Monday, 27 October 2008

MotorStorm: Pacific Rift - Blast To Play

Motorstorm: Pacific Rift is a rush, which should come as no surprise to fans of its predecessor. It's rip-roaring fun to speed through fields of sugarcane and race dangerously close to a cliff's rocky edge in your buggy all while avoiding the deep treads of a monster truck ramming you from behind. This is the Motorstorm experience, first delivered in last year's fun--but stripped--off-road racer. Pacific Rift is more of the same from a gameplay perspective, but it throws in twice the number of tracks, a new vehicle type, and a more fully featured multiplayer experience. But it's not all about quantity: Some of the new courses are dazzling and, in many cases, far exceed the quality of the original's courses. A few nagging issues remain, but for the most part, you'll get your money's worth out of this great sequel.

MotorStorm: Pacific Rift
As in the original Motorstorm, you begin each race by choosing a vehicle type and then dashing through an expansive off-road course against up to 11 other vehicles. Because each vehicle has its own strengths and weaknesses (motorbikes are quick to turn but vulnerable to crashes; big rigs are relatively slow but can plow their way through thick underbrush), courses feature a number of different routes to the finish line. It's up to you, through trial and error, to figure out which route best suits your chosen vehicle. You'll also use that knowledge to your advantage while avoiding the ferocity of your opponents--and exercising yours upon them.

MotorStorm: Pacific Rift Screenshot 1
Describing tracks as intricate actually sells many of them short. There are 16 of them in all, eight more than in the original's release, and some of them are mind-bogglingly clever. Perhaps the best of these is Sugar Rush, a high-speed romp through a sugar plantation that takes you through a cluttered factory and into its lush fields. The ramps are narrow while the turns are sharp, and the robust physics may cause a crate or random tire to get in your way where there hadn't been one before. It's also a tough course with multiple potential paths, and one in which a single mistake within the factory's claustrophobic spaces can cost you the race. On Beachcomber, a sprint across the white sands of a Pacific island getaway is complicated by marshes that get muddier as vehicles drive through them, soaring jumps, and thick vegetation. Even some of the less complex courses, such as Cascade Falls, are a joy to navigate thanks to the varied scenery, a great sense of speed, and significant differences between the branching paths. The high quality of these tracks makes other tracks look downright simple, such as the straightforward race through rocky gorges and mossy caves known as Razorback, or the minimalist watery environs of Colossus Canyon.

MotorStorm: Pacific Rift screenshot 2
Some of the courses turn the spotlight on Pacific Rift's boost function. You can give yourself a kick of speed using nitro boost, but you can't use it too liberally, lest you overheat and explode. A few courses take you near burning pits of lava that further increase this risk but also scatter sprinkler showers about the track, letting you cool off your seared mudplugger. The Scorched track makes brilliant use of this mechanic, combining seemingly endless forks and burning straightaways into a fun ride. Of course, you'll not only struggle with the challenge of the courses themselves, but also with the aggressiveness of other drivers. Using a shoulder button, you can ram into other vehicles, which is a particular delight when behind the wheel of a big rig or monster truck. It's less exciting when you're driving a defenseless ATV and must cope with a crowd of vehicles at a course bottleneck--or dealing with an AI that ignores the best route for its vehicle in favor of forcing you over a cliff.

MotorStorm: Pacific Rift screenshot 3
You will run into some other frustrations, though these aren't frequent and are a by-product of Pacific Rift's loose physics model, which usually makes for rough-and-tumble fun but can be a little too sensitive for its own good. You might crash for no apparent reason when hitting the bottom of a ramp or simply driving from one surface onto another, even when it looks like a clearly even transition and is one you've made a dozen times before without issues. Vehicle handling is also loose, which makes for impossibly high jumps, but also means that making contact with so much as a pebble could cause your buggy to launch into a series of somersaults. This is the case even with large vehicles, such as the new top-heavy monster truck, which feels less solid than you might imagine. These issues are generally avoidable if you have an error-free race, but it does bring a philosophical discrepancy to the forefront: Many of these design elements encourage crashing, but they also demand racing perfection if you want to finish in the top three--a dichotomy with which the game never quite comes to grips.

MotorStorm: Pacific Rift screenshot 4
Fortunately, there are more ways to play than in the original Motorstorm. The Festival takes you through a series of races in which you earn points to advance ranks, and they become tougher as you push through them. Your vehicle selection is usually limited in these contests, which is a great way of introducing you to each vehicle and its preferred routes, though you may wish you had a wider selection if you prefer big rigs but are forced into a buggy. These aren't all simple races, either; In Eliminator races, the racer in last place will explode after a period of time until the field is narrowed to a single survivor, while another race variant may eliminate you if you crash a certain number of times. In Speed challenges, you need to race through a series of checkpoints, but they require a bit of trial and error because you only see one waypoint at a time, which may not give you enough time to make adjustments. Besides, at these times, you are a lone driver, and Pacific Rift is clearly at its best when you face a full pack of challengers.

The AI is a challenge, but it can't compare with the thrill of competing with like-minded racers online. Standard and Eliminator races are available, in ranked and unranked variants, and you can even invite friends to a party prior to racing. While the game's official site and other sources indicate support for 16 players, Pacific Rift actually supports 12 drivers. The whole thing is a riot, whether you're aggressively bumping into bikers with your big rig or jumping in a racing car and leaving everyone in your dust. If you'd rather hang out with buddies, you can also take advantage of Pacific Rift's split-screen mode, which supports up to four players. It's fun to race this way, and the frame rate keeps up rather well, even if the segmented screen makes it harder to enjoy the scenery.

And boy, that scenery is beautiful. The green cliffs of Raingod Spires are lush, and such details as a lingering mist set the humid mood. Riptide showcases gorgeous lighting effects and colorful seaside shacks, while the sight of distant waterfalls warms the background. Splatters of mud, splashes of puddles, and a subtle whooshing effect instill a great sense of speed on almost every track. It also performs better than the original Motorstorm: The loading times have been decreased, and moving through the vehicle selections in the menu is no longer agonizingly slow. The sound effects remain top-notch. Engines emit strident growls, and details from the audio cues when boosting to the thuds of your slow-motion crashes are dramatic, as well as just plain awesome. The soundtrack is a collection of boisterous licensed rock from Nirvana, Queens of the Stone Age, and a variety of other bands. You won't always be paying much attention to the music when rushing past your challengers, but like the game, most of it is loud and rowdy.

With such games as DiRT and Pure competing for your attention, Pacific Rift has much larger shoes to fill than before. It's good, then, that the core Motorstorm racing model is so much fun and there are more ways to experience it now. However, the track design is its greatest success; the intricacy and variety of the courses will keep you coming back to explore the possibilities and test your mettle. Aside from a few remaining quibbles, Motorstorm: Pacific Rift is a notable improvement over the original and a blast to play.

* Twice the number of tracks as the original
* Many course designs are utterly fantastic
* Core racing is an absolute blast
* Great multiplayer, both online and off

* Inconsistent vehicle handling
* Oversensitive physics

See also on Car Games To Play:
wipeout hd pleases new and old fans

Monday, 13 October 2008

Baja: Edge of Control - Rewarding Off-road Experience

This ambitious car racing game delivers a rewarding off-road experience provided you make it past the initially steep learning curve.
Baja: Edge of Control
Baja: Edge of Control from 2XL Games is an ambitious off-road racer that, while not necessarily better than games that have come before it, does enough things well and introduces enough new features to make it a good addition to the genre. Loosely based on the annual Baja 1000 race that takes place in Mexico, Edge of Control not only features rally courses that are much longer than those in other games, but also courses that are so rugged and treacherous that even driving in a straight line can be challenging. Many of the races are endurance tests for both you and your car, and the damage and repair management system adds a unique strategic element to longer events. The quality of the visuals varies according to which console you're playing on. The Xbox 360 version looks good and runs smoothly, the PlayStation 3 game does not.

Baja: Edge of Control screenshot 1
From the outset, you can choose to take part in races, rallies, and hill-climb events in a few of Baja's nine barren environments. These are great if you're anxious to sample trophy trucks and other top-end vehicles early on, but Edge of Control's main course is its Career mode, which you'll have to spend a good amount of time with if you want to unlock the remaining locales, as well as additional vehicles. What's unfortunate about the bare-bones Career mode is that it forces you to start in the lowest of the game's eight vehicle classes, which would be fine, except that Baja Bugs not only lack the horsepower of larger classes, but also the suspension, the grip, the brakes, the cooling systems, and everything else that you might expect from a vehicle purpose-built for racing through the desert. The result is that the game's slower vehicles are often the most difficult to handle and to get across the finish line without sustaining significant damage. Unfortunately, you have to slog through these events before you're permitted (or can afford) to race in more powerful classes.

If you don't opt to turn it off, which you shouldn't, vehicle damage is almost inevitable in the majority of Edge of Control's events. This is especially true of hill-climb events, which not only challenge you to scale some spectacularly steep inclines but also to come back down again. The cosmetic damage to vehicles tends to be over-the-top rather than realistic, so you can expect body panels to fall off before they have a chance to get misshapen. Losing panels won't affect your vehicle's performance, but if you're playing in Career mode and have managed to attract a sponsor, it will only pay you for the logos that make it across the finish line.

Baja: Edge of Control screenshot 2
Collisions with other cars or obstacles will cause parts to fall off of your vehicle, but this damage is purely cosmetic. Interestingly, the kind of damage that will adversely affect your vehicle's performance is generally a result of your driving style rather than of any kind of error or incident. For example, when racing toward a huge ramp, it's conceivable that by preloading your suspension and getting some major airtime, you might be able to leapfrog vehicles in front of you to gain a place or two. Landing a jump like that is unlikely to do your suspension any good, though, and even if you don't end up with a wobbly wheel, there's a chance that you'll damage your oil pan. Another avoidable though very common problem with the vehicles in Baja is overheating, which causes a significant loss of power as your radiator packs up and starts throwing a trail of smoke in your wake. If you ease off the gas when the onscreen temperature gauge moves toward the red, you can prevent or at least postpone this problem, though in a race situation deliberately slowing down often feels counterintuitive. Figuring out exactly how hard you can push your vehicle without breaking it can be a lot of fun. It's frustrating to lose a race on the last corner because you pushed too hard, but it's very rewarding to win a race when your opponents' vehicles are falling apart.

Baja: Edge of Control screenshot 3
One of the tips that appears during Edge of Control's occasionally lengthy load times would have you believe that letting up on the gas is something that you'll want to do almost every time you approach a corner. You're supposed to use the hand brake to turn and then, as you slide around the corner, hold in the clutch to get your revs up so that when you release it upon exiting the corner, you get a welcome boost of speed. It works, and it's really satisfying when you get it right, but it's rarely necessary because most of the sharp corners are set into huge banks that do a lot of the turning for you. This makes the nuanced controls entertaining for expert racers, even though the courses are still accessible to novices.

When your vehicle is in need of some mechanic love, your options will vary according to the type of event in which you're competing. Circuit races incorporate repair stops into their designs where, by stopping for just a few seconds, you can get repairs carried out without losing too much time. During rally events, repairs come courtesy of a helicopter that can be seen flying overhead at all times. When you need to stop, you simply hit a button to radio the helicopter and, provided its crew isn't already busy assisting someone else or eating ice cream (it happens), it will land somewhere ahead of you so that you can stop alongside it to get the same service you'd get at a regular repair stop. Furthermore, if your vehicle gets a flat tire and is carrying a spare (most start a race with one or two, but they fall off), you can stop at any point during a race to change it by hitting the repair button.

Baja: Edge of Control scrrenshot 3
You don't have to spend any time or money repairing your vehicles between races in Edge of Control, but there are plenty of opportunities for you to upgrade or replace them. Vehicle upgrades come in a number of different flavors, including engine, power train, tires, brakes, suspension, weight/aero, and cooling/plumbing. You don't need to know anything about the inner workings of modern automobiles to figure out that throwing money at any part of your vehicle makes it better in the game. Complex explanations of what every new part does are available, but the only thing you need to look at is the performance gauge that fills up as you highlight more expensive options. On the other hand, if you're someone who knows what "2.5-inch dual-rate springs on coil-over shock with remote reservoir" means, you can go into the tuning menus to tinker with your vehicle's brake bias, gear ratios, spring lengths, and other settings to get your ride just the way you like it.

Given the level of detail that's available in the garage between races, it's baffling that you're afforded no information whatsoever when buying a vehicle. These purpose-built off-road racers don't come cheap, but when you're considering your next purchase in Edge of Control, the only information you're afforded about each vehicle is its name, price, and the colors in which it's available. There certainly appear to be some performance differences among the vehicles in any given class, but figuring them out comes down to you, plus a whole lot of trial and error.

Regardless of your uneducated vehicle choice, there's no denying that the driving in Edge of Control is satisfying. Vehicle handling makes intelligent compromises between realism and gameplay. Bumps in the road that can potentially throw you off course are far more common than in other off-road racers, for example, but anytime you fly off a big jump, you're afforded some control in midair so that you can try for something that resembles a comfortable landing. Course designs are impressive for the most part, though there's some inconsistency in how you are permitted to cut corners; at times, you'll get away with skipping quite lengthy sections of track, but at other times, you'll be penalized and reset to an earlier part of the course for something relatively minor.

AI drivers are also an inconsistent feature in Edge of Control. For the most part, they drive realistically, aggressively (even on the easier of the two difficulty modes), and believably (that is, they make errors)--they'll even cut corners when they can get away with it. They'll often appear to slow down if they get too far ahead of you, though. At times, when racing alongside you, they'll also seem blissfully unaware of your existence and stubbornly try to go for their preferred racing line--even if getting to it means having to go through you.

Like most racing games, Edge of Control is more fun when played with human opposition. There's split-screen support for up to four players and online support for a starting grid of 10. All of the aforementioned race types that appear in the Career mode are supported, as well as a Free Ride mode that you can use to explore the game's massive environments and Baja events, which are rallies on courses so long that they can take from one to three hours to complete. Smartly, when playing online, you have the option to hit a button and have the AI take over for you temporarily, so calls of nature, ringing phones, or screaming kids don't necessarily have to mean the end of your race. The last two might even offer some welcome relief from the constant droning of engines that you hear during a race--there's nothing wrong with them, it's just that there's very little else going on where audio is concerned. The mellow Mexican music played on menu screens and the like isn't horrible, but you'll hear so much of it on a relentless loop that it inevitably becomes grating after a while.

Baja: Edge of Control for the Xbox 360 isn't a great-looking game, and on the PlayStation 3, it isn't even a remotely good-looking one. The environments lack detail on both consoles, but they look fine while you're racing through them at speed. The problem is that while the vehicles, trackside objects, and even the horizon look relatively crisp on the 360, those on the PS3 have edges so jagged that you'll question whether or not the game is even running at the right resolution. The frame rate on the PS3 also isn't nearly as smooth as it is on the 360, though it's rarely so bad that's it's detrimental to gameplay.

If you can get over the steep learning curve, the Xbox 360 version of Baja: Edge of Control is an off-road racer that's definitely worth a look. The PS3 version is less easy to recommend because while the gameplay is intact, you should not have to tolerate, much less pay for, the combination of an inconsistent frame rate and horrible visuals.


  • Great course designs
  • Plenty of vehicle and event variety
  • Split-screen support for up to four players
  • The easy difficulty setting is a lie
  • Career mode lacks depth
See also on Car Games To Play:
Pure - delivers off-road thrill ride
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MotorStorm - all in heat, mud, dust and sweat!

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Pure - Delivers Off-Road Thrill Ride

Car Game that doesn't blaze many new trails, but this off-road racer still delivers an intense, tricked-out thrill ride.

All-terrain vehicles are something of a niche interest, but you don't need to care about them in the least to enjoy Pure. All you need is an appreciation for breathtaking environments and intense racing action. In Pure, Black Rock Studio has crafted an accessible, wildly tricked-out game that may feel a bit familiar, but it pulls off its concept so well that you won't mind feeling like you've danced with this lady before.

In fact, Pure has more in common with EA's SSX series of snowboarding games than it does with your typical ATV racer. At the heart of Pure is a system that rewards you for pulling off spectacular tricks with the ability to boost. Performing tricks is simple--you just push a button and a direction on the thumbstick as you soar through the air--but the built-in risk-versus-reward aspect keeps things interesting. Pulling off longer, more complex trick combinations nets you more boost, and you can tweak your tricks with a shoulder button or simultaneously flip your ATV forward or backward to dramatically increase the payoff. But if you don't finish the trick before you touch ground again, you'll wipe out and lose boost, not to mention valuable seconds. And the game's presentation makes it all very visceral. Not only do the tricks look totally insane, but the way the ground flies up to meet you creates a real sense of danger. This makes successfully completing your trick milliseconds before you land exhilarating, while wiping out will have you wincing in vicarious pain as your rider goes tumbling across the rough terrain.

There are three event types on offer. Sprints are the most technical: These short races around small, tight tracks provide scant opportunity for pulling tricks. The focus on maintaining your speed and sticking to a smart racing line keep sprints fast-paced and fun. In freestyle events, tricks are all that matter. You keep going until your rapidly draining gas tank is spent, linking tricks to rack up multipliers and score big points. The tracks are decked out with ramps to provide more opportunities for catching big air, and power-ups are liberally scattered around that refill your gas tank, add a multiplier to your score, or instantly hook you up with the ability to perform a special trick. (More on those in a bit.) Freestyle events are the weakest of the bunch because the trick system--while robust enough for the race modes--isn't as compelling when you remove it from that context and make it stand on its own.

Standard races are the most interesting events because they balance the finish-line focus of the sprints with the need to pull tricks and earn boost. And, you'll need to make some important decisions on the fly. As your boost meter builds up, you earn access to more complex trick types, which, in turn, earn you more boost, so there's constantly a trade-off at work. Boosting is often necessary to pull ahead of your opponents, but draining the boost bar costs you the ability to pull off the more advanced tricks. It creates a surprisingly complex dilemma. There's added incentive to max out your boost bar because doing so will give you access to a special trick. Special tricks are the most outrageous in the game, involving physically impossible (but nonetheless awesome) stunts, such as standing on the seat of an ATV and doing a backflip as it soars through the air. Pulling off one of these tricks will refill your entire boost bar, but they take several seconds to complete, so you'll need to catch some serious air. Landing one of these tricks at a critical point in a race can make all the difference, so it's fitting that they're neither easy to earn nor to perform.

Pure's main mode is the World Tour. Here, you'll start off competing on ATVs with relatively weak, D-class engines, and these early events can be a tad too easy, but the competition gradually heats up as you rise through the ranks. The later stages, which find you racing faster models against more aggressive opponents, are also consistently thrilling. You choose from one of six riders, but there's no functional difference among them. It's all about the ATVs, and as you complete events, you'll constantly unlock new parts for your ride, which you can put together, piece by piece, in the game's garage. Armchair grease monkeys will appreciate the number of customization options Pure offers, while others might find it almost silly--many of the parts have no effect on performance, and your opponents aren't going to take the time to admire your taste in radiator scoops or handle-bar guards. Still, too many customization options certainly beats too few, and the game's autobuild option, which lets you toss together a ride optimized for race or freestyle events just by holding down a button, means you can avoid the business of ATV construction altogether if you'd like to get right to racing.

Aside from the World Tour, you can hop into any single event, though you'll need to unlock tracks in World Tour before you can access them. And the online play, which supports up to 16 players in an event, is outstanding. Even in races with 16 people on the track, the action stays fast and smooth. Again, though, you'll need to unlock performance parts for your ATVs in the World Tour mode to access them in online ATVs, which makes jumping right into online games a recipe for defeat.

Despite taking loads of inspiration from the SSX games, Pure capitalizes on the fact that it is, in fact, an ATV game. Although the action here is far from realistic, the physics feel convincing--your ride will dig into the terrain as you slide through curves, and the dirt roads that make up many of the tracks feel as rough under your wheels as they look. The tracks offer an excellent amount of variety, both visually and structurally--the hairpin turns through the airplane graveyard at Ocotillo Wells in California provide a sharp contrast to the gentle curves that take you through the lush coastal landscape of Kosa Phi Island in Thailand. And the tracks have alternate routes you'll discover that can shave seconds off your time, which makes familiarizing yourself with them rewarding. Still, the action isn't without its rough edges. It's not always clear where the track ends, so you may find yourself going out of bounds and being penalized a few seconds of time when you thought you were just taking a shortcut.

Pure's visuals are nothing short of breathtaking. Every detail, large and small, contributes to bringing the environments to life, from the grass and flowers right underneath your wheels to the roaring rivers you might see frighteningly far below. Your ride also realistically kicks up dirt, splashes through puddles, and leaves tracks in its wake. (Nearly every level has helicopters hovering overhead, and, of course, helicopters make anything more epic.) And the game creates a thrilling sense of speed, without any noticeable drops in the frame rate, even when the screen is filled with other riders. The game's sound is great as well. The raucous rock songs on the soundtrack by such artists as Jeff Beck, Wolfmother, and The Futureheads seem to have been chosen with care to create a cohesive backdrop for the action. The whine of the ATVs is authentic, and there's a sickening sinking sound that makes the game's insane jumps that much more likely to induce vertigo. The only problem with the game's sound is that the narrator tends to repeat basic tips ad nauseam, but thankfully, you can shut him up at any time.

The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions are almost indistinguishable from one another. The 360 version has achievements, while the PS3 version lacks trophies; on the other hand, the larger shoulder buttons on the Dual Shock make it ever-so-slightly more comfortable for tweaking tricks. Ultimately, if you know more people playing one version or other online, that's the one you should choose. Pure isn't the most original game out there, and it might have been nice to see it build on the trick system in SSX instead of just copying it wholesale. But nonetheless, its focus on tricks, boosting, and larger-than-life jumps over gorgeous environments pays off. This is an exciting racing game that seriously delivers on its promise of high-speed, high-adrenaline action.

* Breathtaking environments
* Trick system is straightforward and compelling
* Good track variety
* Excellent online play

* Doesn't offer much in the way of originality

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