Developer: Evolution Studios
Release Date: March 6, 2007
Though Evolution Studios was formed eight years ago, its moniker seems especially apt here in the early part of 2007. After developing a half-dozen WRC: World Rally Championship games for the PSone and PlayStation 2, its first next-generation release is a staggering evolution of the off-road racing genre. Or maybe it’s a mash-up; take a little WRC, toss in some MX vs. ATV, sprinkle in a bit of Excite Truck, add a generous helping of inspiration from Burnout, and bam – you have MotorStorm.
Whatever you want to call it, MotorStorm is that Coke machine in the desert for those of us who have been staring at an endless mirage since the launch of the PlayStation 3. Now in the second year of the (current) next-gen era, we have been inundated with all sorts of racing games, but MotorStorm may be the first to truly deserve “next-gen” billing. When you strip away the stunningly photorealistic visuals, you are still left with an expansive racing experience that would be impossible to replicate on a lesser system without significant compromises.
Since it’s already been mentioned… how about those graphics? MotorStorm is such a visual tour-de-force that it flat-out embarrasses the vast majority of racers that have preceded it. Gears of War may take the cake in the realm of stylized content, but MotorStorm easily edges it in terms of photorealism. Nearly everything is spot-on, from the spectacular lighting to the dust and dirt that trail each vehicle.
Countless games from the past two generations have been pegged as looking “real” (starting with Gran Turismo for PSone), but MotorStorm sets the bar higher than you might expect for a first-generation release. Though it does not display in 1080p (only in dreams), the 720p visuals are crisp and clean, free of flickering and jaggies. Slowdown is extremely rare, typically occurring only when a multi-vehicle pileup takes place within your field of vision. Really, the only thing that was a bit off-putting was the look of the fresh mud, but it’s not that it looked particularly bad – everything else just looked perfect.
MotorStorm is set in Monument Valley, a real-life geological area on the borders of Utah and Arizona. Evolution Studios lovingly recreated much of the familiar imagery from the area, creating eight race tracks that encompass a wide range of experiences. Rain God Mesa (a.k.a. the demo track) is set high up in the Arizona sky, with the majority of the course lacking any kind of border or physical restraint. Take a turn too quickly and you’ll be tumbling for quite some time – well, until you respawn back to safety.
My personal favorite was Rockhopper, a high-altitude adventure atop rounded slabs of earth. It feels like you’re riding on the back of a giant earthworm; albeit one with shrubbery and artificial ramps. I couldn’t help but smile when I first caught a glimpse of the rainbow-colored hot air balloons that populated the afternoon sky. Aside from those high-flying tracks, much of the action in MotorStorm happens on or near the ground, be it a romp through the mud or a jaunt along the tight ledges that border such sloppy paths. Each track is built to give players options, and as such, there’s rarely a right or wrong way to get to the finish line – just the best path for your particular vehicle.
Seven vehicle types populate the winding paths of MotorStorm, and due to a rigid single-player mode, you must learn the benefits and drawbacks of each and every one of them. Smaller vehicles, such as the MX Bikes and ATVs, are speedy and more capable of navigating vertical shortcuts, whereas the Mudpluggers and Big Rigs are much slower, but better equipped for the straightforward muddy paths typically found in the center of the track. Choosing the correct path has to do with more than just speed, though – try racing alongside a Big Rig while on an MX Bike and see how long you can avoid a wreck.
Regardless of which vehicles are in the field, be prepared for an all-out war. The A.I. racers in MotorStorm are total pricks! Big Rigs will slam you from behind. Buggies will lock wheels with you and push you into the nearest immovable object. Racing Trucks will cut you off and then slam on the brakes. MX Bike riders will actually throw punches at you! Granted, you can do all of these things too, but the A.I. drivers have it down to a science. When playing MotorStorm, you must be willing to accept that you will not always be in control of your fate. You may not like that realization (I didn’t!), but it’s a fact of life in this game. You will lose several races within the final stretch, and all you can do is learn from it – and be a bigger jerk the next time you have an opportunity to cause some mayhem.
Single-player gameplay in MotorStorm is limited to Play Mode, which has you earning tickets to events with smartass titles like “Mesa Horny” and “Giant Enemy Crab” (I hope that meme never dies). Finishing in the top three in any event will earn you points towards unlocking the next ticket, though additional tickets can be earned by finishing with a silver or gold medal on all prior events. Each event is a straightforward multi-lap race, and most limit you to one vehicle type. Why such a limited single-player mode? Additional race types and the ability to choose any vehicle for any event would have made this a richer experience, but as it is, the races are challenging (especially at Level 3 and above) and there’s enough here to keep you busy for some time.
As far as offline gameplay goes, that’s really all there is to it. There are no other single-player options, and split-screen multiplayer is conspicuously missing. Some might argue that online multiplayer eliminates that need, but considering the low installed base of the PlayStation 3, I would strenuously object to such a viewpoint. Presenting a compelling visual and gameplay experience is certainly the top priority, but embellishing upon that is what adds value to a game. MotorStorm is one hell of a racing game, but it is also severely limited in terms of what it has to offer beyond its core experience.
Though the online play is no more adventurous in terms of options and race types, it serves as the gift that should keep on giving for quite some time. The servers are typically packed with hundreds of available racers, and that’s only after a week of availability. As the console (and the game) launch around the world, there should be even more activity on the servers. The simplicity of the online interface can be a bit frustrating, though, as you cannot tell from the lobby if a race is already underway. As such, be prepared to wait for several minutes upon entering a room, as the average three-lap race may take as long as seven or eight minutes to complete.
For all the waiting you’ll do before (and between) races, at least the online gameplay is fantastically smooth. In several hours of playing online, I never encountered lag or slowdown, and the visual experience never loses fidelity, even with eleven others from around the world aiming to take you down. My only complaint about the online experience is with the 30 second finishing limit that starts the moment the first person crosses the finish line. The combination of chaotic racing and lengthy courses with multiple paths means that racers will be spread out all over the course. Because of the time limit, I’ve often seen full-field races in which more than half of the drivers don’t even get the chance to finish. It’s downright silly when just two racers out of twelve are able to finish in a particularly long race.
MotorStorm is supposedly this big festival with live bands and the like, and as such, the studio cuts on the soundtrack have been manipulated to sound like live performances. A peppering of rock and alternative tracks from the last couple decades is unsurprising; what is surprising is how many of these tracks have already been used in other recent releases. Nirvana’s “Breed” and Wolfmother’s “Woman” are both in Major League Baseball 2K7, “Woman” and Every Time I Die’s “The New Black” are both in Guitar Hero II, and Pendulum’s “Slam” is in Dance Dance Revolution Universe. What’s the deal, Sony? Was there a half-price sale on already-licensed tracks?
Assigning a score to MotorStorm is one of the trickier tasks I’ve encountered lately. The game is less expansive and polished than expected, but the gameplay is supremely exciting – both online and off. It plays like an off-road version of Burnout Revenge, and that is a very good thing. As much as I’d like to huff and puff about the loading times and the lack of split-screen multiplayer, its status as a first generation release means it’s not expected to be as extensive as a second-gen Xbox 360 game or a glorified last-gen port. MotorStorm is great for what it is; the real test of longevity will come with the already-confirmed sequel.
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