Sony's SCEE-developed MotorStorm is set to hit the PlayStation 3 with a muddy, physics-heavy bang when it comes to the US early next year. The over-the-top racer has been catching attention since it first appeared at the 2005 Electronic Entertainment Expo as a flashy trailer and has been prominently featured at a number of Sony events. Most recently the game has appeared in demo form in the PlayStation 3 online store. Though the demo offers a taste of what to expect from the upcoming game, Sony recently showed off an even more polished work-in-progress version at a press event that featured new tracks as well as a look at how the single-player game is going to work. We had the chance to hit the road with the game and talk to a member of the development team to find out more about this crazy racer.
The version on display at the event showed off the centerpiece of the single-player game: the MotorStorm Festival. The Burning Man-esque festival takes place in a desert setting and appears to be attended by throngs of action junkies looking for a fix. The game's front end contains video of the attendees walking about and is shot in a documentary-style complete with shaky camera. Besides serving as an eye-catching visual, the festival serves as the structure for you to progress through the game. You're essentially cast as an attendee and participate in the festival by entering events. The various events will become available to you as you collect the appropriate tickets. Each ticket will represent a specific event and, from what we saw, will offer anywhere from one to several races for you to engage in. The events appear to range from a typical race wherein everyone is using a similar off-road vehicle, to crazier scenarios wherein you'll be required to use an alternate vehicle, such as a dirt bike, while everyone else is rocking cars. Once you get the hang of such insanity, you'll find that some events don't tie you to a specific vehicle and will let you choose whatever you feel like driving. As you clear the events, more tickets will become available and will send you to different locales to get your race on.
We were limited to the first three tickets in the game, which let us check out several new tracks--with suitably edgy names like The Grizzly, Mud Pool, and Rockhopper--and their events. For the most part, the tracks featured variations on the themes we've seen in the game: high-speed racing on cliffs that rely on well-thought-out, or incredibly lucky, maneuvering and the use of your vehicle's boost. This time we were able to get a better appreciation for the different routes through the various tracks. The routes are highlighted on one of the load screens shown before races and offer you food for thought as you try to figure out just how you're going to use that flimsy motorcycle against a pack of big rigs and take first in a race. The Mud Pool area showed off the gooey challenge of tearing through mud at high speeds.
Control in the game is solid and varies in accordance with what you happen to be driving. The layout on the Sixaxis is intuitive and even offers the option to use the motion sensing functionality to steer your vehicle. The larger big rigs are a challenge to control due to their size and the high speeds you'll be traveling at, whereas the motorcycles are fast-moving rockets that are destined to send you flying off into open space initially until you get used to their quirks. The game's arcade-style sensibilities have kept the solid control and high-speed racing balanced between fun and realism. You'll have to respect the natural order of physics, but it doesn't wind up being so realistic that you can't have some fun.
Sony reps on hand offered up some additional information on what to expect from the game beyond what was on display. First and foremost was the game's artificial intelligence, which, because the tracks we were racing on were taken from the start of the game, was about as nonconfrontational as could be. As you progress deeper in the game, the AI will apparently go from "Care Bear" to "completely hateful," resulting in opponents that will eventually start teaming up on you and actively trying to rub you out during a race. Reps also verified that the copious amounts of damage your car will undergo will not affect its handling, because the team wanted to focus on a fun racing experience that skewed arcade-y (as evidenced by the lack of an onscreen speedometer or map). However, the big question mark for us was MotorStorm's online content, which has been discussed here and there but never properly outlined. While reps weren't able to lay it all out for us yet since the online component is still being worked on, they did offer some solid tidbits. The game is currently being targeted to support a minimum of up to eight players with support for voice chat. The team also intends to offer online ranking you can track via leaderboards, as well as tournament support. Finally, as we've seen demoed before, the game will also support downloadable content in the form of tracks and vehicles, though specifics on what and how much aren't ready just yet.
The visuals in this version of game show off some additional polish, focusing mainly on performance and effects that give the experience a sharper look. The various vehicles looked great, thanks to a high level of detail and a cool, though painful, level of deformation, which is one of the game's selling points. Next to the overall madness of tearing along on cliff edges, seeing your car come apart in various chunks as you slam into objects and opponents is primal pleasure. The new mud track also appeared to be delivering on the promise of the early demos of the game that showed off the messy, gooey physics you'd expect when tearing through a muddy course. As far as speed goes, MotorStorm cruises along at a fairly stable and smooth frame rate. Though the game doesn't have the blistering speed of a 60-frame-per-second racer, the inclusion of various motion blur and particle effects conveys a suitably white-knuckle sense of motion in both the first- and third-person cameras offered. The only rough edge we noticed was some inconsistent texture work, which varied radically from the gorgeous, near-photo-realistic locations and vehicles, to much simpler textures that looked smeared. To be fair, many of the less-attractive textures were in out-of-the-way places we happened upon after careening out of control. Sony was showing the game off in 720p on some epic Bravia televisions via an HDMI cable, which gave the visuals some extra kick.
The audio suits the action perfectly and doesn't differ too much from what we've heard before. The engine noise and collisions are still satisfying and painful, depending on how the race is going. The racing music predictably leans toward loud rock tunes from Slipknot and the like, which is fine, since MotorStorm doesn't exactly lend itself to a catchy pop soundtrack.
Based on what we played, MotorStorm is shaping up to be a tasty PS3 game. It features a solid gameplay foundation that's satisfying, albeit straightforward. The visuals and audio complement the action well and do a good job of holding your attention. The promise of online play and downloadable content (provided we don't get charged an arm and a leg for it) should definitely help the game find an audience. MotorStorm is currently slated to ship in March 2007. Look for more on the game in the coming months, including import impressions of the Japanese version, which is slated for this month.