Developer: Evolution Studios, Shadows In Darkness Inc. (Pacific Rift)
Available On: PS3
Released: December 14, 2006 (Motorstorm) / October 28, 2008 (Pacific Rift) / March 17, 2011 (Apocalypse)
Remember when racing games were fun?
Maybe that question is a little too facetious. Remember when racing games were about fun? When they weren’t sold based on the visible thread count of the upholstery on a car’s interior, but rather on the types of cars and what they could do? When the design of a track was more important than what country it was supposed to be in?
Do you long for the days of fun, arcade-style racers like that as much as I do?
Cool. Let’s talk about Motorstorm.
I can’t say that the idea behind Motorstorm is a completely unique one given all of the ATV racing games and the like out there, but Motorstorm is the first and only game I know of (and still the best example) to allow completely different types of vehicles in the same race. A dirtbike, a dune buggy and a souped-up transport truck can all race against each other and not only is each one equally fun to play as and against, it’s equally possible for any of them to win due to meticulous balancing and what is almost certainly the best track design I’ve ever seen in a racing game.
Many tracks in Motorstorm are so intricately designed and open-concept that they could almost be described as sandboxes, frequently splitting into multiple paths that run over and around each other. The lower, primary tracks are usually the largest and simplest to navigate, but are also commonly rife with mud, causing smaller vehicles to lose their speed and control. Larger vehicles like Big Rigs and Mudpluggers, as the name implies, handle mud much more easily.
Smaller, nimbler vehicles can more easily access the narrower paths which can offer slightly shorter routes through levels or simply let them avoid hazards like mud, as well as those larger cars that can be a massive threat to them.
Like Burnout, Need For Speed and other arcade racers of yore, vehicles in Motorstorm have the ability to boost to temporarily increase their speed. Unlike those games though, your boost isn’t limited to a finite bar. Motorstorm instead puts the power into the not-always-responsible hands of the player, allowing you to boost as much as you want. As you do though, your vehicle will build up heat. Push your vehicle past it’s limit and it’ll explode, though in the fashion of a true arcade racer that doesn’t take itself too seriously, if your flaming wreck crosses the finish line before anything else, the game will still count it as a win.
Being the first in the series, the original Motorstorm is necessarily the least refined. It’s also the simplest though, and manages to attain that level of excellence that can come from not trying too hard. It’s got the fewest cars, but each is well-balanced with no superfluous additions. It’s got the least tracks, but each is well designed and there weren’t any levels that I simply didn’t care for. Motorstorm also has a great, high-energy soundtrack with a lot of grungy hard rock that fits perfectly with the gameplay.
Motorstorm has its problems of course, the game can be really picky at times as to when you can and can’t reset, an occasionally infuriating problem that never entirely went away throughout the series. In a race consisting of entirely Big Rigs, their gigantic forms and low accelerations can feel like a half dozen people trying to navigate their shopping carts through a crowded supermarket; and Mudpluggers don’t function too well on surfaces other than mud, but are also about the same weight class as buggys, meaning they can’t hang with the other, larger vehicles meant to share the same space without getting smashed to bits, so most races in which you play as them turn into an exercise in annoyance and failure.
Most of these issues are infrequent enough that they never became too much of a problem. The harshest criticism one could make about the original Motorstorm is that it’s levels aren’t terribly visually distinct, every single one has the same brown, rocky desert aesthetic, which can cause them to blend together in your mind after a while. Even if the repetitive visuals don’t bore you, you’ll have a great deal of trouble trying to pick out your favorite track from the list.
At the end of the day though, there’s a reason why Motorstorm ended up getting three and a half sequels. It’s a solid, well designed racer with almost no fat and satisfying, versatile gameplay.
Motorstorm: Pacific Rift is one of the best kinds of sequel, the kind that takes everything that made the original great and expands on it in intelligent ways. Moving away from the desert environment to a more tropical island setting, Pacific Rift saw players racing across jungles and beaches, through caves and even up active volcanos. The visual design is so top-notch that even a lot of modern games struggle to be as visually memorable.
The change of scenery also allowed Evolution Studios to introduce several new elements into the tracks for players to interact with. Driving through the streams or waterfalls many tracks have will cool your vehicle, giving you greater opportunity to boost, though deeper water will slow or even destroy smaller vehicles. On a related note, Pacific Rift gives the Mudplugger some much needed balancing, making it a proper truck that can hold it’s own against Big Rigs and, since it handles deep water just as well as mud, turning it into a much more viable class.
Lava flows can also be found in some levels and the intense heat they give off will cause your vehicles heat to increase much faster if you boost near them. These additions add another layer to track memorization and give the tracks a welcome level of additional depth.
Pacific Rift also makes small but significant improvements to the game’s controls, most notably, the introduction of ramming. Using the PS3’s shoulder buttons, players could quickly shift their vehicles left or right at the cost of heat. This allows players to smash their opponents into walls or other obstacles and enables larger vehicles to more effectively throw their weight around. The ram can also be used to make last-second course corrections, which can be particularly useful for the larger, less maneuverable vehicles such as the Monster Truck; a vehicle new to Pacific Rift and neither the fastest nor the most agile, but with the size and power to trounce anything else on the track.
It really cannot be overstated how the different mechanics of each vehicle class can make Motorstorm feel like multiple games in one. Playing the game in a Bike feels like playing a deadly avoidance game as you dart nimbly around hazards and slower, but much more powerful vehicles. Playing as a Monster Truck on the other hand, can at times best be likened to the feeling you get wading into a group of enemies as Kratos in God Of War. The feeling of “BWAHAHAHA! TREMBLE BEFORE ME MORTALS! YES! RUN, DIRTBIKE! FLEE IF YOU CAN! IT WILL SERVE TO MAKE THE HUNT ALL THE MORE THRILLING!”
Motorstorm: Apocalypse is a bit of a paradox, as it’s where the series makes a few welcome improvements to it’s gameplay, but also some major missteps. This time, your group of thrill-seeking racers descend on an unnamed, recently evacuated city stricken with earthquakes and other various natural disasters.
The game uses this fairly unique premise to it’s fullest, with streets, highways and entire landscapes broken and pushed out of shape by the devastation to create tracks that function just like those of previous Motorstorm games, with tracks branching into high and low sections with varying terrain.
But the best feature unique to Apocalypse is that many of its tracks change as you race through them. A bridge on one track collapses on the third lap, turning a straightaway into a jump, or a rising slab of earth blocks off one of two routes in another track. A tsunami hits on the second lap of a seaside track, occasionally throwing debris and generally making it harder to stay on course. The game doesn’t go too crazy with the track changes, with usually only one or two changes per level, if any, but they provide an enjoyable change of pace for players who like having to think on their feet and definitely helps Apocalypse stand out amongst the other entries in the franchise.
Speaking of natural disasters, Apocalypse is the first time that the Motorstorm series tries to tell a story with objectively terrible, if nonetheless occasionally enjoyable results. It plays out like what might happen if everyone on the development team were told to write one cutscene each using a given cast of characters, but nobody was allowed to see what anyone else was doing. The story is broken up into three campaigns, one for each difficulty level, but the first follows Mash, a newcomer to the Motorstorm festival as he makes friends and learns the ropes. Several times throughout the game, Apocalypse threatens to put together a coherent narrative, but then two cutscenes later every existing plot point is gone without a trace.
An Australian girl who serves as a secondary character in Mash’s campaign has an entire subplot revolving around trying to get into “The Brotherhood”, an elite group of racers within Motorstorm. I assumed that the second campaign would have us play as that character proving herself in the brotherhood, but no, after gaining entry at the end of the first campaign, she disappears completely from the story and the brotherhood is never brought up again. Instead, we get to spend the next third of the game following some insufferable jock douchebag named Ty around, his one tolerable moment being the one cutscene where someone randomly beats him up with a pool cue.
I would have said that the developers should have used the money they spent on the story to make the core game better, but after thinking about it, I really don’t think twenty extra dollars would have made much of a difference to the gameplay.
The core gameplay of Apocalypse is as good as ever and still perfectly enjoyable to play, but it’s surrounded by some bewildering design decisions and it’s easy to see how it could have been even better. For example, unlike the previous two Motorstorm games, Apocalypse locks all of it’s alternative vehicle skins behind sets of challenges that can only be completed is the game’s online multiplayer which at this point, as you can probably guess, is totally dead. The actual structure of the challenges isn’t too bad, but it’s a design decision made with absolutely no thought as to what happens when someone gets this predominantly single player game a couple of years after release and is unable to unlock any alternate cars.
Speaking of cars, Motorstorm Apocalypse also touts the addition of several new vehicle classes, though that pronouncement ends up being slightly disingenuous. Two of the “New” classes are just bikes, divided into three classes for Apocalypse instead of only one with almost no discernable differences between them. The others are more significant and actually pretty fun to play around with. The Supermini is a fun, zippy alternative to the Rally Car with higher acceleration but lower top speed and the Muscle Car is a welcome addition for players who want something a little more agile than the Racing Truck and a bit more control than a Rally Car.
Apocalypse’s biggest misstep is it’s unwelcome move from good, wholesome car-on-car violence to ill-considered violence against people. Civilians can be seen running through the streets of some levels and inevitably, some of them will run straight into the path of your car, earning you an impressive bodycount over the course of the game whether you want it or not. The game takes great pains to stress that the people running around the city are “Crazies”, homeless or unstable, violent people who chose to stay in the city when all of the “Normal” people were evacuated. I can’t speak for anyone else, but not only does that not make me feel any better, I’m a little offended that it was apparently supposed to.
I’ve spent a lot of time dumping on Apocalypse, but I wouldn’t want anyone to come away from this review with the impression that it’s a bad game. I’d actually heartily recommend it and would say that it’s a worthy entry in the trilogy. It has a lot of issues, a few pretty big ones that some may not be able to look past, but ultimately everything that makes the series great is still there underneath it all, perfectly intact.
Sadly, Sony closed Evolution Studios on March 22nd, 2016 following the rocky development of Drive Club and the Motorstorm series ended, seemingly for good, with the disappointing whimper that was Motorstorm RC; a game that, when I head the name, I had assumed was going to be a visually scaled down but nonetheless proper Motorstorm game, in the vein of Trackmania of Twisted Metal: Small Brawl.
Because, I mean, what else would it be? An isometric racer with Resident Evil-style tank controls and tons of extraneous DLC? Why would I even say that? No one would turn an awesome off-road racer with lots of brand recognition into something like…that……right? Guys? Guys? No. No! Guys, Why!? STOP! NO! GUYS, WHY!?
Still, anyone able to get their hands on any of the main entries in the Motorstorm series are sure to find fantastic arcade racers that very nearly feel like a brand all their own.
P.s. The reason that Motorstorm: Arctic Edge isn’t in this review is because I no longer own a PSP and I didn’t feel comfortable trying to review it from memory. I did play the hell out of it when I owned a PSP though and, with the possible exception of Burnout: Legends, I would say it was probably the best racing game on the handheld. The tracks were well designed and I found the snowmobile class interesting, as they essentially functioned like Mudpluggers in bike form. Overall, it would likely have scored somewhere between a 7 and an 8.
+ Exhilarating Gameplay
+ Top-Notch Track Design
– Some Balance Issues
– Temperamental Reset Button
Motorstorm: Pacific Rift
+ Smart Refinements To Existing Systems,
+ Fixes Most Of The First Game’s Problems
+ Awesome, Shapeshifting Levels
– Nonsense Story, Strange Shifts In Tone
– You Had One Job Guys, Put Motorstorm On The Vita, And You Screwed It Up
Also Try: Any Burnout Game, Split Second, Fuel, Pure