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MotorStorm has remained one of my favourite racing series for the current console generation with its winning formula of brutal off-road racing, so it was with great excitement that I got to sample Evolution Studios’ latest instalment in the franchise MotorStorm Apocalypse at this year’s Eurogamer Expo.

As well as managing to get my own hands-on with the game on the crowded show floor, I also attended a Developer Session presentation hosted by Matt Southern and Paul Rustchynsky, lead designers of the MotorStorm franchise, to gather additional snippets of information about the game.

Read on to find out if MotorStorm Apocalypse is looking like it has the horsepower to obliterate the opposition.

To give some background on MotorStorm Apocalypse, the developers revealed how the project originally started out as an original IP known as “Urban Smash,” before treating us to a video of an early prototype version of the game, complete with untextured models representing London double decker buses taking chunks out of buildings. Evolution also stated how they embarked on visiting real-life locations, including Washington DC, to gather data and possible inspirations for the game’s settings.

Urban Smash was conceived as an attempt to reinvigorate what Evolution saw as a geriatric genre that was rapidly running out of mileage. The project was subsequently put on hold in favour of developing Pacific Rift, the direct sequel to MotorStorm, but the original concept has now been used as the basis for MotorStorm Apocalypse - as a result, Apocalypse will mark the series’ first venture into urban city landscapes after previously focusing purely on off-road racing. The plans to incorporate real-life locations were subsequently scrapped however in favour of a fictional city largely based on the San Francisco bay area, allowing for more creative freedom.

To set itself apart from such a crowded market, MotorStorm Apocalypse takes place in an abandoned city that’s right in the midst of a devastating, large-scale earthquake. A plot, set to include cut-scenes that replace loading screens and encompassing 40 race events with 13 different vehicle categories, is planned to set the scene around these events as you play as one of three characters, each representing a different tier of difficulty. To mark the new direction for the game, these characters will also evoke an exaggerated comic-book art style.

With the city evacuated, it’s the perfect playground for the suicidal lunatics to set-up a new MotorStorm Festival , which commences in the traditional bombastic fashion of delivering the vehicles by helicopter for a heated race towards the city centre and concluding with an exhilarating escape from the collapsing city – concept art depicted a falling bridge akin to the Golden Gate Bridge as a possible set-piece for the frantic finale.

The developers were keen to point out that Apocalypse drew more influence from action games as opposed to the racing genre this time round, and it’s easy to see why – the rampant amount of on-screen activity is awe-inspiring, taking its cues from the biggest blockbuster films. In fact, they admitted to being heavily influenced by the recent disaster flick 2012, which I can certainly testify; as soon as I witnessed a train carriage fly by into a nearby petrol station erupting into a fireball, I was instantly reminded of a similar scene in the film. MotorStorm has never felt so cinematic as towering buildings crumple above you, obscuring the screen with dust and spraying glass upon your car as you drive blissfully unscathed below and roads rip apart, dynamically changing the racing route.

Comparisons to a certain other racing game that was released this year that adopted a somewhat similar premise (cough, Split/Second, cough) immediately popped up, but while both titles do share similarities, there are still some fundamental differences. The overall tone of Apocalypse is entirely different – whereas Split/Second was glossy in its tinted Hollywood dressing, Apocalypse is a far more gritty affair. The races themselves feel far more competitive and intense as well; thanks to MotorStorm’s trademark aggressive AI jostling against you.

Split/Second’s segregated action set-pieces were also player controlled with the aim of taking out the competition to your advantage – here, however, everyone is evading the same on-going disaster that is occurring throughout the entire city. For sheer scale and spectacle, Apocalypse triumphs over Split/Second by a significant margin and then drops a skyscraper on it.

I was able to play through two earth-shattering tracks, one of which was set in the inner-city running on the E3 build of the game and another set in the serene suburbs, which was an updated build lifted from Gamescom unlocked on the final day of the exhibition. Additional tracks are to be kept under wraps for now as Evolution Studios are keen to leave an element of surprise, but did hint at tracks involving driving through offices and across skyscraper rooftops.

Despite the clearly labelled pre-alpha title permanently tattooed on the game, MotorStorm Apocalypse is already looking potentially stunning. Given its early development stage, some aspects look a bit rough around the edges, but the foundations are already there and Evolution stressed that there is still a lot of graphical polish to apply, particularly with regards to dynamic lighting which is said to be a priority.

The stage demo was also available to play in stereoscopic 3D, which didn’t disappoint despite my nagging pessimism towards the amalgamation of 3D and gaming. With constant debris engulfing the screen, the 3D technology was effectively put to the test, and it was certainly apparent as streams of particle effects swooped past me with a palpable layer of depth. I still maintain that the advent of 3D isn’t necessary to fully enjoy the experience (I don’t think I could have played it for extended periods and still dislike the dimming effect the glasses have), but Apocalypse remains a contender for Sony’s flagship title for the technology – out of all the 3D titles I tried, this was quite clearly the game that justified its implementation the most.

There is, of course, the detrimental effect that 3D can have on the visual performance of the game to consider, yet Apocalypse managed to maintain an impressive level of fluidity regardless. This is due to the fact that Evolution Studios are experts when it comes to programming for the PS3 principally because they have been working with the console since its infancy.

While they admitted that some sacrifices have to be made for 3D, they were quick to downplay claims that greater processing power is needed to render it. Instead, they rely on solid code that effectively draws the game twice to achieve the 3D effect – though this will understandably lower the resolution, they assured that Apocalypse will still maintain a high level of visual quality and detail, with a possibility of achieving 1080p in 3d.

Along with its new-found focus on environmental devestation, Apocalypse is set to introduce a host of features new to the MotorStorm franchise. As ever, strategic boosting is key to winning a rampageous race, and Apocalypse brings back Pacific Rift’s boosting mechanic that let you cool down your boost by driving through water, which can now also be achieved by releasing the accelerator whenever your car is airborne.

Vehicles can also be fully customised with new liveries and a new perks system akin to Call of Duty can also be applied to your vehicles for special boosting, handling and offensive abilities. Meanwhile all of this can be shared via MotorStorm’s VIP website whereby you can create new clans for online matches, with the added possibility of custom 12-player online multiplayer matches where you can set separate objectives.

On the first play-through of MotorStorm Apocalypse, it’s certainly easy to become overwhelmed by the hyperactive scenery, particularly if you are experiencing it in 3D for the first time, so my only concern is that it may become too much at times as you obviously have to contend with actually racing against opponents as well. Nevertheless, this was a undoubtedly a standout showpiece of the exhibition that has left me craving for another go, yet satisfied that MotorStorm will firmly mark its tyre treads in the genre once again.

A definitive date of when MotorStorm Apocalypse will erupt to wreak mass havoc remains unconfirmed, but Evolution Studios hinted at a possible early March 2011 release. A public multiplayer beta is also said to be on its way soon, so hopefully it won’t be too long before the lunatics can unite once again.

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