Review: MotorStorm

motorstorm_cover.JPGPlatform: Playstation 3
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Evolution Studios
Release Date: 3/6/2007
Genre: Racing
Players: 1-12

If you own a PS3, you need MotorStorm, it’s that simple. Evolution Studios has made a game that shows off what the system can do and it looks absolutely spectacular. From the moment you hit the accelerator until it’s pried from your hands, the game never ceases to thrill. With only eight offline courses and a single player mode that’s thinner than Nicole Richie but tougher than an overcooked steak, the game seems short at first. However, the sheer thrill of driving these wild rides is unparalleled, particularly if you’re a fan of any sort of off-road racing. It’s a system seller that would have added an edge to the PS3’s spotty launch lineup, but that’s in the past. 2007 looks great for the new console, especially if more games like this are on the way. The game is hard as nails, the online racing superb (and brutally competitive) and did I mention it looks completely amazing? Spectacular, amazing, choose whatever adjective you like, but definitely run out and grab this if you want something to keep you busy for quite some time.

The single player portion posits a huge extreme racing festival in Monument Valley, a sort of Baja 1000 meets Ozzfest, if you like. However, alt-rock tunes and snarly attitude are merely there to give the game an ‘edge’ for players who feel the need for some explanation for the mayhem about to occur. Let’s just say that if you’ve always wanted to play a Road Warrior game, this is the closest thing you’ll get to one. Of course, there aren’t any firearms here, but between the constant dynamic wrecks, bikers taking swings at each other and souped-up big rigs barreling down on smaller rides, there’s a constant adrenaline surge throughout that’s hard to beat. To progress through single player mode, you’ll need to unlock race events or ‘tickets’ throughout the game’s four difficulty levels. Let’s just say that a few hours in, you’re either totally hooked or bawling like a newborn as the game’s difficulty ramps up considerably.

As you go through the vehicle selection, you’ll come to appreciate Evolution’s dedication to detail in terms of handling. Motorbikes are fastest, but can’t survive a bash by anything with four wheels, while the more stable ATV’s conquer hilly terrain and some sweet jumps, but are easily tipped by some bigger rocks and other hazards. Buggies or Rally Cars are fast and only as tough as the thin shells covering their frames, but over muddy surfaces, you’re better in the former. The lower acceleration and higher clearance of Racing Trucks gives then an advantage along with their weight, but the monster-truck like Mudpluggers dominate them except in the speed category. Finally, and frighteningly, there are the Big Rigs that, if you’ve ever seen the early Spielberg movie Duel, pretty much crush everything but suffer from low speed. Trying to play one ride like another will lead to disaster, so learning each one’s pros and cons is half of why the game is so brilliant

You’ll end up in all of these rides at some point and the game’s stunning tracks will show you your doom on many occasions until you master them. You’re going to wreck often and seemingly at random, as you make your way around these deathtraps. Nevertheless, there’s going to be that one race where something clicks and you’ll blast over a huge wreck to come in first place, jumping off the couch for a victory dance. In terms of control, you can use the SIXAXIS to tilt your way to the finish line (very hard), go with the analog sticks (more control, less grief) or fumble with the D-pad (what is this, 1998?). As there’s no feedback in the PS3 pad (what is this, 1999?), the game lacks a bit of extra oomph that would make it even better. The again, you’ll be falling off the couch enough anyway, as even the smallest crash is simultaneously heart stopping and beautiful. If that heart of yours stops as you go sailing into Monument Valley after misjudging a turn… well, that’s not so beautiful, it’s just heart-stopping.

When you hit a jump or obstacle that sends you flying, you’ll need to adjust your ride’s yaw or pitch with the left stick or D-pad. Mastering this will save your bacon more often than not, but should you buy it, definitely hit the pause button a few times and check out the destruction in stages by using the right stick to play with the game camera. You’ll spend at least a few races doing this, if only to crack up at your crack-ups. Braking is also important; you’ll find out should you try to play this like Ridge Racer or something similar. Sure, you’ll get to use that handbrake often, but simply slamming down on it will send you skidding into a boulder, cliff wall or other vehicle. There’s also a boost function that really helps out when you need to blast past the AI or help make that scary jump you missed on the last lap, but overuse can cause your engine to explode (which in turn is a great chance to pause and check your wreck). Every race is chock full of calculated risks and ridiculously rewarding consequences should you manage to pull off a great run.

There are eight tracks in total here, which isn’t a lot at first glance, but you’ll find alternate routes only certain vehicles can survive that send you over or under the pack of daredevils and their soon to be flying machines. Whether it’s the long, treacherous multi-surfaced hell of The Grizzly, the mucky Mudpool that makes for slow going but still intense combat or the hilariously junk and rock-strewn chaos that is The Tenderizer, expect the unexpected on a constant basis. As races progress, obstacles are knocked about, changing anything resembling a racing line into a chaotic maze of avoidance. On a motorbike, you can try to boot another biker off his seat, but when you’re both being chased by a Mudplugger that in turn has a big rig bearing down on it with a Rally Car and Buggy flying overhead about to smoosh something, yeah; it’s time for a change of underwear. It’s safe to say that some players might even sweat off a few pounds simply by racing in single player or online… Hell, I’d say you’d definitely be lighter after a week or so of surviving races with other live players.

Sadly, there’s no split screen play, which is too bad, but from a technical standpoint it makes perfect sense. As I’ve noted elsewhere, split screen games draw everything twice, meaning a loss of detail and overall speed. This certainly wouldn’t be the same game with a lower frame rate and less stuff to crash into, so I have to commend Evolution for not shoving a 2-player mode in that would cause the game to suffer a performance hit. I have the sneaky feeling that just as they did with their stellar WRC (World Rally Championship) series, the sequel will have even more improvements on the technical side, so maybe we’ll see split screen for those who crave it. The again, between the drastically different vehicle handling and the intricately designed courses, it would be hard for a non-fan of the game to hop in and have any real success. Being able to see the entire road (or as much as possible given the dust, mud and car parts that litter the sky at points) is another reason the game doesn’t have a two player setup. I can’t imagine making it through the Coyote Rage or Rockhopper courses on half a screen.

Besides, you need to experience this game in its full 720p visual glory. Even though you’re supposed to be paying attention to the road and anyone else on the track, you’ll be constantly driven to distraction by the best-looking game on the PS3 to date. Between the crunchable vehicles, gorgeous weather effects and the highly destructible environments, the game is a total joy to see running in HD. On a standard TV, it loses that next-gen luster but still looks great, so don’t worry if you haven’t upgraded. 1080p and 1080i fans will complain about the lesser resolution, but I’ll make a guess and venture that the game was in development for so long that Evolution didn’t have time to up the resolution without redoing a bunch of assets. No matter, though – it’s hard to find anything in the game that doesn’t look like it belongs there. If you’re that much of a perfectionist, I think you may want to see if Evolution is hiring for their next game. Sound and sound design are equally impressive with a nice mix of engine types, ground effects, assorted crash sounds and a great alternative rock score featuring the likes of Nirvana, Reverend Horton Heat and Queens of the Stone Age, among others.

Online, the game is even better and much fiercer thanks to some very skilled drivers who give no quarter and take no prisoners. Races are very much lag-free and smooth thus far, no matter when I logged in. Obviously, this is the game many PS3 owners were hoping for, so it’s always easy to find someone online who’ll hand you your head. The game supports voice chat, so expect a few taunts along with the occasional friendly thumbs-up when you win or lose gracefully. During one race, I heard some guy griping about how he wished the game supported split screen play, but a second later, he went sailing off a cliff after someone clipped his rear tire. Another guy yelled out something like “well, if it had split screen, you’d still suck!” which made me laugh so hard, I wrecked into a boulder and took out two other drivers who were laughing as well. Ah, there’s nothing like the community spirit, huh? Expect to wreck about ten times more while playing online as it seems like some eaxpert players have practically lived inside their PS3’s since the game’s release.

As for problem areas, well, as mentioned earlier, the lack of rumble in the SIXAXIS is sorely missed. Some of the best racing I recall has been thanks to the shimmy and shake of those two weights spinning away inside the old Dual Shock and Dual Shock 2 pads. The lack of any sort of feedback is like going cold turkey to those of us who put countless hours into racers both good and bad, grrrr. It would have been better to have the option to turn it off than none at all, I say. That goes double for the tilting business. In a game that demands precision pretty much all the time, ‘getting used to’ tilting the PS3 pad will cause some casual players to hate the game because they’re too heavy handed. You can switch to the sticks and make do, but it’s weird to have a new feature and not make use of it because it’s too much trouble until you practice for a long while. Finally, loading times can be hazardous to your gaming health. As great as the game is, there are times when you’ll be able to get up and hit the bathroom before a race starts or fix yourself a quick sandwich while a course and cars load. In the end, it seems long load times will never go away and in fact, they seem to get longer with each console generation. I’m guessing we’ll see this improve as developers get more accustomed to the PS3 hardware.

I’ll close this review more or less the same way I opened it: if you have or want to buy a PS3, you absolutely need a copy of MotorStorm. The game is phenomenal looking, fast as all get out and tough enough for even the most hardcore racing fanatic. Then again, the high difficulty curve means only the truly hardcore will see all it has to offer, but let’s not denigrate Joe Casual’s gaming skills. An angry man with a controller can conquer just about anything, according to an old Asian proverb from the Famicom era. Anyway, I’m just hoping that if Evolution does another WRC game, we get it localized here in the US. They clearly have a few thousand ecstatic new gamers who know and play their work online right now, so let’s hope we see not only more MotorStorm in the future, but also more of what they can do with real-life cars and courses.

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