and helicopter gunships behind every skyscraper make for a completely unique racing experience where you’re not just racing against other vehicles – you’re racing against the tracks themselves.

The (what’s left of the) Road Test

For a long time, the MotorStorm series has delivered some of the best arcade racing available on the PS3, and Apocalypse certainly lives up to its pedigree. Despite the departure from traditional the off-road carnage of the previous games, Apocalypse still feels unmistakably ‘MotorStorm’. Races are fast-paced, hectic and brutally violent as players tussle to gain first place by any means necessary. Tighter controls encourage players to drive more aggressively and ram opponents more frequently and a tweaked boost system rewards more tactical drivers.

Apocalypse’s 33 tracks throw up more surprises than a visit to the STI clinic with Charlie Sheen. Each track has a number of destructive events which range from distracting roadside explosions to track-changing spectacles which demand fast reactions if you’re going to make it through them in one piece. These are triggered at random, helping each race feel unique even if you’ve played it 50 times before.

Although the dirt and debris flying at the screen can sometimes make it impossible to see where the actual track is, many of the frustrations I experienced with previous MotorStorm games seem to have been ironed-out. AI drivers will still try to make life difficult for you and will not hesitate to make use of their bulk if they out-do you in the size department, but it never feels like they’re more intent on taking you down than winning the race. Vehicle handling and physics has also been vastly improved. In previous games it was fairly common to find yourself in first place within touching distance of the finish line, only to hit a pebble or a twig and watch your monster truck go spiraling off a cliff into the abyss. While you may occasionally still snag your suspension on a carelessly planted piece of rebar jutting out from the ground, these instances are rare and always feel like your fault rather than the game’s.

Overall the game is easier than Monument Valley and much more so than Pacific Rift. While this may not be a welcome change for all players, it makes Apocalypse much more accessible for everyone not blessed with the ability to see tracks and racers as lines of green Matrix code trickling down the screen.

Welcome to The Festival

For the first time in the franchise MotorStorm: Apocalypse attempts to convey a narrative through it’s ‘Festival’ mode. You see the story of MotorStorm told from the perspective of three characters; the rookie, the pro and the veteran. The comic book-style cutscenes looks great but are poorly animated and look an old Lucas Arts adventure game with the flailing, springing limbs of Rag Doll Kung Fu. I might have been able to overlook the animation if it weren’t for the fact that all of this comes together to tell a story that WWE writers would turn their noses up at, full of cringingly cliché dialogue and the odd self-aware nod to the audience that’ll make you cower behind your sweat-laced hands.

Thankfully, a saving grace comes in the form of a ‘Continue’ option, available from the very start of each movie which allows you to skip it… which you will… unless your the type who enjoys being tortured.

While the story is largely without merit, it does at least serve to answer questions about some of the more fun aspects of the game. Questions such as “Why the hell is that massive helicopter shooting at me?!” or “Was that a jet liner I just saw crashing through the finish line?” Each of the characters’ shallow story arcs is capped with an exciting dash from and to the festival, whether you’re being dropped atop a crumbling skyscraper or speeding off the end of a collapsed bridge onto a waiting cargo ship.

Apocalypse introduces five new vehicle types but unlike in previous MotorStorm games, players aren’t given the opportunity to select a specific vehicle for each race. Instead, each event is designed to be a set challenge for a specific vehicle. This forces racers to try out each of the classes in the game more often, helping players determine each vehicles strengths and weakness. While the introduction of new vehicles sounds great, they don’t actually end up adding much to the game. Balancing is an issue in any racing game and while “13 unique classes!” makes for a good bullet point, in practice you’ll only ever use eight or nine of them.

Although progression through and completion of the campaign has been made more attainable than in previous games, players who are looking for something more are given the opportunity to test their metal through a series of challenges which are unlocked throughout the story and are considerably harder than the main events.

Wreckreational Usage is Fun With Friends

The real fun and longevity in Apocalypse is in its multiplayer mode. The game caters for up to 16-players online and it’s great to see local multiplayer is still alive and well with up to four-player offline split-screen. Or you could go for the combo special and take two-player split-screen online with up to 14 other racers.

It’s clear that a lot of effort has gone in to making MotorStorm online the best it’s been and it has certainly paid-off. Apocalypse’s online offering is far deeper than any of the previous games. Players can unlock perks and choose three to take into a race. These provide tactical advantages such as faster boost cooling or speedier respawns. While you still progress and rank-up by winning races and earning experience points, this has been made more interesting and tactical through the introduction of a wagering system. Before each race, players are given the opportunity to place a bet against a specific ‘rival’. Regardless of your overall finishing position, beating your rival will earn you bonus XP. Betting against higher-ranked players and rolling-over your winnings into the next event ripens the pot further but also introduces a risk/reward element as you could end up loosing everything. This helps new players level-up and earn medals, avatars and vehicle parts more quickly, even if they aren’t winning races.

You won’t want to linger at the back of the pack though! The track-changing destructive events offer another incentive to stay ahead as they are timed around the current leader and if you end up in last place, you may get caught out by an obstacle in your path that wasn’t there on the previous lap… an office block, for example.

More is Better

You certainly won’t find yourself short on things to keep you busy. There are thousands of new vehicle parts and liveries to collect which are unlocked by accomplishing goals in online play. Although customisations are purely aesthetic and don’t affect the vehicle’s handling or power, they’re a great way to make your ride stand-out without having to endure the face, voice or personality of Tim Westwood. It will of course make it a lot easier for that guy you cut up and sent plummeting off the side of a building, to hunt you down and leave a nice set of monster truck tyre-shaped lines down your face.

Each event in single-player has between three and five ‘MotorStorm Cards’ to find and collect. Although these don’t serve any real purpose, they’re a big time-sink for completionists and Trophy enthusiasts and are designed to encourage you to explore each of a track’s different routes.

So Where Does This Leave Us?

Although the drastic change of scenery may not be to the taste of a few die-hard fans of the series, MotorStorm: Apocalypse’s fast-paced action, tight controls and robust online offering makes it the best arcade racer you can expect to see this year. Provided you know where the X button on your controller is, the throw-away story will do little to diminish your enjoyment of this technical showpiece that gives a fresh feel to a much-loved franchise.

 


MotorStorm: Apocalypse is available on PlayStation 3 in Europe and North America now. This game was bought by the reviewer and was not provided by the publisher.