Developer: Rainbow Studios
Release Date: March 24, 2005
There's only so much you can do with racing. At the end of the story, it's always the same intrinsic elements: going fast by whatever means, in an attempt to reach the other end before the other racers or within a certain time limit. Even when you tack on gimmicks like weird vehicles, a space setting, power-ups, or whatever, it's still the same basic concept underneath it all. MX vs. ATV: Unleashed hits that rule head on and gets concussed for the effort.
Here's the skinny. MvA is another entry in the ever-popular off-road racing field, sporting everything you're used to and a few other nifty neatos. Through a quartet of long races, you'll tear through mud pits, over hills, and around sharp curves at high speed. MvA includes a menagerie of non-standard rigs; planes, helicopters, baja buggies, monster trucks, and roll-caged golf carts race alongside the namesake motocross bikes and ATVs. According to the box copy, all of these vehicles will get together and burn rubber using a bold new physics model and so on.
As soon as you power this up, the doubt will set in. Not unlike the engines in many a dirt bike, the core powering MvA is decidedly wimpy. Spare in effects, the graphics look like something from the early PS2 days; the tracks themselves are brown mud bogs with no frills beyond a few bushes and shrubs. Don't look for audiences or any signs of life because there's nothing outside of the fixed track boundaries of note. The video even suffers from a lot of digital "noise," distortion like what'd you get from a bad antenna signal. The sound, on the other hand, may as well not exist; consisting of nothing but weak engine sounds and the occasional grunt.
The music itself deserves special mention. Lately, licensing alternative-pop-rock-punk-polka-whatever has become all the rage, and while EA Trax might have been the first, it seems that everyone is copying the idea now. Unfortunately, it didn't really work the first time (except in rare circumstances), and when you're getting down the third stringers who aren't recognizable enough for a major label release, it's like napalm in your auditory canal. This music is awful and comes in small quantities — maybe a dozen tracks that you'll hear over and over — and while you could mute it, that leaves nothing but the chirpy whine of engines. There's no announcer anywhere, no voiceovers, and no alternate background music.
"But, Mr. The Rabbit," I can hear you say. "High quality gameplay can overcome almost any technical issue and redeem any game!" I'm a firm believer in that, Jimmy Talks-to-Websites. So let us look at the actual racing action, which can be summed up in a single word: bland. If you've played anything involving off-road motorcycles or ATVs, you've played this. Every element is strictly average: average design, average controls, average challenge. The championship series modes consist of either 32 or 48 weeks each, where you'll run each week's tracks two or three times. On the medium difficulty (where I spent my time), the pack stays fairly close but doesn't put up much of a fight so if you can out-corner them, you'll usually snake into the lead and hold it. Then it's lather, rinse, repeat.
Most of the vehicles handle so tightly that it's hard to goof up if you've ever played an off-road racer before, leading to a "lean on the gas, forget the brakes" style of play that's totally devoid of strategy. The touted "physics model" seems to consist of nothing more than a "lean and pre-load" jumping system that's been seen a few times before. And yes, there are stunts tacked on for fun and profit, but there's really no reason to waste your time and risk your position for a bit of showboating. As much as airtime may seem a really attractive idea, you're most likely to fall off your bike there, either by misgauging your landing or getting hit in the head by another biker's wheel. This "slamming" seems cool at first, but it's very difficult to predict and usually costs you a few seconds you don't actually have.
I must address an issue I have with the advertising, box copy, even the name of the game. One of the giant gimmicks in MvA is the "multi-vehicular mayhem," shown off by screens of the various rigs competing simultaneously. This mode does not exist as advertised. It is impossible to race more than one kind of vehicle at the same time outside the multiplayer modes. The other rigs exist primarily for "challenge" sessions, where you're given some ridiculous goal in a one-on-one race. Usually, the reward is a signature jersey from a professional racer, but I highly doubt you'll bother: the ground-bound challenges are against extremely fast rigs, while the air challenges are knocked to pavement by over-responsive controls and a silly rule (if you crash, you must return to "base station" and take off again) that has no effect on the near-perfect AI.
Multiplayer is another mark on the "not spectacular" list. Consisting of the standard modes you've seen a million times before, it offers nothing more than split-screen or internet races. Online games seemed lag-less and at the very least simple, though setup is a bit of a drag — GameSpy Arcade handles the match searching, but it doesn't remember any login settings, leaving you to retype passwords and logins every play through. I also had some isolated crashes and cycling time-outs, but that may be directly related to my connection.
There's a handful of other minor quibbles on top of all this. This title is slow with a capital "ssssss," taking nearly a full minute to load tracks or save your game. The Shop and Customize menus stutter violently when trying to load new models, and there are some issues with the post-race menu being convoluted and confusing. As an example, in order to save a concluded week, you have to go on to the next week, and if you try to go back to the menu, you're not presented with saving options and your progress is immediately erased. There's no semblance of a career mode, and purchasing other bikes and ATVs seems to be merely cosmetic.
If you're in the market for yet another off-road motorcycling fest, or you're tired of ATV Offroad Fury and simply must drive them some more, then you'll find what you're used to here. Anyone who comes to this title expecting dynamic racing with lots of interesting new vehicles will be sadly left in the dust of another mid-card title. While it's perfectly playable, there's not an element — besides the silly extra vehicles — that really begs for anyone's attention.
More articles about MX vs. ATV Unleashed