Sunday, June 14, 2009

Review: Motorstorm: Pacific Rift

Evolution Studios


While you spent the Easter break healthy and hale, enjoying the last of the summer sunshine – or perhaps replanting native forests in some hippy wonderland – I channelled my own brand of pragmatic indolence, and deformed the virtual “interactive” foliage of Motorstorm: Pacific Rift. And, well, if the virtual native birds were foolish enough to flutter near the virtual track, they got churned up along with the mud.

While the pacing and features of the original Motorstorm suffered for being rushed out the door to meet the PS3’s launch window, the extra couple of years have been kind to Evolution Studios, as the modified graphics engine and bells and whistles of follow-up Pacific Rift proves. Racing against a field of five or six different vehicle types still feels subtly wrong – how can it be fair to beat a dune buggy with a big rig in a race? – but it’s a credit to the game that it’s possible to win with each vehicle class. Pacific Rift adds monster trucks to the mix, and offers many more shortcuts on each track, as well as more streams, lagoons and lava – that staple videogame hazard.

Tracks are split up into four element-themed zones – earth, fire, air and water, each with their own pitfalls and challenges. Water tracks allow greater use of the engine-heating boost system, while the fire tracks are a threat to its use. Deep water is a hazard to all but the biggest vehicles, but these vehicles are threatened by their own top-heaviness, requiring a steadier hand to avoid being flipped by a stray rock, or a nudge from opponents. Air tracks are better suited to lighter vehicles, where their low mass means they’ll jump (and boost) further.

Evolution have stripped down the load times for Pacific Rift and beefed up the feature set, while keeping the tactical gameplay mechanics of its predecessor. Chief among those, of course, are picking the best racing lines for each vehicle type, and mastering the shortcuts with judicious use of the boost system. Small vehicles stuck behind the pack late in the race can often recover lead positions by following the heavier trucks, which can knock down dense vegetation on shortcuts.

Cribbing from the Burnout playbook, Pacific Rift has minor attack moves mapped to the L1 and R1 buttons, but these attacks are no more than minor swerves – there’s no real culture of destruction and no grievous penalties for crashed vehicles. This can actually work in your favour when combined with the many shortcuts on each track, and perhaps the low aggression of the other racers matches up with the lack of any real benefit to attacking, bar a quick shove for the sake of imaginary vengeance.

Despite the improvements in this incarnation of the Motorstorm vision, there are some minor niggles. Traction on different surfaces (or different wheels) feels remarkably similar, regardless of whether you’re racing on loose scree or plank bridges. Physics is another weak point, as the weight and turning speeds of the vehicles just won’t map to your initial expectations. Additionally, the sheer range and length of tracks means your failure rate (death by cliff edge) will be very high until you memorise the right lines to pick, by which time you’ll be racing by numbers. Four-player splitscreen racing makes up for these problems somewhat, adding some value to the weak attack buttons, and Eliminator and Speed modes do add replay value to the sixteen tracks on offer.

Overtaking both DiRT and Pure in the current-gen off-road racing stakes, Motorstorm: PR both kicks the tyres and lights the fires. What it lacks in vehicular combat stakes, it gains in a richer palette of racing environments than its competitors – to its lasting credit, it’s no monotone desert racer.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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