It's an age-old question, or at least a question that's been burning in the hearts and minds of extreme sports enthusiasts for a few years now. MX Vs. ATV: Untamed sets out to give players a definitive answer about what's what in the off-roading world while unleashing the wild spirit of MX bikes and ATVs to the mainstream Tony Hawk-playing crowd. As it turns out, though, the question wound up being as painfully obvious and disappointing as the game itself.
Although I know I shouldn't ruin the suspense, I'm just going to tell you that MX wins. There's just no comparing the two when I had to spend the entirety of the game playing on a bike, even though the first thing I unlocked was a slew of speedy and more efficient ATVs. The simple fact was that I could not accomplish all I needed to while riding the oversized and clunky ATVs, and the only way I could get up some of the ramps and pull off the stunts I needed to pass was with my underpowered dirt bike. It shows how dedicated the designers were to the concept of balance and fairness in the game.
With that deeply vital question out of the way, let's address what's wrong and right about Untamed for the PSP. This isn't a bad game, and as reflected in the score, there's nothing fundamentally broken or unplayable about it, except when you consider how little fun it is and how many games have managed to do it better.
The game tries to be Tony Hawk and the Indy 500 all in one, with combination of simple races and timed "stunt" competitions. Both methods of gameplay, while competent, are feeling their age and starting to wheeze like someone in an iron lung. There's not much finesse or flair to racing around in a loop four times and pressing the Triangle button three times in the air to make your avatar wig out.
It also doesn't help that Untamed lacks any sort of learning curve or method of learning other than trial and error. Where other games ease players in with some tutorials and gradually pit them against increasingly competent opponents, this title just throws you to the wolves with not so much as a survival spork. You have to learn all by yourself what constitutes a good landing, how to best drift around curves, and all that other nifty jazz that's essential to progression. When you're repeating a stunt challenge 40 times because you can't figure out how to hit a certain ramp so you don't go flying into a tree, the game starts to feel more like Mega Man than anything suitable for a more modern audience.
While this may appeal to the hardcore observational learner in some people, in most it's just likely to inspire disgust and a burning desire to not pick up the game after the first level. It's hard to believe that this wasn't the intention, especially considering that the first level was one of, if not the, hardest to pass, especially during the flag capture.
Each level is split into six (eventually eight) different competition modes, and in order to move onto the next level, you have to pass at least five of them, which is a problem because they're pretty evenly split in terms of style. Three of them are going to involve getting from point A to point B as fast as you can, and three of them will involve pulling off successful stunts, or at least a copious amount of jumping off ramps. This means that every time you learn the nuances, you need to survive one kind of gameplay, and you'll suddenly need a new set of skills to finish off the level and move onto more interesting locales.
What's nice is that the locales actually are interesting, which means the designers pulled off at least one thing flawlessly: incentive. Without incentive, Untamed would have just been a boring blur, but getting to move onto Antarctica after putzing around the golf course for a half hour was enough to keep me holding down the X button through the monotonous racing and the frustration of trick-jumping. While the eight game modes aren't that interesting, it's nice to see them implemented across all of the unlockable tracks.
Exploring the tracks even has its own set of incentives in the form of collectibles. Each open-world stage has five DVDs floating around in the free-roam environment, as well as one key that unlocks the two hidden events in their particular stages. Unfortunately, the collectibles are maybe a bit too well-hidden for their own good. I still have no idea where more than three of the DVDs in the first stage are, and one of them is, as far as I can tell, unreachable. While not all of the levels have them as diabolically hidden (the fourth stage is probably the easiest to find everything), they suffer from unreasonably high expectation of the players. There are no map markers to give you a general clue where they might be, and no arrows or logic behind their placement. Finding every DVD on a map in one continuous run is more than a bit too demanding of a request, especially in a portable game, and the reward (an unlockable pro) is kind of lost on anyone who doesn't follow the sport. The key is really hard to find, but at least there's only one of it.
As long as we're talking about problems, though, it's hard to ignore the big one. As you could probably guess, one of the biggest issues is one of balance. I'm not just rehashing the great titular debate, but it feels like the developers don't quite realize what balance means in general. The stunt challenge difficulty level increases by granting the AI riders spectacular new abilities to rack up tens of thousands of points, while you're still trying to figure out why your landing lost 900 points, even though your character looked just fine. The AI eventually has such a ridiculous level of skill that even the developers couldn't really be expected to keep up. More often than not, my later victories were due to some unexpected hiccup in the AI that caused it to land on his skull after a perfectly normal jump, when seconds ago, he'd been popping three tricks in a row and finishing the stunts with a 20-second wheelie.
The last major error is the number of, well, errors. Untamed is about the buggiest thing I've played since Fallout 3, and unlike that title, none of these bugs were amusing, although very few actively broke the game. For some reason, some stunt ramps worked split shifts serving as part-time immovable objects. Collision detection is inconsistent at best, and the few existing textures pop in and out every time you make a turn. While the graphics are about what you'd expect from a PSP title, the performance isn't. It feels like this was pushed out to production before anyone had a chance to check their code or play through a test run.
Untamed only supports ad-hoc wireless, so you'll need to know someone with a copy of the game before you can do anything. Maybe someday, if Sony releases an ad-hoc to infrastructure mode application outside of Japan, it'll have worthwhile multiplayer segment.
MX Vs. ATV: Untamed won't make you tear out your hair or stomp on your PSP, but it's pretty much in the middle of the pack when it comes to PSP releases. With the reduced price tag that comes with age, it may be worth a pickup from someone who's already played all of the other ATV games out there. There are better ways to spend your time, but you also won't come away from this title demanding those hours of your life back.
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