Sony and developer Evolution Studios' Motorstorm is undeniably one of the more anticipated of the upcoming crop of PlayStation 3 games. It was one of the first major games shown for the system and looked to demonstrate the kind of incredible visual fidelity the PS3 was to be capable of. In this regard, Motorstorm does not disappoint. It's easily one of the best-looking games on the system (if not the best thus far), and you'll be hard pressed not to ooh and aah as the game's vehicles crash and explode into one another again and again. Trouble is, that's pretty much the bulk of what you're going to get from it. While the racing is legitimately exciting and filled with visual treats, there's only a handful of ways to experience it, and the only way that really holds up over time is online against friends.
Think of Motorstorm as what would happen if someone in a postapocalyptic future decided to crossbreed rallycross racing and Burning Man-style music-festival culture into one ridiculous orgy of vehicular violence and heavy music. Of course, no one would ever do that, but it makes for a compelling-enough game concept. The twist with Motorstorm's brand of racing is that a variety of different vehicle types all coexist on one track, from big rigs all the way down to dudes on motorcycles. While that might sound like a nightmare for those who prefer their vehicles more on the svelte side, don't worry--you're not destined to be bopped endlessly by bigger vehicles. All the tracks in Motorstorm have multiple paths, and different vehicle types are more suited to some than others. If you're on a bike, ATV, or dune buggy, you can take the higher ground, which tends to be loaded with jumps and other obstacles not properly suited to the bulkier racers. On the flip side, the lower ground tends to be muddy and less reliant on crazy turns and narrow ledges--precisely the kind of stuff a bigger vehicle would be perfectly designed for.
This balancing act permeates every aspect of the racing, and it actually works quite nicely. Some of the vehicles can be a bit of a drag to drive on certain tracks, but as there are plenty of vehicles to choose from, you're bound to find something that works for each situation. It's all about finding the type of vehicle you're most comfortable with and then finding the sections of the track that will get you to the finish line fastest. All the while, you'll be fighting off both other racers and the track itself to survive. Make no mistake, the tracks are treacherous. Jumps are often a tricky prospect to pull off, and there are broken-down cars, mud pits, ledges that will send you flying off a cliff and to your doom (until you respawn, of course), and all sorts of other unpleasantness there to get in your way. As things go, you'll have to deal with the incessant bopping and other antagonizing antics of your opponents. The big guys can wreck into whomever they please, but even the little guys aren't left out in the cold. Racers on bikes and ATVs can attack one another as they drive past, knocking opponents off their rides, which can be immensely satisfying.
It's too bad, then, that there's not more to it. As chaotic as some of the cinematics of the game make the racing look, it's not quite as chaotic as you might expect. The racing isn't exceedingly fast, and the whole core of the racing experience is really just about vying for position based on size and which paths you can take. Your vehicle has a nitro boost that can be liberally used to help put you past opponents and take higher jumps, but there's no real combat to the racing beyond bumping and the occasionally thrown elbow. There's nothing really wrong with that, but the racing in Motorstorm can still get a bit tedious in spots. Once you figure out the right way to take a track for your type of vehicle, that's pretty much what you tend to stick to. That there are only eight tracks in the game heightens the repetitive nature of the racing. They're long tracks, and with all the varying paths, it will take you at least a few go-arounds with each to figure out their various intricacies. But once you do, you'll find yourself pining for some additional variety.
It doesn't help that there's so little to do in the game overall. All Motorstorm offers is a kiddie-pool-shallow single-player mode and online racing. The single-player mode offers up a series of event tickets. These tickets open up races to take part in, and how you place in each race determines how many points you earn to spend on more tickets. You keep doing this until you've unlocked all the races, and, well, that's it. If you're waiting for the part where you unlock new race types or new, unique vehicles, keep waiting. Yes, you can unlock new vehicle types, but they're purely aesthetic changes. New vehicles don't display any new or improved statistical info, so if you're racing one vehicle in a weight class, you're racing any of them. As for race types, there's only one: races. You can't even adjust what types of vehicles play in a race--all that stuff is predetermined based on the event, meaning you're stuck with a specific class in the vast majority of the races. The actual progression of the events doesn't offer a lot beyond the ability to unlock new vehicles and to serve as a practice mode for the online game. That's a decent-enough offering, though once you get to the later events, where the CPU drivers turn into sadistic jerks that endlessly frustrate you, you'll probably just give up on the single-player mode altogether and stick to the online play.
The good news is that online mode is a fun time all around. The unpredictable style of racing Motorstorm uses is a perfect fit for rousing multiplayer matches, and with the ability to have up to 12 players in a race, there's plenty of anarchist fun to be had. The game uses a solid lobby and ranking system (though it only ranks wins, not other placings), and voice chat is supported, as well. Furthermore, the online mode lets you do a few things that you can't in the single-player, like letting you choose from any of the available vehicles at all times. Online matches don't seem to suffer from much, if any, lag. The only real bummer about the game's multiplayer is that you can't play it offline. Online play is excellent to have, for sure, but if you just want to hop into a race with some friends that happen to be sitting next to you, you can't do it.
However, when you consider how fantastic Motorstorm's graphics are, the lack of split-screen multiplayer maybe makes a bit more sense (though it's no less disappointing, all the same). Of the current crop of PS3 games, Motorstorm absolutely takes the prize as the best looking. Sure, there's some ugly textures that crop up now and again, and the frame rate tends to dip during particularly destruction-heavy moments (split-screen would have probably murdered it altogether), but those few issues aside, the game's a real visual achievement. It all starts with the vehicles, which are some of the most beautiful jalopies you'll ever see. Each vehicle is extremely detailed from bumper to bumper. Even the driver models are fully detailed, which is plainly obvious when you're driving a motorcycle or ATV. And the crashes are even better. Your rides break apart in incredibly dynamic ways, creating completely different forms of destruction each time out. And even when you just slam into something and don't completely wreck it, you'll see that damage. Tires will bend or start to come off, bumpers will deform, paint will chip, and every vehicle eventually becomes so caked with dirt and mud that the paint job is practically irrelevant from the get-go.
That the tracks are just as excellent looking is really saying something. Again, there are only eight of them, but each one is a long, drawn-out trek through one form of desertic hell or another, and they're all a treat to look at. Motorstorm has some of the most impressive lighting effects you've seen in a racing game to date, and depending on the time of the day, the sun is either completely washing out a barren wasteland or coloring a beautiful landscape with gorgeous oranges and reds. Even the distant mountains and hills in the background look excellent, though it's the up-close pieces of the track that really impress. Dirt and mud fly everywhere, deforming the track itself in the process, and many of the pieces of junk littered about the track can break or be otherwise moved. The copious dust and dirt is maybe a bit overboard when it drenches the screen, but it's a neat effect all the same. Less impressive is the array of available camera angles. The standard from-behind camera view is fine no matter what vehicle you use, but the first-person camera mode is really only enjoyable when you're on a bike or ATV. The view isn't exactly a hindrance in any of the other rides, and you do get to look at some of the track details much closer this way, but it's just not as enjoyable a way to drive. A real, in-the-cockpit view would have been nice in this case. But cockpit view or no, it's hard to find much fault with the way Motorstorm's visuals are presented.
Motorstorm's audio is also pretty great. On the track, engines have a ferocious roar to them, and every time you wreck into something, the booming, crunching sounds of the crash really make you feel it. While you race, you get one of several rock or techno songs from major artists like Nirvana, Queens of the Stone Age, Wolfmother, Spiritualized, and Slipknot, among others. It's a diverse soundtrack that always manages to fit the vibe of the overall game, in that every song heightens the intensity of a race in one way or another.
Motorstorm is a good game that also feels like it has a great deal of untapped potential. As an over-the-top, gorgeous-to-look-at racer, Motorstorm is absolutely a success. As a deep and lasting experience, it's far from it. The question, then, is what's more important to you? Is it of greater import to you that a game feature great racing mechanics and incredible graphics, features be damned? Or does a deep array of lasting modes and features make or break a game for you? If you answered yes to the former, then Motorstorm is unequivocally the game for you. If you answered yes to the latter, pay consideration to just how much you're going to get out of a solid online mode and a cheap-feeling single-player mode that you'll probably never go back to once you finish it. Either way, here's to hoping that the next time around, Evolution turns in a more fleshed-out experience to go with its great game design.