Propaganda doesn’t always lie. When the world first glimpsed what PlayStation 3 could (allegedly) do several E3s ago, some of the sharpest gasps and most rapturous applause came when a short, pre-rendered MotorStorm trailer took centre stage. Violent, mud-splattered racing that saw dune buggies smashing into cabins, trucks side-swiping quad bikes and an unseated motorcyclist face a cart wheeling rally car head-on. The world asked "Could PS3 really put out this kind of gameplay with those kind of graphics? Was it all just pre-rendered propaganda?"
More than talk of RSX chips, Cell Processors, terraflops or banana controllers, it was the software that had drawn people’s attention to an embryonic PS3, and one of the strongest draws was MotorStorm.
Now PS3 is taking it’s first faltering steps in the world (with the European sibling about to break its waters), we’re beginning to see if these early gaming promises are coming true. Resistance wasn’t bad, but it’s certainly not the Halo-beater hinted at. While in Japan, a premature, stripped-down version of MotorStorm left Asian players looking towards Nintendo’s Exite-Truck for their off-road thrills.
So was it all lies then? Was it PSP hype all over again, where enough smoke, mirrors and a Kasabian backing track could make even the most lacklustre title look interesting? Well we’ve played the full, Western version of MotorStorm, and there’s certainly a lot of smoke and there’s definitely a kick ass soundtrack. But this is one heralded PS3 blockbuster that reflects, near perfectly, the campaign trail promises made over the last two years.
It’s clear from the outset that developer Evolution Studios has been itching to shrug off the pressures of the World Rally Championship (WRC) licence. In this their first non-WRC game in living memory, you are thrust into the MotorStorm event; a combination of open-air music festival, destruction derby, motocross and Wicker Man cabal.
There’s no paper-thin storyline as with Full Auto 2 or the Twisted Metal series. In fact the only reason you’re even vaguely aware of anything beyond the foot-down racing, is the opening cinematic showing hundreds of crusties dancing in the moonlight, buying friendship bracelets and pushing a flaming car down a hill for kicks.
But ignore the limited scene-setting, racing is likely the only reason you’ll be picking up MotorStorm, and racing is pretty much all you’ll get. Grab one of several starting tickets to a series of one to four races, beat those races to earn points to unlock new tickets. Grab another gearbox gate pass and repeat. But far from being tedious, these racing tickets are the hottest in town.
Woodstock car racing
From the outset, you are in for a feast for the eyes. Stunning high definition footage of the Nevada desert is inter-mixed with next gen visuals depicting off-road competitors blazing across Death Valley. The difficulty in spotting what’s actual footage and what’s from Evolution’s graphics department is testament to their skills and what PlayStation 3 is capable of (and as an early title, things can only get better!).
Once into the game itself, MotorStorm’s graphics continue to impress. Choose your ticket and sub-race, and then select a vehicle. Far from being a static selection screen, MotorStorm ‘s mechanical menu sees the vehicles individually appearing atop a Cliffhanger-esque rocky outcropping high above the desert floor. Refuse a vehicle and it plummets off the summit to be replaced by the next option. The vehicles themselves are presented in full 3D, allowing you to zoom in/out and spin around to get a good idea of your ride. Most vehicles also come with at least three custom paint jobs for you to choose from, some even change the gender of the driver!
Sadly there’s no more customisation than that, so you’ll often see identical versions of yourself throughout the starting grid, particularly in class-specific races (such as Buggies-only). What’s more, even with the supposed speed of Blu-ray behind it, loading these 3D models and paint jobs takes an unacceptably long time – almost as long as loading an entire race – and it doesn’t get any quicker once you been through the line-up once. This loading time becomes increasingly tiresome as you get familiar with the car line-up, and want to instantly flick through to your favourite model and swap in your fave paint job. At this point, the initial wonder at the beauty of it all is devoured by a craving for a static 2D crayon drawing of your car, just to speed things up!
But the wonder returns as the starting klaxon sounds; a revving pack of automotive animals strain behind the line, ready to pounce as soon as the light goes green. As the short countdown ticks away, you’re given your first glimpse of the astonishing environmental graphics. Festival scaffolding towers bedecked with graffiti banners and scrambling onlookers, give way to rolling tundra, disappearing off sheer cliffs or slamming into jutting outcrops of red stone ready to claim any car that strays too close. Make the most of this three second sightsee, because as the race starts, your eyes will stay fixed on the next bend alone.
Once you leap across the start line, a mad scrap ensues as motorbikes jostle for position with quads, buggies tussle with rally cars and meaty 4x4s are barged aside by giant racing rigs. Detailed vehicle models mixed with great physics, dust and mud all set against the highly realistic Death Valley backdrop make for easily the best-looking gameplay on PlayStation 3 so far. It even looks eye-wateringly beautiful on a standard definition portable TV. On an HD big screen, it’s simply breathtaking.
While the setting is visually stunning and does make for a wide range of courses – from rock hopping to mud wallowing – it is ultimately all set in one geographical area. The changing time of day does add some variety, as does the different routes on offer to different classes of vehicles (bikes take the high road, rigs take the low (and I’ll be in the beer tent before you!)), but it’s all still desert. Evolution’s own WRC series offered a wealth of different environments, each with unique hazards, such as the snow races of Sweden, the forest/countryside courses of Britain and the lush, winding mountain tracks of Spain and Italy. You won’t see rain, snow, wind or ice in MotorStorm (you won’t see a storm for that matter), but the tempestuous gameplay more than makes up for any weather-based shortcomings.
Tea in the (car) Park
The scrappy, aggressive, vindictive and above all, dangerous racing we all fell in love with in the early E3 cinematic is all present. The big bullies side-swiping the smaller vehicles, a soaring bike landing indignantly on the roof of a passing opponent, even a car misjudging a turn and flipping end-over-end to its doom are all here. The only thing not present is the iconic image of the doomed rider remounting his bike, in the finished game it’s a respawn if you crash or come off. What makes this maelstrom all the more satisfying is that not one moment is pre-scripted. Even in single-player all the crashes happen naturally as a result of driver error, a bump in the track or pre-meditated shunt from a following competitor.
When playing the solo game, you’d be forgiven for over-looking the artificial intelligence of your competitors. You won’t notice it, not because it’s shoddy or non-existent, you won’t notice it because it’s slick, believable and above-all, fallible. Your fellow racers make mistakes, pull off stunning manoeuvres and even seem to hold grudges. Not bad for a bunch of bots.
One thing you won’t get from your AI challengers is any chat, barracking or in fact any form of communication other than giving you the finger as you overtake. This bizarre silence extends to the drunken throng that is supposedly at MotorStorm for the time of their lives. No cheering, no cameras flashing, no tipsy teens flashing their tits as you pass. In fact, for a madcap event, supposedly packed with thousands of beered-up auto-maniacs it feels pretty lifeless. Dead Rising has more of a party atmosphere.
The more you look at it, the more the whole bohemian festival thing feels like it was tacked on at the eleventh hour. The non-customisable rock soundtrack, while thankfully varied to appeal to most ages, isn’t tied in overtly with the festival. There’s no trackside soundstage banging out some tunes that doppler as you pass, and there’s only one gloomy cut scene that seems to indicate music is of interest to the patrons. Few of the races actually go through any sort of spectator area, and those that do are fenced off so securely it’s hard to see if anyone’s on the other side of the wire mesh.
This lack of soul continues with the drivers – silent, faceless, helmeted guys and gals with all the charisma and character of a cardboard cut-out. This greyness is aggravated by the lack of customisation options beyond a few paint jobs, distancing you from the proceedings. Like them or loathe them, the Need for Speed and Twisted Metal series both had interesting characters, that if nothing else made you think there was a human (or flame-headed, murderous clown who was once human) behind the wheel. We hope the online game makes you the star, not the car.
The FlatOut series on PS2 also suffered from lack of characters, but it knew full well what players wanted to do with realistic physics, and that’s mess about. In MotorStorm, despite some gorgeous cut-scene footage showing rally cars doing doughnuts and buggies doing the corkscrew jump from Live and Let Die, none of this is open to the player. There’s not even a free-roam option to enjoy the glorious track and environmental design at your leisure. With next gen graphics, physics and some of the craziest track design we’ve seen, this is a game that is bursting with gallons of possible fun, but it’s all dammed up within one cripplingly linear game mode. Fingers crossed for a downloadable sandbox mode.
MotorStorm also suffers from a lack of humour. Sure, the first time a passing biker gives you the ‘finger’ you’ll giggle, and some of the race names will have your chortling (the Genji-baiting "Giant Enemy Crab" race is our favourite title), but the chuckles are few and far between. We got the impression Evolution concentrated on making a killer racer and anything else like personality and humour, was an optional extra.
But in spite of all the grumbles, MotorStorm keeps drawing you back in. Once you’ve been playing for a few hours, you’ll scoff at seeing the same track you’ve raced several times come around again, but you’ll still want to race it. It’ll be a different time of day or a different class of vehicle, or even just different opposition (bikes versus big rigs is brutal), but whatever it is, you’ll want just one more go.
The speed, the setting, the eye-watering graphics and the physics-laden gameplay is unlike anything you’ll have experienced on PlayStation before. Like GTA, MGS or Final Fantasy on the previous generation, MotorStorm is the first "killer app" for PS3.
We’re yet to see the online multiplayer in action (no fellow journalists online to race against yet), but we’re hopeful this will add the lacking human-element and variety to the races. Assuming those boxes are ticked, MotorStorm will easily be the most complete next gen package we’re yet to see on PlayStation 3 – it even allows you to steer using the Sixaxis’ motion sensitive abilities instead of the analog stick, should you wish.
We’ll bring you a review of the online element of MotorStorm just as soon as somebody, anybody, is brave enough to head online and take us on.
Trash talk ’till the sun goes down
Online has become standard these days, and with standards come expectations. When MotorStorm was lacking an online mode upon its Japanese release, it was touted as an incomplete game. Now that the game has been released in the North American and European territories with an online mode, MotorStorm becomes a buy instead of a rent.
With full voice chat capabilities, a ranking system that encourages people to keep playing to stay on top, and proper buddy support (straight from the main list on the XMB), MotorStorm’s online mode is a brilliant experience. Through the use of a lobby system, one can either join or create a game. As the host, one can choose every and any aspect that will affect the race. What map to race on, what vehicles are available for use, number of laps raced, and even something as obscure as the weather and time of day are all changeable at a moment’s whim.
Let’s not forget the racing itself. MotorStorm shines when racing against real human opponents. All the brutality, grudges, crashes, and speed delivered in the single player are just as awesome in the lag-free online multiplayer. In fact, the game looks no different with the exception of colored tags above rival vehicles, displaying who they are.
Our few dislikes with online system are only minor dislikes. Occasionally it can be hard to find a game to race in, but it’s easy to create your own lobby as an alternative. If one is determined to race in a pre-existing lobby, at the worst there might be a five minute or so wait for a race to finish in a lobby where current race is underway. There are two annoying bugs, though they occur very rarely. The first occurs when the host powers down their PS3 as the race is loading, because then you will recieve perpetual "Waiting for other players" pre-race message. The other (it happened only once over 10+ hours of play) was strange in that you were racing, but as somebody else’s vehicle. These minor issues are only a small dent in an otherwise awesome online experience that’ll keep anyone entertained for hours on end.