The MX vs. ATV series technically has a storied history, albeit under a different guise. Developer Rainbow Studios first released the PC-only game Motocross Madness in 1998, marking the first time a videogame motorcycle and its driver had separate physics. Say what you will about FlatOut and its driver-through-the-windshield hilarity, but Motocross Madness was actually a bit more fun, both due to its novelty and the sheer entertainment value of watching a guy fly hundreds of yards through the desert sky and fall tragically to the cactus-riddled ground.
As years have passed, the novelty of those physics has worn off, so Rainbow Studios has had to incorporate new off-road vehicles into its games. Enter the MX vs. ATV series. The latest entry in the franchise, MX vs. ATV Untamed, includes four-wheelers, supercross bikes, minimotos (a la 50cc bikes), dune buggies and — for the sake of having some good laughs — monster trucks. The gameplay is largely the same as Motocross Madness: arcade-inspired action at its core, with just enough reality (the physics, mostly) to keep players challenged and coming back. At first blush MX vs. ATV Untamed is as entertaining as ever, but after playing for a while, it’s clear that its shortcomings are too numerous to keep up with the veritable pack of off-road racing games.
MX vs. ATV Untamed includes five different gameplay modes, and unlike many racing games, this game’s modes aren’t completely derivative of one another. The “Quick Event” mode is an interesting option when you just have a few minutes to play, because the console decides what you’re going to play. Rather than just a quick match that you setup yourself, Quick Event has the console pick the event type, vehicle type, vehicle class, number of laps, and even the difficulty of the AI. The result is a random challenge that keeps things fresh, and a nice change of pace from race to race.
This contrasts dramatically with the X-Cross Tournament mode, which provides the bulk of the game. X-Cross Tournament is organized much like Ridge Racer 6, in which players traverse a web of events and racing series, each one growing increasingly difficult and featuring different stages and vehicles. The objective is to master each of the game’s vehicles, earn as many points/medals as possible during a series of progressive events (a la Rallisport Challenge), and accumulate stunt points that you can use to buy bike and vehicle upgrades. Yet while all of the vehicles and upgrades seem fresh, the events and stages feel incredibly similar, a sad impression that isn’t helped at all by the need to race many events back-to-back successively on the same track.
The Event Series, meanwhile, lets players create their own series of events, from determining which vehicles and vehicle classes can participate in each race to the difficulty of the AI. This is slightly different from the Custom Event mode, however, which is less tournament-focused and more geared toward dinking around for a while on any track and with any vehicle, all of which are available from the get-go. The coolest feature of the Custom Event mode, though, is easily the ability to pause the game and switch vehicles on the fly. In a mode based on dinking around and having simple fun, this feature is a God send.
Yet even messing around in Free Ride mode doesn’t make up for some of the other core shortcomings, some of which are disappointing, and others of which actually interfere with the gameplay itself. On the disappointing side, although the vehicles all handle slightly differently, they share one universal flaw: they seem to float on air. On the PS3, some of this may be the lack of a Sixaxis rumble feature, but even on the Xbox 360, vehicles just don’t feel like they have any weight. This flightiness is exacerbated by the inexplicable ability to stop on a dime, even in the much-bigger-than-thou monster trucks.
With everyone on the same page (even online), these disappointments don’t really interfere with the gameplay that much, but several elements do. For starters, there’s no time penalty for crashing, which completely removes and urgency players may have for just going full-boar into a wall or tree, so long as they have a two-second lead (to keep the other bikes from catching up). Secondly, each track has a few specific places that we came to call “magic spots” for their ability to give players a nitro-like boost. These boosts aren’t universal, though, because the AI can’t use them, so by hitting one magic spot at the right time, players can easily vault from eighth to first place. Third, and perhaps most frustrating, crashes in which one player lands on top of the other after a jump only penalize the crashed-upon driver, while the jumping one goes on his merry way. Last time I checked, collisions like this would severely screw up the trajectory and plans of both vehicles, not just the victim.
Motocross Madness was a graphical powerhouse when it shipped for PC, and it’s sad to see MX vs. ATV Untamed not follow in those footsteps. The vehicles are all very well animated, with bouncing shocks and tires, and each bike and driver gradually shows dirt from the dusty tracks. But other than those small touches, MX vs. ATV looks decidedly less next-gen than other recent off-road offerings, most notably MotorStorm, DiRT and SEGA Rally Revo.
In the next-gen gaming race, comparisons such as this to similar games are inevitable, particularly where graphics are concerned. THQ’s game is still entertaining on its own, but videogames don’t exist in a vacuum, and gamers need to allocate their next-gen budgets wisely. Unfortunately, with its graphical and gameplay oversights, MX vs. ATV Untamed just doesn’t have what it takes to keep up with the pack.
– Jonas Allen