If the billboards are to be believed, Judgment Day is coming on May 21 — and for a while it looked like Christ might return before the PlayStation Network. Online features for the PlayStation 3 were unavailable since April 20. Functionality was restored only as we were going to press. That meant no demos, no indie games, and, worst of all, no online multi-player for a good three weeks. If ever a situation could be deemed apocalyptic for a console manufacturer, this was it.
Fitting, then, that one of the new PS3 exclusives to be released in the midst of Sony's lost weekend was MotorStorm: Apocalypse. The fourth in the series, Apocalypse transfers MotorStorm's vehicular mayhem from the usual idyllic natural backdrops to an urban environment, with one key difference. Past games — set in the desert, the jungle, and the Arctic — featured malleable courses whose properties changed with weather and wear. Apocalypse does them one better, giving us racetracks in the process of being destroyed by earthquakes.
It's this detail that delayed Apocalypse from its original release date of April 12, more than a week before the network outage began. Sony, in more confident times, had the wisdom not to release a game about bitchin' earthquakes right after the devastating earthquake in Japan. Instead, Apocalypse was dropped into the black hole of the PSN outage. How many games have had such a hill to climb?
As racers go, Apocalypse is somewhere in the middle of the pack, with enough good ideas to keep you interested, and enough questionable execution to keep you from committing. The series's major appeal has always been the way it pits different types of vehicles against each other on tracks whose multiple pathways offer an optimal route for each. A motorcycle is better off taking the high ground, racing on concrete and steel, whereas a big rig can plow through the mud and knock rivals out of the way.
The conceit works. Each course feels like a puzzle to be solved, with shortcuts and alternate routes that reward and punish in equal measure. You may learn a track on one vehicle, feel pleased with yourself, and then get hammered when you try it with something else. Better still, the courses tend to change from lap to lap, thanks to those aforementioned earthquakes. You'll watch buildings topple and see the earth rent before you — all the better to catch some air.
But something feels a little off about the handling. No matter what you're driving, steering seems to happen in chunks, as if your ride were trying to fit into an invisible slot as you take it around a corner. Precision handling is almost impossible — which wouldn't be a problem if it weren't absolutely necessary. It is so easy to crash in this game, whether you're hitting a piece of scenery that looked destructible or taking a jump at barely the wrong angle and soaring into a girder.
As a game, MotorStorm: Apocalypse is just okay. (Unless online play is transcendent.) But it's inadvertently captured the zeitgeist. The end times are on everybody's mind. Might as well have some fun with it.