Motorstorm was never the most restrained or sober-minded racer. After all, the series made its name with a pile-it-all-on banquet of mud-splattered carnage, pitting trucks, bikes, ATVs and buggies against each other on courses hacked out of the rocks and muddy riverbeds of Monument valley. So when we say that Motorstorm Apocalypse is what happens when Motorstorm is really let loose, then that gives you some idea of how big and totally berserk the third game in the series is. You might have played a hundred racers but, trust us, you’ve never played anything like this.
It’s a game made with one - rather unfortunately timed - idea: what would it be like to race through a city (clearly a reworked San Francisco) in the midst of a monster earthquake. The answer, in this fantasy world, is thrilling. As you race through ravaged city streets and along shattered highways, the earth rumbles, bridges buckle, the tarmac cracks and rises, and buildings come tumbling to the ground. Scripted events ensure that at each stage of the race something is exploding, collapsing, twisting and breaking or flying across the screen. It’s incredibly spectacular, and with so many things to swerve past or speed under at any time, Motorstorm Apocalypse is a game that grabs you, gives you a damn good shake and demands your attention with the manners of a bad-tempered drunk in a dodgy pub. The big difference is that you'll be happy about the experience.
The familiar Motorstorm elements remain. You’ll find yourself racing a mix of vehicles during the game, including superbikes, quad-bikes, monster trucks, racing trucks, muscle cars, off-road trucks, buggies and big rigs, and in many cases you’ll find more than one vehicle contesting the track at any time. The speed boost mechanic also returns. You can use it at any time, but over-use it and your car blows up. Racing through water lowers the temperature, allowing you to speed a little more, while fire has the opposite effect. Using speed boost is the key to fast cornering and to victory, because it gives you an edge against your opponents, while also allowing you to break out of a spin or maintain a tricky racing line just by whacking the X button at the right time.
And Motorstorm’s handling is as brilliant as ever. It’s not exactly realistic, but it’s believable. There’s a tangible feel for each vehicle’s weight, speed and balance, and a sense of how the wheels and suspension are interacting with the bumps, jumps and mud beneath the tyres. It helps make each course challenging, without forcing you to do anything tedious like slow down or brake long before each corner. It’s all about the adrenaline.
Clearly the constant deformation of the track and scenery is Apocalypse’s big USP, and like Split/Second: Velocity’s similar car-wrecking “powerplays”, it transforms the game into something that’s more like an interactive car chase from a mega-budget action movie. However, it’s not the only big idea that Apocalypse has up its sleeve. In a way, Motorstorm’s structure has always been its downfall, being little more than a series of events you run through, many reusing the same tracks, albeit with different vehicles (which, in Motorstorm, does make a massive difference). Apocalypse does things differently, with a new story-based Festival mode that has the Motorstorm racers travelling to the city in crisis on an aircraft carrier and staging an illegal 2-day racing fest. It’s told through three participants - a newbie, a pro and a seasoned vet - with each racer getting a different series of events at three different levels of difficulty.
Ingeniously, this means that while Apocalypse has, on the surface, a fairly limited number of tracks, you’ll play them at different times, in different states and different weather conditions, and in different vehicles. Different routes will emerge for (and during) each event, and roads and structures may have been destroyed or have deteriorated since you last encountered them. In some tracks, freak weather effects will ravage the track as you drive through. The lack of any realism helps here, with courses that run across the roofs and through the floors of skyscrapers, or speed through dockyards or financial districts in the middle of a riot, with cars scattering Molotov-chucking protestors in their wake. It’s doubtful that your mother would like Motorstorm. It’s a game that will do anything for a cheap thrill.
And when you’ve worked your way through all three chapters - which won’t be easy - you still have the old-fashioned “Wreckreation” mode to play through, with more “hardcore” challenges, time trials and races you can play through, either on your own with AI racers or with mates, either online or through a generous four-player split-screen mode. Online, there’s also a nifty system of perks, unlocking new vehicles and custom options.
The original Motorstorm was arguably the PS3’s most exciting showcase at launch, and Apocalypse is still pushing the hardware now. There’s a hint of comic-book stylisation to the visuals to match the “motion comics” used to play the Festival mode cutscenes, but it works really well, and the sheer amount of clutter, wreckage and detail being lavished on the screen at any time is pretty-much gobsmacking. It’s hard to say whether Apocalypse or Split/Second: Velocity does better spectacle, but either way this is a hugely impressive effort. Plus, those of you lucky enough to own a 3D TV can play this one with the additional dimension, and from the chance we’ve had to sample it, it’s really worth it, adding to the sense of immersion as chunks of twisted metal fly towards you and buildings start to tumble only metres from your bonnet.
In short, this is a massively exciting game, and one of the most inventive and imaginative racers we’ve had the chance to play in the last few years. All the same, we have to be a bit miserly about the score for the simple fact that success in Motorstorm Apocalypse relies a bit, frustratingly, on luck. There’s always so much going on at any one time that, unless you have the reflexes of a tiger, it is less a case of if you’ll crash, than when. You’ll regularly find yourself rammed from behind by other racers and spinning out of control, and moving between first, third and twelfth within the space of a single lap. Skill and persistence will win through, but in the latter half of the Festival mode we often found that winning really came down to where we happened to be as we crossed the line rather than having run a particularly good or bad race. The game is so much fun that this really isn’t a disaster, but it can annoy from time to time.
With the tragic events in Japan and New Zealand and the hype over Killzone 3 and Crysis 2, it is no surprise that Motorstorm Apocalypse isn’t getting the attention it deserves. Let’s put that right. Like last year’s Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit and Split/Second: Velocity, it’s a great example of an arcade racer, offering old-school, high-speed thrills with all the razzle-dazzle and online features of a 2011 action game. If you’re happy to swap realism for raw thrills and production cars for carnage, then racing games don’t get much better than this.