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PSP Review - 'MX vs. ATV Unleashed: On the Edge'

by Andrew Hayward on May 28, 2006 @ 3:32 a.m. PDT

MX vs. ATV Unleashed: On the Edge expands on the franchise's success, allowing PSP gamers to race with a collection of new vehicles and chose between new tracks, challenges and mini-games.

Genre: Racing
Publisher: THQ
Developer: Rainbow Studios
Release Date: February 28, 2006

Back in 1998, Microsoft's Motocross Madness for the PC was the epitome of motocross racing on any platform. Developed by relative newcomer Rainbow Studios, the game featured sharp visuals for its time and amusing ragdoll player physics that kept me glued to my monitor for months. No other motocross game, from Excitebike 64 to Jeremy McGrath's Supercross, could replicate that same feeling for me. In early 2001, a new title hit the market that transferred the feeling of Motocross Madness to an entirely different off-road vehicle. ATV Offroad Fury for the PlayStation 2 was an unexpected hit, and another great reason to buy Sony's new console. Of course, it was yet another quality off-road racer developed by Rainbow Studios.

Jump to this spring, which saw the release of MX vs. ATV: On the Edge for the PlayStation Portable. Yes, like many PSP titles, it is a port of a console game (last year's MX vs. ATV: Unleashed), but very little of the magic was lost in translation. Like the aforementioned classics, MX vs. ATV was developed by Rainbow Studios, who continue to have success with the genre. On the Edge is a tremendous effort, packed with a shocking variety of game types, vehicles, gear, and tracks. Without a doubt, it is one of the best values available in the realm of portable gaming. However, as with many other big games for Sony's handheld, some of the thrill is lost to the obnoxious load times.

Let's start with the bad news and then segue into the parade of goodness. As far as I know, the all-time record for heinous PSP loading times still rests with Midnight Club 3: Dub Edition. Not only did that game feature pre-race loading times well in excess of one minute, but restarting a race also meant that it would have to load the entire track from scratch. MX vs. ATV: On the Edge is almost as bad, with one solid minute of loading time before every race. Luckily, restarting a race is a snap. Additionally, several additional seconds of loading times must be dealt with while navigating the menu screens. With six menu screens to deal with, it may take you 20 or 30 seconds just to get to the pre-race loading screen. In addition, I found myself charging the PSP every three hours or less, likely due to the frequent loading.

I fully understand the need to load everything before the race begins, and I would much rather wait for the full minute than have slowdown during the game. However, I still do not believe that many PSP games are being fully optimized. For example, Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories featured huge cities and did not have unbearable load times. SSX On Tour took only 30 seconds to load an entire course, which is at least as big as one of the race tracks in MX vs. ATV. Absurdly long load times hamper the portability of a title; you may only have a few minutes in which to play, and yet you will have to deal with slow menus and loading screens. Calling all developers – make sure your ports are optimized for handhelds!

Since we are on the subject of bad news, let me sneak in one more thing before I move on. Many of the selections on the soundtrack are indicative of the cutting edge of modern rock … circa 2002. While I am sure that a few people still listen to Trust Company and Powerman 5000, I cannot fathom why they are still being considered for major game soundtracks. My guess is that Rainbow Studios were looking for known artists that would be willing to license their tracks cheaply. On the other hand, the Black Eyed Peas and Nickelback are both very popular and have tunes on the soundtrack. I just hope that the music was not a major reason as to why the loading times are so lengthy.

Sick loading times and a stale soundtrack may pick away at the game's overall appeal, but the core gameplay is still undeniably excellent. As assumed from the title, MX vs. ATV: On the Edge features both motocross bikes and all-terrain vehicles, as well as a handful of other unlockable vehicles. From the start, you can use either vehicle in the main game types, though each has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. I found the motocross bikes were best for the Supercross events, as they accelerated more quickly and made much tighter turns. Conversely, the ATVs are much more stable, resulting in fewer crashes. This comes in the Nationals races, which take place on large, outdoor tracks.

There are a dozen total game types, mainly split up between racing and freestyle competitions. Supercross, Nationals, and Short Track are the more straightforward types of racing, though there are a handful of other options available. I had a lot of fun with the Waypoint races, which find you speeding from gate to gate around a wide-open course. On the other hand, the self-explanatory Hill Climb races were excruciatingly dull. It is a mixed bag, but the majority of the races provided a good time. I did not enjoy the freestyle competitions quite as much, as executing more than one trick before landing can be quite difficult. It takes a lot of practice to become skilled at pulling off combos in MX vs. ATV: On the Edge. With over 180 total competitions, the game features a staggering amount of content.

Additionally, I spent a lot of time in the Free Ride mode, just cruising around for 10 or 20 minutes at a time. Even after all of the hours I put into it, the core gameplay is still a lot of fun, just as it was when Motocross Madness debuted in 1998. The foundation is based on what Rainbow calls "rhythm racing," that is, finding the rhythm of riding your vehicle and using it to your advantage. You will do so when dealing with a series of humps on the track – you can slowly hit each one, which will add several seconds to your time, or you can preload your jump, which will (hopefully) give you enough air to land between humps, at which point you will do it again. Preloading your jump is a simple maneuver, done by flicking down the d-pad or analog nub at the base of a jump and then up when you take off. Without it, you will not make much progress in the game.

Both the d-pad and analog nub are available for use, and you can switch between the two at any given time during a race. I tried both, and like the vehicles, each has its own positives and negatives. I preferred the d-pad slightly, mostly because it makes it easier to pull off tight turns, especially in Supercross. I liked the feel of the analog nub better, but you will lose the race if you botch every tight turn. Learning how to land your vehicle is also crucial to having success in this game. It is definitely a trial-and-error process that will take you countless races to figure out, yet you will still feel like there is no way to avoid certain crashes. On some courses, I would crash in the exact same spot in four of the five laps. I had to wonder about the course design in those cases. As you will quickly discover, no lead in this game is insurmountable, so do not let the crashes get you down.

Games like MX vs. ATV: On the Edge are really starting to exploit the power of the PSP hardware. Visually, the game is sharp and detailed, and the courses are large and creatively designed. My only issue with the small screen is that you may occasionally have trouble seeing turns during the uphill portions of tracks. Usually, you will figure out when to turn on your third or fourth lap on the track. As stated previously, all of the loading times take place before the race begins, so you will be greeted with a smooth riding experience. Only once did I encounter any slowdown in the game, and that was during a special race with four monster trucks … speaking of which, monster trucks are among the handful of amusing racing alternatives that are unlocked with heavy playtime. Golf carts, buggies, trophy trucks, and sand rails can all be unlocked, though they are often difficult to control and are included mostly for the sake of amusement. Mission accomplished!

Aside from those pesky loading times, the game does a very admirable job of translating the console experience to a handheld system. Multiplayer is also present, though it is only ad-hoc, not infrastructure. If you do most of your gaming at home, I would recommend the original console release over this port. It sells for half the price, has better multiplayer, and certainly loads at a better clip. However, if you spend a lot of time out and about or have a long trip on the horizon, MX vs. ATV: On the Edge is one of the best games you can get for the PSP. It is a lot of fun and features a truly amazing amount of content. When dealing with killer loading times, the best way to look at it is: Do the minutes of loading justify the minutes of gameplay that follow? In the case of MX vs. ATV, they most assuredly do.

Score: 7.8/10

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