Last year's MotorStorm gave PlayStation 3 owners a novel concept, a game that added context and surroundings much more compelling than you usually get in pick-up-and-play racers. Half the fun was the exquisitely hallucinated reason for it all, that there could actually be a beyond-extreme rally "festival" held in Utah's Monument Valley, sort of like Sturgis meets Burning Man with loads more violent collisions and fatal wrecks. And, one assumes, crazy monkey sex in everyone's tents at night.
This year's MotorStorm: Pacific Rift conjures up an unnamed Pacific island as the festival setting, and brings to it an extremely destructive nonnative species called the Monster Truck. Is one more vehicle class, double the tracks and an even more exotic location enough to carry MotorStorm's legacy forward? Or is it a beefed up track-pack rehash? Let's go ride out the storm.
Island paradise: If this island existed, I can't imagine why humans would abandon it. Definitely a worthy successor to Monument Valley, and then some. The first MotorStorm was a single setting: the desert. Here the course artists work in much more complex vegetation and terrain features. Where courses include human construction, it is brilliantly blended with the surroundings to look abandoned, improvised, or overtaken by nature, wherever appropriate. Doing this for 720p is an achievement, no question. Sugar Rush, set in an old cane plantation, is a favourite of many. Caldera Ridge's twin observatories above a rocky, skidding plunge, was also one of mine. Colossus Canyon was breathtaking. There are any number of fantasylands in video games that I wish I could visit. This one is easily tops among the racing genre.
Sixteen-Course Meal: One of the MotorStorm franchise's many strengths is how it can supply a course experience that is rarely the same no matter how many times you drive it. Real time course degradation and permanent debris scatter are back in Pacific Rift. You race at three different times of day, and the exceptional lighting for each can be its own course hazard and eventually weather comes into play, too. But the new 16 long, expansive courses, with alternate routes that are either concealed or not immediately obvious, truly are a cut above. The only hints you get are signs marking fatal hazards, arrows when you're reaching a course boundary, and double poles that frame big jump locations. Even after playing all 16 course 10 times each, I still don't feel like I know the entire course, much less all the optimal routes for my preferred vehicle class. You're continuously discovering things, such as the gun emplacement just before a big jump in the Beach Comber, which becomes a spinning hazard if anyone ahead of you hits it.
Jump in the Fire: The game features four zones: Earth, Air, Fire and Water, with four courses each, and each of them subject to a zone's unique hazards. Air, of course, is full of huge jumps and soaring cliffs. The most notably hostile environment is fire, which races you next to lava fountains and mudflows. You'll spend a lot of time on fire and your boost overheat gauge will erupt in flames, but all it means is you look that much more awesome when you soar a half-mile through the air and land on some piece of shit dirtbiker. Fire is also an extremely challenging zone for the motorcycle, where you have to race technically perfect just to survive.
Wrecks — Others: Watching the real time destruction of your competitors up ahead of you is a fists-up experience, especially when those great big Optimus Prime-looking MFers finally get theirs. The debris path is impressive and, if you're in it, hazardous enough unto itself. In eliminator races the carcasses of previous victims will still be on the track when you circle back around. Anything hit and scattered will be right where it came to a rest. And nothing beats jousting with a similar vehicle at breakneck speeds, beating it to a jump, and looking back to see it plunge off a cliff. This game simply would not have its level of joyous mayhem without its well rendered wrecks, rolls, disintegrations and explosions.
Wrecks — Yours: This is more like "not loved." You play a racer of this type (not super realistic, in other words) for two reasons, the thrill of the run when you're winning, and spectacular destruction when you fail. And the wreck physics and animations for your vehicle are hit or miss. A full-on wreck begins in slow motion, so you can see the crumpling of your car body, the struts and shocks shooting out the front, sheet metal flaking off — and then what happens next is a crap shoot. Sometimes you just come to a dead unsatisfying stop. On ATVs or motorcycles, your rider can go straight up in the air, unrealistically. Overheating explosions are the best way to go, sending you into a tumbling fireball. But I've also been in slow rollovers that somehow end with the vehicle almost completely flattened, because that's what the Havok engine called for. A good death would encourage me to watch and stay in the race; a bad one makes me restart.
Artificial Competitiveness: Rubber-band AI seems to be a part of this title, although a little less conspicuously. I can't empirically prove it because it's difficult to race the exact same route with the same time to see if it produces different finishes. But on the whole, I definitely feel like I can win this with less than my best stuff, especially by sitting on the boost button at the end. Conversely, on some courses (especially Riptide) where I know I can get to the lead quickly and hold it, I'll still have the field hot on my arse the whole way no matter how fast my vehicle. This makes you very unprepared for online ranked matches — I was routinely smoked by more experienced racers going all out and had zero chance to catch up about halfway in.
Vehicle variety: I wasn't really sold on the Monster Truck, which is new. Sure, it's a lot of fun and will crush anything other than a big rig, but this might be one you bring out when you're racing with friends in the room, rather than you sled of choice in Festival or online mode. Crunching up smaller vehicles in the bottleneck starting a race just seems unfair. Getting crunched by one in the same situation online is extremely unfair. And online, where flat-out speed is demanded every second, you'll roll over a ton, so it's far from an automatic winner. There are notable contrasts between the vehicle classes — play them enough and you'll get a feel for it, and Festival mode will require you to drive everything at least once. But where options existed I usually chose the buggy or the racing truck as an all-around performer, not venturing out of that comfort zone if I could help it. The unlockable vehicle bodies seemed to be another thing that's better on others than you. It creates a wide variety in the racing field, which makes it visually interesting. But the vehicle class will perform the same regardless of skin. It made the vehicle packs and, for that matter, driver get-ups, seemed more like an afterthought to me, rather than anything I strove to earn.
I know I didn't really mention the soundtrack. I'm no music critic. It wasn't striking enough to be loved, wasn't bad enough to be hated. Nothing seems out of place but it definitely competes with the engine whine, explosions, splashes, and collisions. I think I have an automatic noise reducer on my TV because things would occasionally get so loud the volume would drop, like it thought I was watching some screaming used-car advertisement. Keep this in mind.
One of the drawbacks of reviewing games is, even when you're on a good one, you have to play it so extensively it kills a desire to go back in later. Not MotorStorm: Pacific Rift. This will be a go-to title for me when I have a half-hour to kill and don't want to get involved in a deep RPG or shooter. It will definitely be a game I trot out when friends come over and want to fool around with something, as the learning curve is really shallow for gamers of all abilities.
If you visited Monument Valley and loved your time there, the Pacific Rift is well different enough to warrant a trip. And that's besides t he implied drinkin', fightin', dancin' and yes, crazy monkey sex in this rambunctious festival of destruction.
MotorStorm: Pacific Rift was developed by Evolution Studios, published by Sony Computer Entertainment Europe. Released on Oct. 28 in North America, Nov. 7 in Europe for PlayStation 3 and November 13 in Ausrtalia. Reviewed on PlayStation 3. Retails for $109.95. Raced all 16 tracks, all eight vehicle classifications, and all race types. Raced and placed in 50 of 96 events in Festival mode. Participated in six ranked matches online.
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