Wednesday, May 18, 2011

MotorStorm: Apocalypse

Above: This dude isn't waiting until May 21 to ascend to heaven.

Naturally, when I began my review of MotorStorm: Apocalypse with a joke about Christ returning before the PlayStation Network does, I was ensuring that PSN functionality would start coming online between the time I filed the piece and the time it went to press (not to mention well before Judgment Day this Saturday). Oh well. A good line is a good line.

MotorStorm: Apocalypse is not a particularly good game. What's strange and disappointing is that the gameplay hasn't improved in any meaningful way from the first MotorStorm, which leads me to believe that, unlike what I suspected in my review of the first game, it was in fact the game that Evolution Studios intended to make.

Despite the different vehicles you can drive, and the strategies available to you on each course, success in MotorStorm is less about mastering the game mechanics and more about memorizing the racetracks. You can't tell which debris you can smash, and which will smash you. Too many blind jumps launch you directly into a wall. Generally, nothing you learned from the last race will help you in the next one.

In the review, I didn't mention the weak narrative that ties together the game's single-player mode, because, although it is terrible, and has been a source of complaints in a lot of the other reviews I've seen, it is easy to skip -- and skip it I did. But that's not because I think racing games don't need a story. Rather, racing games already have most of the elements you need for a good story.

Take Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, a game I thought about wistfully during most of the time I was playing MotorStorm. That game lacks an overarching narrative, but the stories that play out during individual races are gripping and unpredictable. You know all you need to know from the setup. You are a cop, and you need to bust the racers. Or: You are a racer, and you need to outrun the cops. In either case, the conflict is readily apparent. A racecourse gives it a shape -- a natural beginning, middle, and end.

In Hot Pursuit, the story never plays out the same way twice. I've been busted in sight of the finish line, and I've busted racers in the same place. I've taken out my quarry within seconds of starting a round, and I've chased them down over a grueling, ten-minute-long duel. These were all unique, surprising tales that I authored. No narrative framing was necessary.

MotorStorm: Apocalypse does have moments when it approaches this level. You'll be charging through a mudpit in your big rig, and see some motorcyclists zip through the air above you on an alternate route. You're chugging directly toward the finish line. They're on a more circuitous path, but a much faster surface. Who will get there first?

And then, at the moment of greatest drama, you hit some innocent looking thing on the track that looks like a cardboard box, your truck blows up, and you think, "Screw this."

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