For years, Rainbow has been one of the more respected developers for off-road racing games on a home console. Since the PlayStation era, the studio has refined THQ's Ricky Carmichael motocross series into something enjoyable for fans and non-fans alike. The PlayStation 2 era saw them turn Sony's ATV Offroad Fury series into a premiere arcade racing game that solidified the system's place as a powerful console for all gaming genres. Once they were officially bought by THQ, they merged both games into one all-encompassing title, and the MX vs. ATV series was born. Like peanut butter and chocolate, the pairing was a big success with both fans and critics. Since then, the subsequent versions have kept the core mechanics the same while throwing in a few twists and turns to help keep things fresh. The recent release of MX vs. ATV Reflex shows that the trend is bound to continue, and although the changes may not be numerous, the series has not gone stale either.
The main mode of MX vs. ATV Reflex is structured just like other MX vs. ATV and off-road racing games. Titled Motocareer, your objective is to make it to the championship series by mastering all of the other tracks and racing series. Each series will consist of different race tracks, with each featuring different race rules and vehicle restrictions. The Nationals track requires you to get from point A to point B on a fairly smooth outdoor track. Supercross races have you race in stadium-based laps with man-made rhythm sections and jumps. Omnicross takes lap-based racing further by giving you rougher terrain in the great outdoors as well as a better variety of vehicles. Participants with trucks, a buggy, ATVs and bikes are a common sight. The Champion sport track limits omnicross to the sport buggy or truck. Waypoint is a more open track, but the objective is to hit consecutive checkpoints in any way you can. There are a few non-race events as well, like freestyle, which is a trick-based competition, and free ride, which lets you complete small tasks when you find the marker in the open environment.
One of the new features in Reflex is terrain deformation. Any vehicle riding on the dirt surfaces will create indentations on the track, and the indentations can make you change your riding tactics since they can throw your vehicle off balance if you land incorrectly. The system really shows how effective it can be in omnicross. For example, trucks won't be affected much by the deformation, but they will be a big cause of it. Meanwhile, bikes and ATVs won't do much damage to the terrain, but they will feel the differences when cruising into indentations made by trucks. It's a fascinating system that pushes the game more into simulation territory.
As far as gameplay is concerned, you'll have a few items that don't do the game any favors. The biggest hurdle is the initial escalation of difficulty. You'll breeze through the first circuit with your default bike and get gold trophies on almost all of the tracks. By the second circuit, though, the difficulty really ramps up. Making one or two mistakes on any course can put you so far behind that you'll finish in eighth place at best. The frustration is amplified by very erratic behavior from the AI opponents. Not one race will go by where the opponents don't crash into the environment or each other, or land badly on the terrain. This can be great if you're able to take advantage and overtake the lead, but the crashing also means that they'll try to run you over or crash into you. Don't be surprised if the AI causes you to restart races over and over again before you can achieve a podium placement on a course.
Multiplayer can be a fun experience, thanks to the various modes. Many of the different race types from the Motocareer mode — i.e., championship sport track, nationals, omnicross, supercross and waypoint — are here and carry the same vehicle restrictions for each race type (or, in the case of waypoint and omnicross, no restrictions at all). Free ride and freestyle modes are also here if you want to cruise around or do trick competitions, respectively. Two different mini-games are exclusive to multiplayer and prove to be equally as fun. Tag has you going after a flaming head and trying to hold on to it for a minute to win, while snake lets you play a game similar to the Tron bikes, where you create walls and hope your opponent crashes into them. Each online session plays with no lag, and you even have the benefit of opposing players in the same loading screen when you're creating a game. Oddly enough, there are no leaderboards and no ranked matches, so those who thrive on competition will find this omission rather disheartening.
Control is another of MX vs. ATV Reflex's strong points. As you can tell from the title, the other big feature is reflex. Now your vehicle is controlled by the left stick while your rider is controlled by the right stick. This obviously has no effect on the bigger vehicles, like buggies and trucks, but it makes a world of difference with the motocross bikes and ATVs because you now have weight displacement to worry about. Weight displacement helps when taking turns because you can cut corners quicker, and it also helps with jumps since you can determine whether you want to start jumping for more air or just take a small jump off the ramp. The change seems like a big one for veterans, but once you get used to the system, you'll appreciate the advantages. The ATV controls are problematic, though. The vehicle class has the tendency to feel too loose and floaty, and all jumps seem to make the back much heavier when you're in the air. It'll take a lot more effort to master the ATV controls, but by that time, players will have probably decided to stick with other vehicles instead.
The graphics look very good but suffer from a few issues. The vehicles look great and sport some good detail, including flapping jerseys on the riders, but there is a lack of damage effects on your motocross bike or ATV. No matter how badly you land on the terrain or crash into other players, your vehicles still look pristine, though they do show dirt and mud sticking to the body. As for the environments, each one looks good. The foliage looks fine, and the shifting and deformation of the terrain are quite impressive. What doesn't look good, though, is the level of detail as you go forward on some tracks. You'll see dirt undergoing texture changes, often as you get closer to it. You won't see it too often, but you will see it more often than you'd like in the loading screen arena, which is nothing but mounds of dirt ramps. It leaves a bad impression the first time you see it, but you'll probably not notice it after a few playthroughs, and the same goes for the collision detection on your rider if you fail to recover from a crash. Seeing his body go limp and go through a motocross bike or an ATV looks bad, but only during the load screens, where you'll see it done once you land awkwardly.
The sound in the game isn't perfect, but it is well done. Effects, like the engine roars, sound like the real thing. You'll know what kind of vehicle you're driving based on those sounds, but you won't get to hear any changes if you tune up the engine. The music is the same type of heavy metal/rock you've come to expect from these games. It isn't amazing stuff, but it sets the mood nicely. One knock against it is that it has a tendency to get overpowered by the sound effects — namely the engine noise. No matter how low you turn down every other item, such as music and effects, you can never understand what your crew chief has to say before each race. Luckily, one voice is audible and clear, and that's your announcer. David Lee, who you might recognize from countless motocross ads on TV and radio, is your announcer, and he fits the atmosphere perfectly. All it takes is one phrase from him coming through your speakers, and you'll instantly feel pumped up for the race ahead.
MX vs. ATV Reflex shows that Rainbow Studios and THQ still have it when it comes to crafting a good off-road racer. The graphics and sound may not be the absolute best yet (that honor still belongs to the MotorStorm series), but it comes very close. The gameplay and controls make up for that shortcoming by being excellent. It straddles the line between full-blown simulation and arcade-style racer nicely by giving fans of both genres something to enjoy. In short, Reflex feels different enough from MX vs. ATV Untamed that players will come away feeling content.
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