Racing games -- the memorable ones, anyway -- successfully ride a tightrope while tilted up on two wheels: They have to be forgiving enough so that a single crash or mistimed U-turn skid doesn't torpedo your chances to place or win, but they also can't be too easy (or too cheap), or believability gets tossed out the back-seat window.
Sony's MotorStorm series, now three games in, has done a great job of navigating that tightrope, even as it's generally driven under most folks' radar screens. MotorStorm Apocalypse is as challenging as anything you've played, but it's also merciful: It may be the first racer I've ever played where plowing into a piling in the middle of a half-destroyed bridge actually improved my standing in the pack.
Apocalypse is all about the destruction, the drive and survive. The story's told through a series of motion-comics, and it feels comic-thin: A city's in the middle of being devastated by an earthquake. Hey, let's have a racing festival!
It proves to be as exciting as it sounds shallow. The action factor ramps up to 11 once you've survived the rookie mode and head into the heart of the city, where it's not just the earthquake that's creating havoc and destruction, but helicopters raining fireballs, runaway trains and exploding airplanes. Every second brings a new kaboom.
The apocalyptic destruction not only culls one of the best features from last year's über-awesome Split/Second, but it also adds the benefit of transforming the track with every lap. That shortcut you used to jump a couple of places a few minutes ago? It's now been obliterated by the flaming wreckage of a fallen skyscraper. Crash.
Apocalypse does everything it possibly can to keep you off balance, whether it's forcing you to race in near darkness through the broken downtown streets or sending you through a track that basically has you pumping your boost function to gain enough acceleration to jump gaps and drive through strung-together sections of fallen buildings as they're crumbling and exploding around you. Finishing a race feels like a major act of survival -- even if you don't place. Luckily, you only need to finish fifth or better to advance -- there's that forgiving touch again.
Can't say I particularly like the way the game rigidly forces you to use certain vehicle types for certain races -- having to drive, completely exposed, on a wimpy motorbike while half the field is rocking streetcars seems patently unfair, and being forced into the cab of a big-rig, a vehicle that corners about as well as an elephant wearing cement-laced ice skates, is a particularly pointless challenge. But every one of those "huh?" frustrations is quickly erased by the next amazing track. Dude, look out -- that ramp's about to blow.