Developer: Rainbow Studios
Release Date: January 17, 2006
MX Vs. ATV Unleashed is the fourth game in THQ's MX series, and the first to get a PC iteration. The PC port feels excellent; however, the game suffers critically from feature creep to the extreme, with the onslaught of apparently new features causing no single new feature to be excellently implemented. The end effect is a title that drops itself from "awesome" to "okay" in fairly short order.
Unleashed gets some things right, and to some extent, I might be spoiled by the smoother physics of other games I have played in the racing genre. Part of the fun of this title is its similarity to actual dirt racing, where cars, bikes, and other racing implements need to be very skillfully driven, or they will go off course, off direction, and off the ground. However, this seems to exaggerate the effect to the point of ruining playability in the name of authentic styling.
With practically all of the vehicles, the game is the same, at least in the simplest sense. Select the vehicles used – including pitting all of the game's vehicles against each other if you wish – and the specifics of your rider and vehicle's appearance. In Championship mode, the vehicles are selected for you, and if unlocked, the motocross option allows you to specify the vehicle's engine class. Once you're on one of the many tracks, it's simply a matter of accelerating, braking depending on the vehicle you choose, choking the engine if it stalls on you, and perhaps throwing in a few tricks to get more points for unlocking stuff. If you crash, your vehicle and character fly and skid, then you are simply "teleported" back onto the course in an immobile state. Once you have the basics figured out, there really isn't that much to each of the different vehicles or play styles, with the exception of Hill Climb races, where the exceptionally steep and short nature encourages careful mastery of the physics engine.
Unfortunately, what is there rapidly degenerates into the greatest problem of the game. While the two namesake vehicles handle solidly and realistically – you can lean into a corner before you even land from the preceding jump on a motorcycle, but ATVs can knock motorcycles right off the road and don't crash if they hit the safety blocks that are in many areas of the course – almost every other vehicle has severe handling issues that minimize their enjoyability. For example, Sand Rails bounce all over the stage in an annoying yet somehow entertaining fashion, while the slightest object will send a Trophy Truck flying off course, flipping the car and putting you seven or eight seconds behind the computer AI, who can pull everything off with a low chance of screwing up. These modes are sufficiently aggravating as to drag down the entire game.
Visually, Unleashed isn't going to win any awards, but the graphics are perfectly functional. The head's-up display is a reasonable balance of "don't overload the player's mind" and "offer the player a full array of relevant information," presenting times, places, lap numbers, times, current speed, a mini-map of the course, and score, if applicable, in a semi-transparent, non-obtrusive form. Animations are fairly smooth, with a few barely noticeable jerks when, for example, your character crashes. Unfortunately, there were precious few crash animations, which cause the crashes, an aspect which one might find rather morbidly entertaining, to become boring very quickly. The courses themselves are static, except for the paper cut-out fans that fill the stands in some courses.
The game's audio is limited, but effective. Simple grunts define the sounds your racer makes when crashing, engine noise is functional but limited (you cannot hear your engine at all when in the air), and varied whumps and other crash and landing-related noises match their corresponding events reasonably well. However, you won't hear the sounds of vehicles breaking as they crash and fail to burn, or any environmental noises. The game's soundtrack is a modest 20 songs, consisting primarily of rock, with a few hip-hop tunes making up the balance. This is enough where an average player won't experience a song twice in a single playthrough, but it can get repetitive over time.
Two areas that MX vs. ATV Unleashed truly shines in, is the number of tracks, and the number of unlockable items. While you start with only one or two tracks in each of the different course styles, there are well over 70 tracks available by playing through the Championship and other modes, such as Racing, Freestyle, Free Ride, "Challenges," and User Tracks. While none of these tracks change the core of the game significantly, all are reasonably well built. The number of unlockable items is further increased with approximately 200 different unlockable sets of boots, suits, helmets, and goggles, along with many unlockable – but statistically identical – bike and vehicle designs and features, different engine classes for motocross, and many different vehicles. Rather than artificially boosting the length of the game, this creates the nice effect of you having the best components at the outset, with the lesser parts coming along later.
As mentioned, most of the alternative vehicles have truly annoying physics, which, combined with the surprisingly unforgiving rules for going off the course, can quickly turn the events from fun variants of normal play into incredibly aggravating experiences. All tricks, no matter how easy or difficult to perform, are worth exactly the same number of points, and if the animation is not completely finished by the time you land, even if you're almost fully seated with your hands on the handlebars, you will fly into a crash. Furthermore, while Unleashed does allow you to race different vehicle types against each other, do not expect a balanced race. On every attempt I made, motorcycles blew ATVs out of the water, while other vehicles simply didn't match up well, careening over the course at all speeds while motorcycles moved straight and true through the courses.Last but not least, the game's track editor – an exclusive feature for the PC version – is very well-designed, allowing for easy creation of full courses in a relatively short period of time. I had a nice basic loop course, and while it is not as simple as, say, Excitebike 64's block-based scheme, it puts just enough power in your hands to create brilliant and distinct courses without overwhelming you with unnecessary details. It's also easy to take a course, get the basic shape worked out, and revise it again and again by adding a bump here, smoothing out things there, and maybe throwing in an extremely sharp hill with a giant drop-off over here. It is limited in that you can't make courses with moon physics or add new models, but it is certainly powerful enough to create some excellently playable courses with a little work.
Overall, MX vs. ATV Unleashed has numerous severe issues; however, the core of the game can still be very fun, especially if you are a fan of dirt racing, or at least have watched a few races at a real track. If the game sounds interesting to you, rent one of the console versions, and don't set your expectations too high. If you like it, then go ahead and get the PC version so that you can enjoy the track editor.
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