Motorstorm PS3 Review - 03/04/2007

Motorstorm has had such mixed media support that it could have gotten scores from two to ten across the board, and after the controversial 'computer-generated gameplay' shown at E3, as well as its feature lacking Japanese launch, its success over here certainly seemed in question. However, it's finally out, and exceeds all reasonable expectations.

In truth, none of us should be remotely surprised that Evolution Studios have produced yet another high quality racing game after their hugely impressive World Rally Championship tittles, but at face value, a game based entirely on muddy, brown terrain, with just eight tracks and no splitscreen multiplayer, it really has no right to be so damn good.

The premise of the game centres cleverly around the MotorStorm Festival, a fictional week of racing, anarchy and rock music leading to hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts venturing into the American wilderness to experience it. The culture the developers have created around the festival through the use of CGI movies playing in the background and through the intro is actually surprisingly effective – you really get the feeling that all the AI cars racing have come from various cities across America to race – all amateurs and all with personalised, tailor-made vehicles.

Of course, there is only a limited supply of vehicles, but each class (there are seven of them), has five (some unlockable) different shapes and sizes within them, and then plenty of skins on top of that too – in short, there shouldn't be two people using the same vehicle online. Even so, by one lap into the race the paint will be virtually indistinguishable between each vehicle as the mud flies and vehicle parts smash off. Since the CGI trailer at E3 2005, and indeed E3 2006, when we saw the first real gameplay footage, it has come on leaps and bounds. In motion and on a decent television with the sound ramped up, the atmosphere obscures that of the CGI trailer. Certain textures may look a bit bland when your car is stationary, but at speed everything looks beautiful, and Evolution Studios have fully delivered on the track deformation and its effects, which we'll come to later.

Mud = beautiful.

Back to the festival, and it all revolves around tickets. You begin with just three, but as you progress and your reputation amongst other racers at the festival improves, you gain access to harder tiers (there's four in total), and unlock more tickets. Each ticket includes up to four races, with each new difficultly level opening up more tracks, so you won't play on all the levels until you reach the hardest tier: meaning you get to learn every course's routes really well. With the smaller number of courses on offer to begin with, there is repetition, but this is no bad thing - with many forcing you to use a certain vehicle, it ensures that over the races, there's plenty of variety, rather than just having you choose your favourite machine every time.

Another function that helps to dismiss the relatively small amount of tracks is the different routes available for you to take. With the seven vehicle classes: Bikes, ATVs, Buggies, Rally Cars, Racing Trucks, Mudpluggers and Big Rigs, you always have to take into account how each one handles on certain terrain. The Big Rigs, essentially just lorries, are perfectly suited to rolling along the lower parts of the levels, particularly in the deep mud, as their traction, grip and power is so high. Try and make a jump in them however, and they will clearly fall down and inevitably crash. Bikes though are the kings of stunts and jumps, with brilliant acceleration – however, they are all too easy to crash, being so lightweight, and slide like a shopping trolley in the mud.

From the heaviest, to the lightest, you have to decide which route to take on each course – usually there are about three separate main courses identifiable on a map of the track in loading screens (with loads of side routes and crossovers), and these all intertwine and provide plenty of opportunity for the lighter vehicle to be forced into the muddy mosh, with the heavier ones to suddenly find themselves approaching a death defying jump. It's a great thrill to see fifteen other cars jumping over high routes above you, slurping around in the mud below, cars crashing into gargantuan rocks behind, and the amount of action on screen at any one time, with never any noticeable framerate hitches, is a true testament to the power of the PS3 and the quality of the work done by the developers.

Bikes do have their downside. Let's just put it this way, at least he's wearing a helmet

There are two camera angles for each vehicle, with the ATV and motorbikes using third person views, and everything else having one third, and one first person camera. In most of the vehicles you get to see the bonnet in first person, and in my opinion this is the only real way to experience MotorStorm. Sure, the vehicle models are absolutely terrific, but you get to see plenty of them zooming past you and battling alongside, and the quality of the mud effects that Evolution have put in have to be seen in motion to be believed.

Regardless of the view, you get treated to dust and mud splattering on the screen depending on the surface you are currently driving on and the vehicle in front of you. However, this is not a random effect that triggers on and off at certain points. If you race in first person view then not only do you get the mud splattering up in real time, but you can actually follow it, from the point it leaves the rear wheels of the car in front, to the point that it splatters on your screen – everything is fully rendered, has physics, and can be affected in real-time by you and the other racers. It's simply marvellous.

In first person you can also use the right stick to look behind, left and right, at three fixed camera angles. This gives you a restricted view of the action behind, but makes it far more realistic, atmospheric and involving than in third person where you can rotate around the vehicle fully. Peering left and right while going over a jump to see other racers crash into oblivion, taunting each other with the various hand based gestures included in the game, and generally getting a really close up view of the action which is unparalleled in any other racing game, just has to be seen to be believed.

Convenient bottlenecks are in abundance in MotorStorm to smash other racers in to

A big part of the game's fun ethos revolves around the crashing element and the behaviour of the AI. With no offline multiplayer and a lack of Quick Race or Time Trial modes, it falls solely on your AI opponents to challenge and anger you, and to create the atmosphere of action mentioned earlier. The AI will always take the best route for their vehicle, meaning following a similar class of vehicle in front of you is a good option. However, should they get shunted off course, all hell breaks loose. They make mistakes naturally in the course of each race, leading to huge crashes and spectacular pile ups that very often include yourself.

Should you try to overtake someone, they'll regularly cut you up, ram into you, and try to push you off course when approaching a jump or chicane. Add to this the fact that the tracks are unpredictable, for example the mud can degrade until there's virtually no grip left at all and the destructible items on track can easily get in your way, and you have the recipe for mayhem. The presence of fifteen other cars all doing their own thing means no two races are ever the same, and in Festival mode (the solitary offline option), the developers have cleverly balanced the field of cars, usually giving you a certain class to race in, and constructing the AI's strength and vehicles around it to ensure mayhem unfolds.

The controls are relatively simple. While SIXAXIS motion sensing control is supported, it's not as effective as it could be, and takes some getting used to. This method unfortunately means you can't use the analogue sticks at all, and therefore has you relying solely on the ability to move your entire hand in a split second, something not really that easy to do precisely enough to traverse the tight routes of the harder MotorStorm maps. With the standard controls however, you just use R2 to accelerate, L2 to brake, and X to boost. This can quickly become uncomfortable to begin with due to the trigger system now operating on the SIXAXIS controllers, but you soon get used to it, and an alternate option of using X and Square to accelerate and brake is also available in the options menu.

Now that's just rude!

Boosting plays an integral part in races. You get about ten seconds of boost before your vehicle overheats and ultimately explodes, and using this in controlled bursts is a necessity to win each race. Numerous times I've used it on the last straight and exploded my car over the finishing line (your racer's corpse will fly a good distance) in order to clinch victory, and there is a surprising amount of strategy to the boosting system. While in mid air your car cools quicker, so taking jumps with a hot vehicle is highly recommended if you can handle it.

With these high speed risks come crashes, and if your vehicle lands on its roof, clips a rock or outcrop, or veers off a cliff, you'll be treated to a close up of it exploding, or ripping apart courtesy of the scenery. This unfortunately shows you some of the flat textures in the areas of the map that aren't usually visible, but the quality of the crashes and the AI's reaction to them (often causing more chaos) is well worth watching. The length of each crash clip is often inconsistent however, with some taking between 5 and 10 frustrating seconds. If your crash is likely to cause more bedlam, then it tends to play for longer, otherwise your vehicle is reset back on the track and is invulnerable for a short time before appearing in solid form. This all goes to support the frantic nature of MotorStorm, but you will curse when crash after crash take longer than others.

Boosting back through the pack makes up for it of course, and you can comfortably move through the entire field in a lap if you know the course, don't crash, and boost efficiently. The harder and faster routes all lead to more risks and more crashes, but if you master the track well enough to be able to take these options, the feeling is very satisfying indeed.

Trucks are much better off down low where they can't fall into any crevasses

Online, the game comes into its own. 12 players, no let up in graphical quality and no lag, this is one of the best multiplayer experiences in a videogame to date. However, the lobby system is far from adequate. You choose a section, at the moment either Australia or Europe (tough choice), and then a sub-section: at the time of writing there are two UK ones, each full of over fifty rooms. Creating a game is easy, but joining one is not. There is no indication until you are almost in the room whether a race is in progress, and some courses can take upwards of ten minutes. Add to this the fact that disconnects and crashing plague the game until you actually cross the start line, and clearly, something needs to be done. As mentioned, once you're in, the game is brilliant, but no quick join feature (to join the first available room with over 10 people in it for example), or the ability to search for Idle games that are not currently in race, really need to be fixed. There are also people who (reportedly) appear to cheat somewhat in order to win, although no amount of boosting can stop the inevitable crashing into rocks, and I must confess, I have seen no evidence of this myself.

In multiplayer games there is still a lack of people with headsets (me being one of them), but they are supported and provide witty banter and taunting as one player sends another to their rock shaped doom. The ability to have different skins on each vehicle – including female character models on bikes etc. means that there's no generic character driving each vehicle and very little repetition of the exact same car or bike. Add to this the fact that there is no 'best class' for each track, and you get a completely diverse field of racers, and over time, develop rivalries with those on your friends list. If the pre-game stuff worked, it would be the best Playstation 3 game online, and better than almost all on Xbox 360

The soundtrack is superb, if not a little repetitive. Great bands such as Wolfmother, Queens of the Stone Age, Primal Screen and Pendulum make up the bulk of it, with what may well end up being the soundtrack of the year. Roaring vehicles and an atmospheric style to the menu music is tainted only by slightly unbalanced audio in game, which can however be easily changed via the audio options. There are plenty of music tracks, and although it is all in the same mould, I've often been caught turning on MotorStorm just to listen to the playlist in the options menu.

The vehicle detail is astounding – simply put, the game is beautiful – just like the mud

One final gripe is that the loading times on the vehicle select screen are outrageously long. This seems to be a recurring theme, as Def Jam: ICON also suffers similarly in its character selection process – however, it's a very small part of a brilliant game, and just builds your anticipation for the guaranteed adrenaline rush of the race.

MotorStorm is the best looking, sounding and playing game I've seen for a good few years. The Havok engine is used brilliantly throughout. As a package however, it lacks the final details such as splitscreen (although obviously very hard to do with the graphical quality being so high), a polished online system and a deeper single player offering. With that said, the courses and vehicles on offer will keep you coming back, because every time you play, you get a completely unique experience.

This, as well as the fun and rush of each and every race means MotorStorm is quite simply a must own game, and it very very nearly comes close to being PS3's first killer app, at least to any fan of racing (or even just fun) games – but perhaps, it's not quite there yet. We look forward to the promised downloadable content, patches and updates to perhaps rectify this. The buzz of each race must be experienced by any self respecting gamer, no matter where their console allegiance lies – so get round a friends house and play it, or if you own it, ditch your proper friends, get online, and have some real fun.


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