When Racing Through An Earthquake Feels Inappropriate

This is natural disaster as roller coaster ride.

The race starts with a helicopter drop onto a collapsing highrise. My ATV lands as the building leans, falling like a domino into the adjacent building. I jump the diminishing gap amid clouds of dust and debris, tearing down the rooftop as it too begins to tilt. Cracks form, gaps open up next too me and I jump again, landing on a crumbling tarmac that swallows rider and ride, delaying my race.

This is off-road, rooftop racing, a frenetic mix of high speeds, nitro blasts and a city ravaged by earthquakes. Motorstorm Apocalypse is on indefinite hold, a game some at Sony think hits too close to home for those dealing with the realities of a very real earthquake.

But there isn't a lot to find for those looking for connections between the adrenaline-junkie racers of this latest Motorstorm and their apocalyptic "City" and the devastation of Japan's magnitude 9 Tōhoku earthquake and the tsunami that followed.

But it's understandable that a Japanese company, any company, would want to push back the release of a game that stars a motley crew of racers who see the end of a city by earthquake as an opportunity to race through it.

"We are shocked and saddened to see the impact of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and our thoughts are with all those affected, including our colleagues within the Sony family, living and working throughout Japan. We are very conscious of the parallels between these events and the underlying theme in Motorstorm and are doing everything we can to be as sensitive as possible to the situation. Although the game itself is already in distribution, we are ceasing any further shipments, removing as much of the marketing materials as possible and where possible we will postpone the release." - Official Statement on Motorstorm Apocalypse website.

And this isn't a game that needs controversy to sell. This is a spectacular racer, the highpoint of a series that made a name for itself with racetracks of mud and mountain, amazing jumps and a maze of routes.

The story that drives the concept of Motorstorm Apocalypse is pretty straight forward, albeit more than a bit bizarre. The same folks who put on the past two Motorstorm festivals, the backdrop for the first two games, caught word of an enormous earthquake set to hit The City set in a fictionalized combination of California's Bay Area. All but the craziest of residents have been cleared from the city, leaving a playground of devastation for the racers to tear through.

Operating on a enormous cargo ship anchored in the bay of The City, the racers take increasingly dangerous forays into The City during quakes to prove their mettle and enjoy a bit of urban off-road racing.

The game has three intertwined story arcs, each based on increasingly difficult levels of racing. To progress through the game you need to win or qualify in each race. Finish a set of races and you unlock the next level of difficulty and a new story arc.

The game's campaign moves you through varying maps, situations and vehicles, making sure you get a taste of everything the game has to offer. And it has a lot to offer. This time around the developers have added super cars and bikes, muscle cars and choppers to the mix.

Much of the gameplay returns from Motorstorm: Pacific rift. You can still boost to the left or right to try and ram vehicles into objects, or shift out of the way of trouble. Nitro boosts still play a key role in gameplay. This time around you can cool off your overheating engine not only with water, but with air. Whenever you're in a jump you can cool the engine off by releasing both the gas and nitro. It's another level of controller complexity that adds a bit more depth and tactics to the game.

But the biggest change to the game aren't found in the mechanics of play, they're found in the setting.

In Motorstorm Apocalypse you're not racing just the other drivers, you're racing nature, the tremors, the cracks, the vanishing landscape and twisting paths.

As the difficulty ramps up, so does the impact that the earthquakes have on route. Overpasses drop out from above, creating ramps. Buildings crumble, creating walls. What looks like solid road, disintegrates under your tires.

And that constantly evolving landscape isn't just tricky to navigate, it's also distracting. Explosions, building collapses, ramps disguised in a litter or crumbled concrete, it all makes navigation and route selection a challenge.

I'm about halfway through the campaign and I'm already intensely devoted to this latest iteration of Motorstorm.

Unfortunately, as of this morning Sony still has no new release date for this Playstation 3 exclusive.