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MX vs ATV: Alive

Getting full control isn't easy

What's It All About:
With its Rainbow Studio-developed franchise MX vs. ATV, which puts you in command of motocross bikes and quad ATVs on muddy dirt tracks in long course, short course and freestyle riding, THQ has established a firm hold on the off-road gaming market, especially thanks to the Reflex Riding control scheme introduced in 2009's Reflex. That same set-up returns in this latest chapter, though some of what made fans so into Reflex is missing, along with about $20 off the price tag. More about that later though...

There's not much that needs to be explained about the gameplay in a racing game, as your goal is always the same: finish first. there are three modes here, as you can compete on long courses, short courses and in freerides, where you ride around large expanses pulling off big jumps and tricks. This is a step back from the previous release, as there are less vehicles to drive and fewer modes, but what is there is still a blast to play. I'm a casual racing-game player, yet this game had me coming back again and again, thanks to the feel of the gameplay. Normally, it feels like racing games are a one-and-done affair, as a mistake will put you far behind the pack, unable to make a comeback. Here, you'll watch opposing racers flying around left and right, stuck together tight in packs, letting you satisfyingly come from behind for the win. That s a good thing, because you'll find yourself falling quite often (no matter how the game tries to help you (see The Controls.))

Outside of the in-race competition, there's an RPG-like leveling system that allows you to enhance your rider and your vehicles, with plenty of customization options for both, including gear, logos and designs from some of the biggest companies in motocross. Achieveing certain in-race goals, like not bumping your opponents or coming from behind to win, and winning on harder tracks will earn points that improve your skills, and give you access to special abilities, like quicker recovery from wrecks. Though this customization is a nice touch, it's limited in value, and it's too easy to max out. 

It feels great to hit a jump at full speed and land the perfect landing, passing a group of riders in the process, just as it is far less fun to build a big lead, only to clip a tire on the side of the track on the final lap, and watch seven riders fly past you. It's that unpredictability that makes the game so much fun, but it also can be frustrating. You can never be quite sure what's going to put you in a ditch, and even the game doesn't seem sure about what's going to happen. If you leave the track, you get a warning to get back on course, before you're forced to reset, and get placed back on the track. That's actually quite helpful when you get stuck behind an obstacle, but it's far too arbitrary. Sometimes, you'll go far off-course and get reset. Sometimes, you get a second off-course, and reset. It's frustrating when you lose momentum, especially when the same disorientation can sometimes simply be corrected. The game really misses an opportunity here, because there are times when a crash could be fun, but you're just cut-off and reset. For instance, at one point, my rider hit a massive jump and went way off-course, heading for a window of a nearby building. But just before impact, a reset. Too bad.

The thing that's most unique about the game though is the price. It runs a full $20 less than your average new XBox game, and with good reason, as most of the game is locked down to start (though if you buy it new an additional location (with four modes) is available as free DLC (otherwise it's $10.)) You start out with a pair of long tracks, a pair of short tracks and two freeride settings, along with a small selection of vehicles and rider customizations. In order to get more, you have two options. You can either work your way up in experience points until you unlock this content, or you can buy it from the in-game store. So the game is cheaper to start, but you're getting less game. Though it may make fiscal sense to just unlock these options through gameplay, it will take you a while to get there, as you have to reach level 10 and then level 25 to unlock it all. Reaching level 10 is actually worse than you'd think, because you have so few tracks to race in, which means you're running the same races over and over. Once your done with your grinding though, you can really enjoy the game, so you may want to just pay for the bundle that will unlock everything.

Online Play
The online play in this game is solid, letting you compete against a full roster of live racers in each of the games' mode, with the next race chosen by the players' votes. In playing many races, there was no noticeable difference between an online game and a local competition. The only issue is a slight lack of players, as there was never more than seven players in a race. That said, it's addictive fun, as I played for hours, despite coming in last frequently. There's something about taking on real foes that's just enjoyble.

Sweet merciful crap. Never have I utilized a control scheme this intricate before. There are literally times when I was pressing several buttons at once trying to speed up and yet maintain control over my bike, thanks to the reflex riding system, which lets you control the vehicle and the rider separately but at the same time. Now, it doesn't get much more complicated than the directions you work your analog sticks, but as you're doing that, you also have control of the clutch, brakes, gas and your rider's level of crouching, as well as a trick button that alters your right stick into a trick selector. Trying to keep all this straight while flying around the mud is pretty complicated, and probably comes as close as a game will get to what it's like to actually ride one of these things (outside of an arcade simulator.) To be honest, I still don't have a full grasp of the clutch aside from its value in getting off the starting line, but it's one more chance to gain an advatange.

The controls are a bit loose, but that lends to the realistic feel, as you don't have rock-solid command over a vehicle bounding over a motocross course, and the bouncing adds to the game's challenge. Things can improve depending on the quality of your vehicle, but it's still going to be a rough ride (as it should be.) What's nice are the two assistance systems available, one of which indicates your upcoming turns, while the other helps you avoid wrecks by giving you quick-time events that help you correct your instabilities.

There are plenty of achievements to earn in this game, with 45 entries worth a total of 1000 points. These are the kind of achievements I like, as they aren't just tied to completing the game. You start out with the "try it" achievements, like 10 points for using the customization tools or checking out the in-game store, and move on to accumulation achievements (like riding 100 freeride miles) to odd tasks, like winning a race and crossing the line with a 360 spin. The rate at which you'll rack up these achievements to start should help inspire players to keep going.

Everything about this game, including the menus, detailed vehicles and tracks, looks great, maintaining its good looks even at top speed, which is key, considering you need to be able to see the positioning of your wheels and make out the track (without an HUD map available.) The little details are all impressive, from the dynamic trails, which are affected by your tires, to the position of the sun, which casts shadows, creating a realistic visual challenge in spots. One of the best graphic elements is a silly one, as you can wreck into the camera in freeride, sending it flipping and sprawling, which makes for a fun visual. Overall, a really nice-looking game, though the ragdolling on your riders could be less stiff.

In thinking back to playing this game, there's one element that stood out over everything, and that's the sound. The audio is incredibly deep and realistic, putting sound all around. Several times I started looking around, trying to find the source of a yell or a bang, thinking it was in another room, rather than in the game. The sounds of the bikes fill your ears, as you would expect, but the clinks and crashes are equally good, and the heavy rock music that scores the game sounds great as well.

And in the End...
For all that's good about this game, the way the content is locked down and cut down (from the previous version) hurts the end product, and the unique pricing structure makes it all too easy to be cynical about it all. That said, if you want to enjoy good motocross racing (and especially if you're a fan of the sport) this is probably your best bet. At the least, it's a relatively cheap option.