Console launch titles are a strange breed. Not only do they carry the burden of selling a new platform, but are also often swallowed by their own hype, the promise of the new overshadowing any indication of quality. Add to this the unrealistic expectations established by target-rendered promotional videos and grossly inflated review scores conjured up by overzealous journalists, and it’s easy to see why so many of these games are ultimately disappointing.
Sequels to launch titles are a shot at redemption’ a chance for developers to realise all of the ideas conceived during the uncompromising days of pre-launch development, where deadlines are anything but flexible and platform hardware spec is a closely guarded secret.
Whilst MotorStorm proved to be one of the better launch games in recent memory, the off-road racer certainly fell short of its potential. Thankfully, Evolution Studios has returned to the series with MotorStorm: Pacific Rift, a sequel which more than makes amends for the sins of its father.
The main criticism levelled at the original game was that it was something of a lean package at launch, only later bolstered by downloadable content which added basic features ubiquitous to the genre. Pacific Rift feels far more substantial, thanks in no small part to its setting, though the delightfully peculiar Mad Max/Burning Man premise is still alive and kicking, the game leaves behind the sun scorched desert of the original in favour of a fictional island in the Pacific Ocean. This locale heralds four distinct elemental environments in which to race (Earth, Air, Fire and Water), each featuring four unique tracks.
The game is made to feel more significant in other ways too. There’s a wealth of gameplay modes, objectives, vehicles and drivers to unlock by winning races and progressing through festival ranks, not to mention both online and split screen multiplayer.
The racing itself remains largely unchanged from the first game, a post-apocalyptic Wacky Races that sees vehicles of all shapes and sizes competing against each other. The distinct differences between the seven vehicle classes is one of the most appealing aspects of the game, each one offering different experiences and gameplay opportunities.
Motorcycles and ATVs weave between traffic, squeezing through tight passages excluded to larger vehicles, even permitting their riders to throw a mean right hook where necessary. At the other end of the spectrum, big rigs are a force to be reckoned with, fume-belching leviathans that muscle through the racing pack, sending smaller vehicles spiralling to their doom.
Regardless of which class is chosen, the action remains exciting throughout every race. There’s an intended looseness to the controls that will either infuriate or delight. In particular, the motorcycles rarely give you the feeling of being in full control.
Boosting adds to the exhilaration of racing, not only through the increase in speed that it provides, but also from maintaining that speed whilst managing the heat of your engine. In the arid environments of the previous game, the only way to avoid becoming a flying, flaming wreck was to hold off boosting until your engine was sufficiently cooled. However, there are several bodies of water throughout the tropical setting of the sequel, which have a cooling effect on your engine when driven through. Managing engine temperature and knowing exactly when streams, pools and waterfalls are nearby adds an extra layer of strategy to racing, as well as extra incentive to learn the tracks.
The tracks themselves are exceptionally well designed, interweaving several different paths that allow all vehicles to find routes advantageous to their size. Smaller vehicles are able to stick to higher ridges and narrower passages, whereas larger vehicles can confidently plough through underpasses and deeper bodies of water.
The tracks also do a good job of reassembling the pack at key points, so there’s never the feeling that you’re racing alone. Most tracks also have a great sense of verticality, and if you opt to race through one of the lower routes, you’ll often see motorcycles and ATVs soaring from ledges high above you.
Within each elemental zone, you’ll race through some highly original locations, from abandoned WWII outposts nestled amid lush jungle, to satellite facilities that sit atop cloud-lined mountains. The variety in design and theme make each of the tracks eminently replayable, and you’ll find yourself exploring different routes and taking in some fascinating sights for a good long time.
MotorStorm was something of a technical showcase for the PlayStation 3, but proves far less graphically impressive almost two years after its release. Disappointingly, Pacific Rift doesn’t look significantly better than the original, and though it sometimes musters the occasional striking moment, a number of the game’s less attractive qualities are hard to overlook.
The visual fidelity of tracks is wildly inconsistent; whereas some of these feature stunning vistas and detailed terrain, others feature incredibly flat, uninteresting vegetation and poor quality texture work. There are other graphical elements that are just plain ugly; the idea of the ground becoming increasingly muddy and snarled up by tire treads is great, but the reality is that technology hasn’t caught up with it yet. The resulting effect is a washed out, low resolution bump map that is at best unconvincing, and at worse, distracting.
The vehicles themselves are far more impressive, especially in their ability to show wear and tear. As races progress, they become encrusted with mud, and show exposed metalwork where other vehicles have buffered against them.
Crashes aren’t quite as spectacular as you might hope, and pale in comparison to the almost pornographic levels of destruction seen in Burnout Paradise. However, they are improved by the addition of a photo mode, which allows you to pause the game at any point and move a camera around the frozen action, perfect for surveying the heinous atrocities committed to your driver, as well as appreciating some of the more subtle particle effects.
Despite some visual inconsistencies, MotorStorm: Pacific Rift is a very enjoyable game that not only improves upon every aspect of the previous offering, but also holds its own against the more recent crop of racing games. Although something like Pure offers a deeper, more single-minded off-road experience, Pacific Rift’s uncomplicated yet thrilling racing, excellent track design and thematic variety makes it a highly satisfying experience on its own terms.
24 December 2008