Rainbow first joined MX bikes and ATVs in 2005's MX vs. ATV Unleashed. The marriage of multiple vehicles in an off-road setting was a hit, and so the "versus" series was born. In 2007, MX vs. ATV Untamed hit the PS3 and Xbox 360, debuting to mixed reviews. The graphics were one of the biggest complaints. For 2009, Rainbow has gone back to the drawing board and rebuilt its engine from the ground up for MX vs. ATV Reflex.
One of the big features in MX vs. ATV Reflex is the new physics and deformation system. Sure, plenty of games give you a visual representation of dirt and grime, but in MX vs. ATV Reflex, the damage you cause to the track is consistent. Dig a rut on the first turn, and that rut will still be there when you lap around again. This is true both for single-player and multiplayer events, making the environment much more of an obstacle. The ideal racing line can change from race to race, forcing players to react to the new conditions.
It's an interesting idea to be sure, and it is impressive to see it in action, though we do have to wonder how much the feature is going to be noticed by players. After all, when you're racing along the course, you're usually focused on where you are going, not what the mud underneath your wheels looks like.
The thing we really liked about the game was the two-stick control scheme, which attempts to mimic real-life weight distribution. To help understand how things worked behind the scenes, we hit the track on an actual bike before sitting down with the game itself. When you're racing on a MX bike, you can steer and turn by using the front wheel as well as leaning the bike. However, you're not limited to just using the bike. If you want to adjust the angle of a turn, say to take a corner a bit sharper, you can do so by leaning into it.
With the two-stick control scheme, the left stick represents your bike (or ATV) while the right stick represents your rider's body. Basic controls are all done with the left stick, while weight shifting is done with the right. Surprisingly, the setup is an intuitive approximation of what happens in real life. There is a learning curve, but a series of tutorial videos help ease the transition. And yes, the tutorial videos are actually quite helpful. When we first started playing, it was wipeout city (much to the amusement of the THQ PR guy watching us race), but after going through the tutorial mode, our ability to stay on two wheels in-game was much improved.
In addition to basic maneuvering, the weight shifting also comes into play when landing jumps and complex tricks. If one of your landings is less than perfect, you don't immediately wipe out. Instead, a green arrow flashes on-screen to indicate that you need to shift your weight right now. If you make the corresponding movement with the right stick, your rider balances the bike and you keep racing. Screw it up, and you're eating dirt. Weight balancing also applies to the ATVs, though it doesn't seem to have an effect (as it shouldn't) when you are racing an off-road truck.
This time around, tricks are also pulled off with the right stick. Once you get airborne, you press and hold the shoulder button to enable trick mode. Performing a trick is a matter of quickly flicking the right stick in different directions and then releasing the shoulder button. Oddly enough, it's a lot like performing special moves in fighting games such as Street Fighter IV.
Visually, the game looks sharp, running on both the PS3 and Xbox 360. Colors are vibrant, with detailed levels and plenty of room to explore, especially in the free roam mode. We spent a bit of time just wandering around, looking at the environment and enjoying the vistas. While in free roam, it's just like taking a bike through a local trail. You can pretty much go anywhere you choose. There are individual hot spots which trigger events, but they are all optional. If you don't feel like racing, you can just tool around at your own pace.
In terms of competition, MX vs. ATV Reflex features freestyle, nationals, omnicross, supercross and waypoint modes. Each combination of mode and track (there are around 40 different tracks in the game) determines which vehicles you can use. Some competitions are single vehicle only, while others allow you to mix and match vehicle types.
Game balance is maintained with different vehicles due to map design. For example, a truck may have an advantage over bumpy roads due to its suspension, but if there are large boulders blocking the path, the truck driver may need to find an alternate route. On the other hand, someone on a 250cc bike can probably just navigate between the boulders, going where the truck can't reach.
Online matches support up to 12 players on both the PS3 and Xbox 360 so there is plenty of room to get down and dirty with your friends. In a nice touch, the online lobby is actually a small arena where you and your party can practice before the race. The lobby fires up almost immediately so no one is bored while waiting for others to join. The same lobby also doubles as the loading screen for single-player mode. Yeah, you have to wait for the full levels to load, but at least you're doing something rather than just staring at a boring bar moving left to right on the screen.
MX vs. ATV Reflex seems to be changing up the basic formula that Rainbow has used for years, but from what we've seen, the changes seem to be for the better. We're still a bit concerned that the game may not scale well to newbies, but the hardcore MX fans out there should be keeping an eye on this one. We'll keep kicking the tires to make sure this one gets a full workout before release. Check back next week for more MX vs. ATV Reflex info as we interview not one, but two of the Rainbow developers working on the game.
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