MotorStorm - ReviewCraig Snow , posted on 18 April 2009 / 4,601 Views
MotorStorm has quickly established itself as one of the PS3’s leading franchises. Set to sell well over 3.5 million copies worldwide, it has already spawned a sequel for the PS3 (MotorStorm: Pacific Rift), and there’s another game for the PSP and PS2 in the works as well (MotorStorm Arctic Edge). Arguably the PS3’s best European launch title alongside Resistance: Fall of Man, MotorStorm offers fun and chaotic off-road racing set across eight different tracks - with an additional four available as DLC - and with seven completely different vehicle types. With some gorgeous visuals, great sound effects and an extensive rock and metal soundtrack, MotorStorm certainly set the presentational bar high for future PS3 games, although it undoubtedly lacked some of the content we have come to expect from racing games.
The career mode is the first part of the game most people will explore, so I’ll describe that first and then detail the other modes (multiplayer, time trial and elimination) towards the end of the review. The career mode consists of race tickets. Each ticket gives you access to up to four different races and often gives you bonus unlockables such as extra tracks, vehicles and vehicle skins. You gain points for finishing in the top three for each race; those points are then used to unlock extra tickets, which means that if you find certain races too hard you can still progress through the career mode by gaining points elsewhere. There are 21 tickets in the default career mode (extra tickets also come with the DLC that’s available from the PlayStation Store) and each race can take anywhere from a couple of minutes to over 10 minutes to complete, so with each ticket averaging four races the career mode is pretty lengthy.
The seven different vehicle types make up a large part of the gameplay experience. Each different vehicle type has its own strengths and weaknesses, and then within that class the different vehicles you unlock also have slight differences between them. The motorbikes are the smallest and most vulnerable rides, making them both agile and quick off the mark. They’re best suited to the higher levels of each track where the terrain is much smoother and allows for more grip and the other vehicles tend not to go. Next up are the ATVs, which are similar to the bikes but because they have four wheels they’re a little more stable when engaging with other vehicles and are better able to cope with the muddy sections of the tracks. Both of these smaller vehicles also come with the ability to taunt other racers, and even punch other motorbike and ATV riders off their vehicles.
Next up you have the two medium-sized vehicles - the buggy and the rally car. With more protection than the ATVs and motorbikes, they’re much more stable and have some of the best all-round acceleration, top speed and handling. The buggies prefer the rough terrain, whilst the rally cars excel on the dry and straight sections of the track where they can really build up speed, and both are most suited to what is often the middle section of each track. One up in size from the buggy and the rally car is the racing truck, a much heavier option but at the same time much tougher and able to build up considerable momentum, the downside being a level of acceleration that is no match for the rally car.
The final two vehicle types are the heavy hitters – the mudpluggers and the big rigs. Mudpluggers look like enormous buggies, with huge spiked tyres and a metallic cage to protect the driver, whilst big rigs are huge lorries and trucks. Both are most suited to the lower parts of the track, where their grip allows them to convincingly dominate over the other vehicles. They lack the acceleration and speed of the smaller vehicles, but their dominance in the mud and sheer force of momentum allows them to catch up and literally crush almost all of the racers in their way.
The level of variety introduced by having so many different vehicle types is genuinely fantastic and, with each type having its own strengths and weaknesses, games full of different vehicle types can be fantastic fun. The balance between most of the vehicles is generally surprisingly good, which allows a lot of the vehicle types to hold their own on most of the tracks. The variety in handling between the different vehicle types, and the different sections of the tracks which each different vehicle type excels in, all means that the game genuinely plays differently with each different vehicle. For example, when playing with a motorbike on The Grizzly (the game’s main track), you’ll attempt to separate yourself from the pack, using the shortcuts and high routes to gain the lead and keep your interactions with other vehicles, and with the mud, to a minimum. Play the same track again with a big rig and the race completely changes shape, now your aim is to crush and wipe out the smaller vehicles and then dive into the core of the track where the mud gives you plenty of grip and you can cause havoc for other vehicles by leaving large pot-holes in the track.
As you would expect, some vehicle types do tend to dominate, or are at least clearly the optimum choices for a given track. As inevitable as this is - given that balancing seven different vehicle types for each track perfectly is probably a near impossible task - the stronger vehicles are nevertheless quite varied. Motorbikes, rally cars, racing trucks and big rigs are the strongest vehicle types, whilst the ATVs, buggies and mudpluggers are all defeated by their neighbouring vehicle types (motorbikes in the case of the ATV, rally cars in the case of the buggy and big rigs in the case of the mudplugger).
Besides the difference in vehicle classes, one other area in which MotorStorm differs from most others racers is in the addition of a boost system. In the bottom left hand corner of the screen there is an engine temperature gauge. You can use the boost system to increase your speed, but as you do so this temperature gauge will fill up. Use it for too long and the gauge will flash and beep and the camera will shake violently as your vehicle comes apart at the seams, eventually exploding into a huge fireball.
The AI is truly aggressive, and much more varied and unpredictable than that found in a lot of racers; there are no single file convoys to be found here. AI vehicles will make mistakes and smash into rocks, or fall off the edges of cliffs. They’ll smash into each other (and you) as they jostle for position and will try and knock other vehicles off the track. This literally makes every single race unique. The further you progress through the career the tougher the AI gets, so the game continues to be challenging even after you’ve begun to master the controls and the track layouts. This keeps the game fresh for longer, and certainly makes it more interesting and addictive than some other racers where you have to create your own artificial challenges with the enemy AI.
Although MotorStorm’s AI is a significant improvement over a lot of racers, the reliance on ‘rubber-band’ AI seriously holds it back. The idea behind the rubber-band AI is to keep races competitive by preventing you from stretching out an enormous lead or from falling too far behind, but at times it’s too unforgiving and too artificial, particularly towards the end of the career where a small mistake at the end of the race can quickly send you from first to last place. Whilst this keeps races challenging at every single stage, it becomes more obvious and more frustrating the further you progress through the career. As I said above, the AI is still an improvement over a lot of racers despite the use of rubber-band AI, but a more subtle use of rubber-band AI would have made the game much less frustrating.
The core game includes eight different tracks (increasing to 12 with the DLC, and effectively doubling online where you can access mirror versions of the tracks). They’re well varied tracks, all offering several different routes and shortcuts to suite the different vehicles types. The Grizzly, for example, is a huge track with three core routes that split off and then meet back up again on the main straight, as well as a couple of hidden shortcuts which I didn’t discover for months. The routes vary from high flat dirt track, best suited for smaller vehicles, to deep valleys filled with mud that are ideal for the big rigs and mudpluggers. Rain God Mesa, in contrast, is a much shorter track with one core route that only branches off very briefly in different parts. It’s set on the edge of a cliff so there’s ample opportunity to knock opponents off the side, or to accidentally launch yourself over the edge. The paths are quite tight and unforgiving, with sharp corners and tricky jumps, making it an ideal track for packed races full of small and medium sized vehicles vying for position.
This open-ended feel, where you’re given several routes to choose from, is perfectly suited to the gameplay. When combined with seven different vehicle types it takes a long time to learn all the routes and figure out which route is best for which vehicle type, particularly for the larger tracks like Dust Devil where there are so many different routes to take and such huge wide-open spaces that it’s actually easy to get lost the first few times you race around it. This means that what at first might not sound like a lot of racing tracks is actually deceptively understated. Eight tracks is not many for a racer, and I would certainly have liked to have seen more included, but given the amount of different routes, the size of the tracks and the way in which each of the seven different vehicle types will race on each track differently, it means that there is actually quite a lot of lasting appeal on offer.
When it comes to graphics, MotorStorm is a stunning game. The tracks are nicely detailed and have impressive draw distances. Flying off a steep ramp on a track like Rockhopper or Rain God Mesa gives you a stunning view of the track ahead of you and the desert land in the distance. The particle effects are a great touch as well; dust, dirt, rubble and mud all kick up as you plow through the track with your vehicle, often partially obscuring your screen with a cloud of dust or a splattering of mud. Much has also been made of the realistic real-time deformation of the tracks. What this basically means is that as each vehicle rips through the track the tyre tracks they create persist throughout the race. These vary from small and insignificant marks left by the bikes, to the huge dents and ruts in the track left by big rigs that can cause problems for smaller vehicles.
Another aspect of the visual presentation that really stands out is the physics and damage engine. If you crash your vehicle or cause the engine to blow up you’re treated to some spectacular crashes. The action slows down and the camera pans back as your vehicle smashes apart in slow-motion, with all the intricate bits and pieces of your vehicle flying everywhere. This acts as both a great visual showcase and also as a penalty for crashing, so that once you’ve seen the main part of the crash you can skip the scene and be respawned on the track. It’s particularly pleasing to see AI controlled vehicles making mistakes or being forced into a brick wall by other AI vehicles, and narrowly missing a massive pile-up and watching the chaos ensue in your rear view mirror is great fun.
In-game you’re presented with a thumping rock and metal soundtrack which really matches the style of the game (and can be edited to remove the songs you want to skip). In total there are over 20 tracks from bands like Kings of Leon, Nirvana, Primal Scream and Slipknot. The sound effects are good as well, engine noise varies from vehicle to vehicle, and the sound effects nicely vary between the different track surfaces.
The game generally runs smoothly. This is impressive given that there can be as many as 15 vehicles in a race all struggling for position, kicking up mud and dirt and crashing all over the place. The one exception to this comes in the form of the loading screens. Whilst updates have removed the excessively lengthy vehicle loading screens from the online multiplayer mode, they're still present in the single player modes and the game on the whole suffers from loading times that are far too long, and this is the one blot on the otherwise superb presentation.
Besides the main career mode there is also a time trial mode. Here you’re free to select a track and a vehicle and then race around the track in an attempt to achieve the fastest time possible. Usually time trial modes in racers aren’t of any interest at all to me, but the one in MotorStorm is will implemented and actually quite useful. When online every person’s time and ghost is uploaded to a global leaderboard, which allows you to download other ghosts and race against them. The developers of the game have also uploaded their ghosts so you can easily download and race against them. This is particularly useful in MotorStorm because it allows you to discover the best routes for each vehicle on each track.
The game also has a very good lag-free online multiplayer mode which supports up to 12 racers on each of the tracks and also includes a mirror version of each map. Standard racing options are available to the host, including things like restricting vehicle types, selecting the track, whether or not enable catch-up and mirror mode, and selecting the time of day. There’s also friend list support, a ranking system and the game keeps track of all of your online stats. Gameplay is identical to that found in the single player game - except you’re now racing against other players instead of the AI controlled vehicles - although by increasing the amount of options available to the host there is actually more content on offer here than in the single player.
There are also several DLC packs available for purchase from the PlayStation Store. Some of these are free, but most of the substantial DLC packs cost £3.49 to £3.99. The most significant additions are four extra tracks, extra music tracks, some extra vehicles and vehicle skins, and perhaps most significantly an extra online multiplayer mode called eliminator. In eliminator mode the person in last place is eliminated after a set amount of time which is determined by the host at the start of the game. Players are constantly eliminated until only one person remains. The wreckages of vehicles are left on the track, which introduces an extra element of strategy to the mode as people will often leave their vehicles in particularly annoying spots for the remaining players to avoid.
There are a few areas where MotorStorm undoubtedly falls short. First of all there is no quick race/arcade option for single player. This is a staple of the racing genre, to able to select your vehicle, track, the amount of laps, whether to have catch-up, the difficulty level of the AI vehicles, and so on, is a rather basic feature common to almost all racers. The lack of a quick race option is one of my only disappointments with the game, and surely wouldn’t have been too hard to implement. Secondly, there is no split screen multiplayer, and although this isn’t a problem for me, it’s another omission which will be quite disappointing for a lot of racing fans.
Finally there are only eight different tracks (12 if you include DLC and 24 if you include the mirror versions which are available online). For a more standard racer this would be seriously lacking and would damage the title’s longevity, but because of MotorStorm’s strengths the amount of tracks on offer doesn't feel that inadequate. Each track has several different routes and plenty of short-cuts. It will also require different vehicle types to take different routes around the track to remain competitive, and working out which path to take with which vehicle ensures that the tracks stay fresher for longer. Add to that the aggressive AI and you have a title that is actually very addictive and manages to retain a fair amount of longevity despite what is a seriously low track count.
There are undoubtedly problems with respect to the amount of content on offer in MotorStorm, but if you're willing to put that to one side then MotorStorm is brilliant fun, thanks to its unique vehicle types and addictive gameplay. MotorStorm also set the presentational bar high with some superb damage modelling, particle effects and track designs. Most importantly, MotorStorm is a great racing game that offers something pleasantly refreshing and different from the racing norm, and I certainly recommend it.
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