MotorStorm: Apocalypse Review (PS3)

MotorStorm probably has the most peaks and troughs of any game series I’ve come into contact with. The original was championed by Sony as the first killer app of the PlayStation 3 but was crippled by the lack of modes and basic options. The follow-up named MotorStorm: Pacific Rift was essentially what the first game should have been, adding in all the content you’d expect from a modern racer and generally tightening up the whole experience.

The latest entry in the series, MotorStorm: Apocalypse, lies somewhere in between the two. Whereas Pacific Rift was an undeniable step up from the first, this third PS3 iteration feels more like a sidestep or perhaps even a misstep for the series.

Sony hasn’t put out any press materials of the motion comic cutscenes. There’s a reason for that

In terms of game play very little has changed since the original despite the shift in scenario. The core off-road racing is still all about using the different vehicle and terrain types to your advantage and cranking the most out of your speed boost ability without blowing yourself to pieces.

The most meaningful change to Apocalypse is also its most obvious one; the setting. Every track takes place in and around a fictional city that has been and continues to be devastated by natural disasters (not to mention the occasional crashing planes, airstrikes and derailing trains). This new location not only helps give the game a greater sense of identity but also allows for some impressive and track altering set pieces.

Structures and parts of the landscape will impressively crumble and shift to block or open up parts of the environment which initially encourages some quick thinking from players. However, with persistent play you’ll gradually learn where and when said events will occur so the illusion of dynamism doesn’t last all that long.

The game’s other big addition sadly fares a lot worse. Festival, the single player mode from MotorStorms past, returns though this time it has a story to tell through animated motion comic scenes. I use the terms ‘story’ and ‘animated’ extremely lightly since the former provides next to no context or emotional connection to the actual racing and the latter is mostly awful.

When it comes to motion comics less is usually more. If the creators get overly ambitious with a limited number of static assets everything ends up looking unnatural and, dare I say, cheap. This manifests particularly in Apocalypse’s characters who move like they’re those cut-out paper figures you’d make in school with pin hinges for elbow and knee joints.

To be fair on the cutscenes the art is at least well done (even if every character is drawn in a hyper real comic book style) but the uninvolving content and lame dialogue adds nothing to the experience. Thankfully, the game does let you skip them.

The destructive set pieces look great but on the whole the graphics don’t really push the bounds of the PlayStation 3's power

Story elements aside, Festival shakes out as it did in the previous games providing a linear progression of preset competitions comprised of the game’s three basic race types.

Odds are that the ‘Wreckreation’ half of the game is where you’ll spend most of your time. This is the other main option on the game’s top-level menu housing the majority of Apocalypse’s content. Here you’ll find everything from the expected basics like customisable race options all the way up to neat extra features like avatar personalisation and the ability to capture and save in-game snapshots. It even supports up to four players via split-screen play, a feature that seems to be becoming less and less common across all genres of gaming.

Unfortunately Apocalypse does suffer from a few technical problems. The most immediately identifiable is the surprisingly long loading times. I grew so tired of them I actually started timing these prolonged pauses. It usually took over thirty seconds for the game to drop me into a race after I’d hit the appropriate accept option at menu level. That might not sound that long to most but in video game terms that feels like an age especially when you’re staring at a silent black screen featuring only the word ‘Loading’ and a small animated wavy line.

The option to at least partially install the game to the system’s hard drive might’ve alleviated the matter. Such a feature is often provided in PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Portable titles to speed up loading times but here it just isn’t possible.

Online matches tend to take over a minute to load up but I suspect this stems from a separate larger problem. At the time of writing Apocalypse’s online component is a weirdly inconsistent mess. Sometimes you’ll search for a match, join and be playing in a matter of minutes. Other times you can hit quick match and a blank option box will appear offering you to do nothing else than to hit circle to back out. The game even crashed my PS3 at one point when I was trying to create an online session.

Hopefully these are just launch window issues that will soon be rectified by the developers. That said, it’s fairly concerning that a straightforward racing game could release with such crippling online problems.

The soundtrack's shift from the licensed rock of its predecessors to an original dubstep-orchestral blend may be an unwelcome change for series fans

Another sour point for Apocalypse is its graphics. It seems like the game has been powered by the same engine since the original MotorStorm and at this point it’s starting to show its age. While the crumbling structures and environments look great in motion (as does the tornado you can get up close and personal with) other graphical elements look about the same as they did in Pacific Rift. Some aspects like texturing actually appear inferior to its predecessor’s. All-in-all this is not the graphical powerhouse that you might hope for and doesn’t push the limits of the PlayStation 3.

I can’t help but feel underwhelmed by my experience with MotorStorm: Apocalypse. The central game play and graphics engine are showing signs of being past their prime and the weak story elements make it hard get invested here. If it weren’t for the dramatic shift in setting and the disaster motif I would probably condemn it as a lazy sequel. As it stands, Apocalypse is a perfectly entertaining ride but is nothing to write home about.