On the surface, MX vs. ATV Alive is simply a sequel to one of THQ's long-running franchises. Each iteration seems to tweak its formula, and off-road simulation fans feel that it's inching closer and closer to being the perfect video game representation of the sport. If you look closer, though, you'll see that the game is more than just another entry in the series. This is an experiment into a new kind of video game business model used to both combat and complement current trends in the game world. Priced at $40, it becomes a game that tries to be a triple-A title without bringing on the costs associated with that label. It also becomes a harbinger for downloadable content, as it lets you know up front that it has the intention of letting you tailor your game experience as you see fit. Will this new approach work with consumers, or is it best if the publisher went back to a more traditional method of game delivery?
The very first thing you'll notice about the MX vs. ATV Alive is that it doesn't have a normal set of modes like previous versions did. There isn't a formal Campaign or Season to go through or a specific Championship for which to strive. Instead, you're presented with a series of tracks and events that you can take in any order. Your progress is governed by an experience meter for both your rider and vehicle of choice. Every performance, whether good or bad, gives you experience, as does the completion of special activities like completing a race without crashing or causing other riders to crash. Building up experience gets you to level up, which opens up things like customization options, new rider skills and new tracks.
The single-player mode is split up into three track types. Nationals are standard, regular-length races you've come to expect from the series. Using either MX bikes, ATVs or a combination of both, you race through tracks of varying conditions, and they may be filled with ramps or other expected obstacles on a motocross track. The designs are good, with some nice jumps and hairpin turns spread out well, though after a while, you begin to feel like you've seen these tracks in the series' older titles.
As expected, Short Track races are smaller than tracks seen in Nationals but are much more chaotic. You race against seven others on tracks that are short enough that a winner must be determined in an average of seven laps. One common trait about all of the tracks is that they crisscross, resulting in riders jumping over the paths of other riders. It makes for some excellent experiences where you have to balance out speed with caution as you try to stay ahead of the pack while avoiding crashing into others or being caught up by someone who's jumping or riding by. Due to its nature, this mode is sure to see plenty of replay value.
Free Ride is exactly what you expect, given the title. You have an open area to ride through and free rein over what you want to do. If you're so inclined, you can also start off a one-minute trick session to record some scores to the leaderboards, but unless you're trying to go for that particular goal, there's no need to do it because trick scores are committed to memory. If anything, you'll find two differences from the previous version of the mode. The first is that the areas feel smaller than before. They're still rather expansive, but unlike the older games, you'll see more of the area borders. Another difference is the inclusion of secret vehicles. Each free ride area has one vehicle hidden in the area, and once you find it, you can use that vehicle for the rest of your play session, and you add it to your garage. It's a nice incentive for players who might not usually bother with the mode, and it's a fairly good distraction if you tire of making up your own challenges in this sandbox.
What stands out the most once you get used to the layout is what the game doesn't have. As stated before, there isn't a formal career mode, but other events are also gone. Things like Championship, Omnicross, Supercross and Waypoint aces are all missing, leaving you with just Free Ride, Nationals and Short Track. The hope is that all of this will soon be available as downloadable content, and that's fine for those who are always online. However, if you're a console owner who somehow has no online connection for your console, the lack of modes is disappointing.
Another aspect of the game people will quickly notice is how little content there is for the beginning player. When you first fire up the game, you have access to two normal race tracks, two free ride areas and two short race tracks. It seems like a decent amount of content for the beginning player until you realize that other tracks only unlock at two other levels: 10 and 25. A decent amount of content opens up by that point, but unless you've made some sort of investment in some DLC tracks (like the James Stewart compound that came with pre-orders or specially marked copies of the game), you'll grind away at the same tracks and areas until the new content is unlocked. Even though your experience levels increase in both offline and online events, there's a frustrating amount of grinding needed to reach the substantial content, especially for players who are skilled enough to place first in every event — but that doesn't unlock anything of value.
Customization was never a huge aspect of the series, and the same can be said for MX vs. ATV Alive. You can pick out different outfits for your rider and colors for things like boots, goggles, helmets, suits and even butt patches. Don't expect to change any other cosmetic aspects, though, like body size and height. This time around, you can give your riders different skills, such as the ability to get more experience per event or quicker recovery when teetering on a crash. Vehicles also get both cosmetic and performance upgrades, but only if you level up the vehicle, and the custom options only apply for the vehicle in question.
Unsurprisingly, the multiplayer is exactly the same experience you would find in the single-player mode. Pick a vehicle class, decide whether it'll be a mixed vehicle match, select a track, and you're good to go. Offline multiplayer is a vertical split-screen affair for two players, and while the level of detail on the tracks is reduced, the experience is smooth. The same can be said of online play, which supports 12 players and is a relatively lag-free experience. With no problems inputting controls and no odd glitches like warping racers, expect to spend a bulk of your time in multiplayer, especially since this is one of the few games from the publisher that doesn't require an online pass.
The controls are better than they were in MX vs. ATV Reflex. The dual stick system is back, and it feels more responsive than before. Rider and bike movements really feel independent, and the mechanics make it a better control scheme than what's seen in other similar titles. The trick system, though, has a learning curve. With tricks being employed by the right analog stick only when you hold down the right bumper button, it'll take time to learn which directions perform which move. Couple that with the time it takes to perform the trick animations, and you can expect to spend a decent amount of practice time before attempting to take on score runs.
Graphically, MX vs. ATV alive is a little better than its predecessor. The environments look great, and even though there are instances of pop-up, the effects are small and not very bothersome. The terrain deformation from the older title is back and works just as well as before, with tire indentations looking more realistic this time around. Rider animations are nice, and it's a nice touch to see the ripple of their suits in the wind. It could be better, though, since you don't see any dirt or mud effects staying on the riders or bikes. Also bothersome is the water effects, which still look dated when compared to everything else. Overall, the graphics could use some work, but the developers did a good job on them.
The sounds fare a little better and a little worse than before. The music is still of the rock and heavy metal variety, but considering the sport and theme it's going for, it fits in well enough. The licensed track list seems plentiful, so the chances of hearing repeated songs only occur if you play for very long sessions. The effects feel much improved, with engine sounds of various vehicles sounding more realistic and very different. No two bikes, for example, will ever sound the same. Even better is the fact that, by default, the engine sounds no longer overpower everything else in the game. Voices, however, are lacking. There's no pit boss telling you how you're doing, no announcer declaring winners, and no other voices coming from the opposition. You get cheers from the crowd, grunts when getting hit, and personal congratulations when you nail a trick, but that's the extent of the voice work in this title.
As it stands now, MX vs. ATV Alive has potential. The riding mechanics are just a solid as ever, whether you're on an MX bike or an ATV, and the technical aspects are also top notch. The promise of DLC including new tracks, modes and vehicles also means the game has the potential to be the biggest and best off-road racer to date. Unfortunately, that potential is all that the game has going for it because there haven't been any substantial DLC announcements yet. What's on the disc isn't much, and you have to really grind to get anything that makes the title feel less like a demo. The quality and low price and make this game worthy of at least a rental, if not a purchase, but if you're expecting more from your off-road racing title, go with MX vs. ATV Reflex for now and wait to see if there's enough content for this game to warrant a look.
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