A Retrospective: Or, By Your Powers Combined I am Captain Planet!
I've gotten my hands on the newest Motorstorm(of the Apocalyptic variety), and before I start on that adventure, I'd like to take a little time to reflect on the time I spent on Pacific Rift. Water, Fire, Earth, and Wind zones were the name of the game of this game, and we're lucky that a bit of Heart was applied to this game along with the technical talent involved, especially in the levels that it was fleshed out upon, and in the individual feel of most of the vehicles have. However, the game is a little bit of a mix in all respects. Some of the new stuff was fantastic, and some of the old stuff was improved. On that same subject, some of the new stuff was a complete waste and some of the old problems of the first game still plague the second. It's in this way that Motorstorm is really one of those games that I love despite all of it's quirks while others I know can't stand certain things about it, to the point of being unable to play the game without cursing it two races into a fresh session.
So, what's the issue that divides so many driving game enthusiasts in this game, at least in my mind? The feel of the steering. I know that I've seen many, many people unable to do anything in this game but flip the vehicles. Admittedly, there's a floaty feel to the steering, the feeling that once you get sideways in the air, that when you land, it's an extremely sketchy feeling of being on the edge of being able to control. To add to this, if you'll take a subtle look at Motorstorm's track design: They love off-camber turns, turns where the banking of the turn is breaking away from the turn, putting the momentum and weight onto the side of the car instead of into the ground, making the whole turn a bit more unstable, trying to get you to take the corner a little slower. It's because of this I really actually like Motorstorm's cornering. Almost all unknowing race drivers only have a mind for the gas pedal, and have a deathly allergy that never allows them to go anywhere near the brake, and that's a key thing in Motorstorm. If you can help it, you'll always want to be on the ground, unless you have a ramped jump to take. Boosting for too long will create that feeling of bouncing over the bumps of many of the tracks before heading into a corner: Not breaking after that ensures disaster.
If all were to completely love the mechanics of Motorstorm, it doesn't change the fact that it can be brutal. You'll learn to craft your paths through Motorstorm's multi-tiered courses at first, completing side events, and in general, having a pretty good time doing it. Unfortunately, after you have settles into the groove of getting through courses competently with a number of different vehicle classes, the game quickly goes into kamikaze mode during the last tiers of the single-player Festival: You'll often be placed in vehicles ill-suited for the track, and often in smaller vehicles like the ATV against a full roster of Big Rigs and Mudpluggers hellbent on ruining your day: You already don't have the time to deal with such things at the end of the campaign: You'll need to make a line through the course that's optimal to your vehicle that often crosses with others. To tack onto this, you'll often see the car in front of you lurch out it's own racing line, waving itself in front of you for the sole purpose of sideswiping you or simply putting it's rear in your face to slow you down. This is especially deadly when you are a bike and a looming Monster Truck decides to ruin your day. You'll learn to brake and find ways by, but there are just some no-win situations that will make you cry out as you slam "START, DOWN, DOWN, DOWN, RESTART RACE" into your controller. (Just try not to break it, eh race fans?) Sometimes when you get your final outcome, it can be incredibly rewarding as you find a better way around the track(or study from the top online times available for download on PSN), or just a slight release of rage, cursing the combination of track and vehicles.
Next up: The vehicles. Overall, I love Motorstorm's vehicles, though there are two exceptions of class that I myself loathe for two different reasons. But first, the good. In all, most of the vehicle classes have a distinct feel, even across similar platforms, like the Buggy and Car, the Truck and Mudplugger. There are different courses where I like to use different classes of vehicles, and not just because one may be faster on the PSN leaderboards. Even more impressive to me is that the different vehicles within a class offer differing characteristics, sure to click with one person and not the other. However, there are really two classes where that statement doesn't apply, and these classes also have poor aspects about them: The ATV and the Monster Truck. You can't really blame them for not having completely different handling characteristics: Their wheelbases and shape don't really change from one to the other: All ATV's and monster trucks are basically on the same platform. Another thing that makes them similar are their terrible handling characteristics. I'm willing to speak up for the rest of the game, but not these two. The ATV has a terribly slow top speed, making the strong boost essential to staying in front. However, boosting creates rocky situations, you're bouncing on straight terrain, and you, the rider, are like a big old weight, swaying seemingly featherlight ATV creak and lean with you in every turn, making highsides off the ATV very likely. The monster truck is also very slow. When you come off of a boost, the whole truck lurches and gasps, losing all of it's momentum despite it's ability to handle every sort of terrain as if it was pavement. This contrasts poorly with the big rigs, whose weight transfers off a boost smoothly, still carrying speed and requiring methodical braking: The monster keeps the pedal pinned to the floor, the only discernible speed change coming when you stop boosting. The steering is also quite twitchy, which is strange in such a huge machine. One flick of the controller instantly sets you on a new course.
To add, the courses are robust and reliably use the gimmick of heating up or cooling down nicely. I prefer the water and earth zones tracks for their vibrant color as you blast your way through. By comparison, the fire and air tracks are quite grey and brown, though the fire tracks seem to sport a bit more tropical color, quite a relief from the shades of brown provided by tracks in Motorstorm 1. The cars accumulate filth and spurt with flame wonderfully, the water splashes and trails with vibrance, although the way in which the car can take dirt off the roof after going through water only up to it's roof is a bit dodgy, but that is an extremely small complaint. The courses aren't afraid to have a little bias: Peak at the scoreboards and some of the vehicles can have an extreme advantage over one or the other, though skill with one type of vehicle may still win the day in an online lobby over course advantage. This is one game where the online players may be marginally less mean then their AI-controlled variants, but be prepared to be muscled out of the line when a big rig comes bearing down on your little buggy: It's their given right. Worth noting is the vegetation being waved around by your car, or deforming it in Sugar Rush. The effect is brilliant, and I'd love to know whether or not it was in response to the early criticism of the PS3 platform for having static 2D crowds and shrubs. Either way, a nice catharsis and addition to gameplay.
All in all, I love my racing games. I could go to Burnout or Motorstorm any day of the week and still be thoroughly entertained by my adrenaline-needy ways. The Motorstorm franchise has now spent an entire generation on the PS3, taking vacations to the desert, jungle, and now to the city. (I feel like I'm in a DIRT review, is there some model of going through environments set in stone for racing developers?) Some people complained about Pacific Rift being a tad long in the tooth, and looking at press about Apocalypse, the murmurs are only growing louder. I may be set in my ways about this like old fighting game aficionados or Ridge Racer "line drifting" lifers, but I love Motorstorm the way it's been, and even if Apocalypse can't add all that much to the whole formula... I'll probably still be a happy gamer.