The skyline is a mess of collapsing architecture. The smoky heavens rain down slabs of concrete and broken glass. Roads are littered with the burning carcasses of abandoned cars and boats are belched out of the violent seas. Tarmac ruptures and machinery explodes, the odd bolt of lightning stabs through the clouds. It's an urban apocalypse, and you're right there in the middle of it, foot on the gas, tearing through the dying city.
It's overwhelming at first. The third MotorStorm presents destruction like nothing else before it, battering your senses with everything nature can muster. While Charles Richter would point to a number on the far end of his famous scale and warn you off the place, this is precisely the reason why the Stormers - the series' adrenaline craving racers - have flocked to The City in the first place. They're actively pursuing the earthquake, hoping that the inhospitable conditions will grant them the best racing experience of their lives. The fruitcakes.
The Festival, as the Stormers call the three-day event, is also the name of the game's narrative-driven story mode, which stitches races together with trendy comic book cutscenes. These are well-orchestrated, and while the dialogue is cheesier than a family bag of Wotsits, they're entertaining nonetheless. The colourful cast of characters bet on races, pursue romances, and plot revenge on their rivals. Even so, this is all incredibly detached from what happens on the track. Aside from the odd duel towards the end of each character's storyline, the cutscenes bear no relation to the action.
The Festival is split across the paths of three characters: boy racer Mash, topless gambler Tyler, and the haggard festival co-ordinator, Big Dog. The three adrenaline junkies also serve to differentiate between the game's trio of difficulty modes - rookie, pro and veteran. Each character jumps behind the wheel of a variety of vehicles throughout the festival, from monster trucks, buggies and ATVs to the all-new supercars, superbikes, hot hatches, muscle cars and low-riders. As always, the diversity of motors is suitably vast.
The handling isn't as tight as that on offer in say Hot Pursuit or Split/Second (the bikes are particularly iffy), but compared to previous entries in the series vehicles have more grip and don't feel as heavy when turning - even the race truck can corner fairly well. As with previous games, tapping X will activate your nitrous, but holding it down for too long will cause your engine to burst into flames. Driving through water is a good way to cool it down, simultaneously allowing your boosters to hold out for extended periods of time. Skilled players will plan their routes around these pools of water, shaving precious seconds off their lap times in the process. And should another vehicle get too close, Square and Circle can be used to shunt your opponents left and right.
Ultimately it's the environments, not the cars, that define the MotorStorm experience. For the first time in the series, Evolution Studios has taken the action into an urban setting, and the California Bay-inspired City is the perfect host for the carnage. As always, tracks offer multiple routes to the finish line, with buildings, ramps and tunnels each taking the race down a different path. Like its predecessors, there's just as much vertical variety as there is horizontal, which spreads out each race nicely.
While Split/Second allowed players to interact with its explosive set-pieces, Apocalypse takes the opposite approach, in that you're completely at nature's mercy. Tracks dynamically change from lap to lap, with falling buildings blocking old routes, and gaping chasms in the tarmac opening up new ones. The shifting scenery is certainly impressive, but it does make it incredibly hard to learn a track - if only because there's so much going on. In this respect, MotorStorm is more about reacting to your environment than memorising it. Dodging that out-of-control train or beached yacht requires snap reflexes, however, and you'll become distressingly familiar with the crash animation over the course of the game. This was an intended design choice: the respawn times are quick, after all, but this ends up fragmenting the action a little too much for my liking.
Also contributing heavily to the frantic nature of the game is a private militia known as Dusklite, who have taken it upon themselves to clear The City of anybody refusing to leave. These guys take the form of machine gun-wielding soldiers who loiter the corners of each course - and they'll frequently find themselves decorating the bonnet of a car when they inevitably fail to jump out of the way in time. Dusklite helicopters aren't so easy to stop, however, as they weave through collapsing buildings, firing off rockets and actively destroying the road in front of you. This is often to your advantage, though, as groups of rivalling cars are purged from the track in a gulf of flames.
There's no obtrusive rubber-banding plaguing the experience as there was on Split/Second and Hot Pursuit, but the AI can often do silly and irrational things to the same end. Your opponents will burn out their engines in the home straight incredibly frequently, meaning success is largely dependant on the last three quarters of the last lap. It's a well-disguised equivalent to rubber-banding, but takes the emphasis off the early laps just the same.
This isn't a problem in multiplayer, of course, where your rivals are far more frugal with their use of boosts. Sixteen-player online play will be a huge attraction for many people, and Apocalypse - with all its fancy explosions and tremors - is an intense experience with friends. A rank mechanic gives the mode legs, granting poker chip-based experience points based on how well you race. There's a familiar perk system, too, offering passive skills and abilities based on your preferred style of play. Burn Rubber, for example, increases your grip, whilst Swift Return halves the amount of time it takes to respawn. There are plenty of other unlockables, too, all of which tie neatly into My MotorStorm, a menu stocked with a bevy of customisation features and options to share photos. Those who embrace the social side of Apocalypse will be impressed by how extensive it is.
Despite how stunning the game is visually, the sound design is even more impressive. Complimenting the devastation is a dubstep-heavy soundtrack, with hearty wuuub wuuub wuuuuubs, technical drum loops and epic string accompaniments. The likes of Noisia and DJ Shadow provide the perfect score to match the carnage, and while some people might have preferred the distorted guitars and manly screaming on offer in Pacific Rift, the Apocalypse soundtrack is far more contemporary. If you've got a good sound system, crank the bass up and enjoy what is, arguably, one of the best game soundtracks in recent memory.
MotorStorm Apocalypse is a relentless assault on the senses, with grandiose set pieces that would make Michael Bay gush with delight. The racing itself doesn't offer a tremendous amount of depth, but the destruction unfolding around each event offers an edge-of-your-seat experience that more than makes up for it. Festival mode will take around eight hours to finish, depending how hot behind the wheel you are, but the multiplayer has enough depth to extend this considerably. While the impact of seeing a city torn to shreds by an earthquake diminishes somewhat over time, playing through Festival mode for the first time is a ride like no other.