Review: MotorStorm: Apocalypse

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Timing is everything, and in MotorStorm: Apocalypse’s case the timing of its release couldn’t possibly have been any more inopportune. Apocalypse, the third (or fourth if you want to count the PSP/PS2 installment) game in Evolution Studios’ PS3 off-road racing series, removes the series from the exotic wilderness areas of the previous games in favor of a reality TV style racing festival set in a city rocked by a cataclysmic earthquake and other natural disasters.

Unfortunately for the game, this year the real world has been slammed by natural disasters, from the mass flooding and wave of tornadoes that hit the U.S. recently to the devastating earthquake and tsunami that crippled Japan, an event that actually led to Apocalypse being delayed from its original launch date so a potentially distasteful reference could be removed. Gaming is escapism and shouldn’t be taken as seriously as it so often is, but it would be understandable and none too surprising if people have a difficult time stomaching glorification of such disasters so soon after the fact.

Add the PlayStation Network outage to the mix, which left the online component unplayable for nearly two weeks following its May 3rd release, and a perfect storm capable of derailing any chance the game had at success was formed.

I’m happy to say, though, that MotorStorm: Apocalypse charges through the storm like a champ, delivering heart-pounding thrills and mass environmental chaos above and beyond any other racing game before it. It has certainly become my favorite MotorStorm to date in the month or so I’ve had the game (Sony sent over an early build before release, but I didn’t want to publish a review without first testing the online content), and it’s right up there with any other elite PS3 racing game.

Apocalypse’s main claim to fame is its new weather-based track destruction. As you’re whipping around the city, different natural disasters wreak havoc upon the terrain all around you. There’s a race on a boardwalk with rain hammering down, a tornado blowing boats and other debris into the air, and heavy winds trying to sway your car off the track; there’s another track that has you driving through and on the rooftops of crumbling skyscrapers; and there are many tracks on roads and bridges that crack, shake and split as earthquake tremors rip through the city. These disasters, although scripted to happen in each race, always strike at different times, and the resulting carnage changes how each lap unfolds.

Buildings topple into the street, planes come crashing down, subway trains derail and flip onto the track, bridges begin to buckle and wobble back and forth under your tires, water mains and fire hydrants bust open and spew water into the air, fires break out, and terrain caves in right before your very eyes. Mother Nature isn’t your only concern either. You also have to worry about 15 other racers eager to sideswipe you off the road, and there are even rioters and attack helicopters attempting to shoot you out of commission.

There is a lot happening on the screen at every turn, and the presented mayhem will blow away your eyes and eardrums with the volume of detail that’s on display and the thumping music and sound effects that do a proper job getting your adrenaline pumping. I’m not a fan of 3D, but this is one game that makes me wish I had a 3DTV with a high end surround sound kit!

However, because the screen is so busy, the constant chaos can overload your senses to the point of disorientation, sometimes making it overly difficult to see exactly where you’re supposed to be going. The major catastrophes also strike with cutaway scenes that pull you out of the flow of the race and often lead you into a crash when the camera swings back into proper perspective. You can choose not to zoom in on some of them, but if you don’t you are instead left wondering what impact the event had on the track ahead of you, which often leads to a crash as well.

So, yes, the spontaneity of these natural disasters can lead to what I consider cheap deaths – it’s infuriating to lead the pack from start to finish, only to lose the lead on the closing stretch because a plane falls out of the sky right on top of you, or some other freak accident occurs that you really couldn’t prepare for. But these moments of frustration are greatly outnumbered by the many hours of aggressive, white-knuckle racing this game has to offer.

Change in setting and overall mentality aside, Apocalypse is a familiar continuation of the MotorStorm franchise. The game lets you get behind the wheel (or handlebars) of 13 different vehicles classes – dirt bike, ATV, buggy, rally car, racing truck, mudplugger, big rig, muscle car, super car, chopper, supermini, monster truck and superbike – and go barreling through intricate, multi-route tracks in intense, paint-swapping races for glory and survival.

Due to the switch from dirt, mud, and gravel tracks to more of an urban street drifting style, the vehicle physics have been appropriately tweaked. So if you’ve spent a lot of time with and mastered the feel of the previous games, it may take some time to get up to speed. But the core racing strategies remain the same, and overall I found the physics and controls to be incredibly tight and responsive, and the screen-blurring sense of speed even more exhilarating. For comparison, I popped Pacific Rift back in after completing Apocalypse, and the controls felt a whole lot looser and less forgiving to me in the previous outing.

Managing boost usage and using water and wind to cool down your engine is still a key to winning, as is taking advantage of opportunities to ram opposing drivers into hazards and memorizing track layouts so you can maintain a course best suited to your current vehicle. While it does seem like certain vehicles have clear advantages over others, for the most part the rides balance out pretty well as you master their unique strengths and weaknesses. More importantly, each vehicle is fun to drive in its own way – it’s cool to dart around tight corners and weave in between wreckage on a crotch rocket, and it’s equally satisfying to mount up a monster truck and plow through other drivers.

In terms of modes, MotorStorm: Apocalypse has plenty under its hood to keep you busy. Offline, there is a story mode spanning three chapters and 40 total events, plus time attack races, hardcore festival races (the story mode events replayed in a time attack format and at a higher difficulty), and split-screen quick races for up to four local players.

The story mode in particular, while not super deep, is a challenging and fun way to get acclimated with the game, and you can easily spend upwards of 10 hours or more playing it through, depending on how much you care about achieving 1st place in all events (you only have to place in a predetermined position range to qualify for the next race) and finding the card collectibles hidden on each track. My favorite moments in the entire game are actually the point-to-point prologue and epilogue races — the prologue races play out like cinematic introductions to the events ahead, while the epilogues feel like the racing equivalent of a chapter-closing boss battle.

True, the actual story behind the game is silly, and the art style used for the motion comic cutscenes is kinda lame. But this is a racing game for crying out loud, not some epic role-playing quest or blockbuster action/adventure. I think the way the story is structured and presented fits well enough with the game’s gritty, over-the-top brand of gameplay. It’s not meant to be taken seriously…so don’t!

None too surprising, the game gets even better once you take it online. Online, the game supports up to 16 players at a time (and yes, you can do two player split-screen against 14 online players) in standard lap-based races and eliminator battles in which the racer in last place is eliminated in set intervals until one man is left standing victorious. Yeah, only two race types are available, and that’s disappointing. But oh well, it’s loads of fun regardless.

The best part about the online play is its reward system. Like any multiplayer game these days, competing online contributes to an overall player ranking. As you participate in races, you earn chips based on your finishing position and other factors, as well as for performing standard gameplay actions like drifting, wrecking other players, getting good air time off of jumps, and so on. You can also place bets against one racer before a race begins, and if you beat just that player you get a bonus pot at the end. From there you can choose to gamble the winnings in the next race to multiply your winnings — but if you lose, all your winnings are lost. This adds an extra little reward dynamic to every race.

This plethora of ways to earn chips and advance at your own pace keeps you from getting discouraged, so even if you aren’t posting high finishing positions you still feel like you are making progress and being rewarded for your time. As you become more skilled, the chips pile up as you earn Medals and Accolades for specific performance achievements, such as setting the fastest lap time, drifting or braking the most, smashing through objects, and that sort of thing. There are Parts Challenges to complete as well, and as you fulfill the requirements for each class new vehicles and parts are unlocked.

That’s right! MotorStorm: Apocalypse finally lets you hit the garage and customize your vehicles, and it’s a fun new way to show off your personality on the track. Everything about a vehicle’s visual appearance can be customized, from livery color to sticker placement to individual parts, including but not limited to wheels, bumpers, windows, mirrors and lights. While these customizations are superficial, the new perk system allows you to enhance actual performance. Before a race you can choose a loadout of three perks, each providing a passive performance upgrade, such as halving track reset time after a crash, improving braking or tire grip, and boosting engine cooldown. Perks help to balance out the competition, and finding proper combinations to enhance a vehicle’s strengths and nullify its weaknesses can give you that extra edge.

Even amidst the PSN woes, online performance has been rock solid. In the 20 or so races I’ve competed in, I haven’t experienced any lag hits, and I’ve only dropped connection once. The only problem I see thus far is what seems to be rampant rage quitting. It always seems like the last few racers at the bottom of the pack are disconnecting, and if one of those people is a rival you’ve bet against, you don’t win the pot you earned. I don’t know for sure if these are rage quitters or random disconnects, but the way they always seem to happen at the end of races leads me to believe it’s the former. I’ve lost a lot of pots this way, and it drives me nuts.

Hopefully in time Evolution can sure up these rage quits and/or random disconnects, whatever they may be, and expand the online race options beyond two main mode types (how about some type of point-to-point race like those in the story mode?), because other than those minor quibbles, MotorStorm: Apocalypse is one helluva wicked racing game.

Quick Addendum: I have since discovered that the Chase mode available in offline quick races is also available online. In Chase mode, you play multiple elimination rounds, and players earn points based on their position after the countdown timer ends. The first player to reach 20 points wins the match. However, Chase mode is only playable in privately hosted games — I’ve been playing via auto matchmaking, which is why I missed it previously. Plus, it is really just an Eliminator variant, so it doesn’t offer much additional substance, nor does it change my criticism of lack of mode choice.

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Pros:
+ Core racing engine is fast and fun
+ Dynamic weather events and track destruction alter terrain in real-time
+ Incredibly detailed and well thought out track designs
+ Satisfying online reward system
+ Unlockable parts and perks add greater customization
+ Fun and highly replayable story mode

Cons:
– Chaotic screen activity can be disorienting
– Unpredictable destruction events cause cheap crashes
– Only two main online race types
– Too much rage quitting and/or late-game disconnects

Game Info:
Platform: PS3
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Evolution Studios
Release Date: 5/3/2011
Genre: Racing
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-16
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!