I'll freely admit to two things: I'm not that good at modern racing games that aren't "cartoony" (such as Mario Kart or Diddy Kong Racing), and I haven't played a motocross game since Excitebike on the NES. With that said, it's interesting that the next game I'm going to review is a racing game that isn't cartoony in the least. Who knows? Maybe I'll find that one racer I'm really good at, even if the primary vehicle is a motocross bike. Let's race into MX vs. ATV Alive.
The first thing that impressed me occurred right at the title screen, and that's the ability to customize your racer. A lot of games that offer the ability to customize your characters or teams but you have to go through a few menus to get to that point. I know that the WWE Smackdown vs. Raw franchise isn't as bad, but you still have to select the option to create a wrestler and then whether or not to create, edit, or delete that wrestler... wait for some load screens, then move on to the creation, and that's just the physical aspect. There are separate sections for the entrance and move set, and with that comes more load screens. In MX vs. ATV Alive, all you have to do is hit right on the left control stick, and there's your customization. Now of course you don't have a lot of options at the start but you can unlock them as you go (we'll get to the additional content a bit later).
Once you go into the main game there are a couple of choices for what you can do: you can do the national courses (twelve total), short courses (four total), or a two free roam areas (three if you count the James Stewart Compound you can download). The free roam areas are just that: take your vehicle to what seems like a remote location and just drive around, jumping off hills, doing stunts, and gaining experience. This may not be the prime way to gain experience, but it does allow you to get the hang of how the controls work, and I highly recommend it for newer players. Once I was done with the free roaming I headed for one of the short courses. These are not very long, with each lap lasting probably around twenty-five to thirty seconds with around seven laps to race (for any course you can change the number of laps from their default number). The national courses are much longer and go for a default of four laps (well, at least the first two). If you start out in the free roam areas I highly recommend doing a normal course next. In the short courses, unless you really break away from the pack, you're going to constantly be in tight quarters with your vehicle getting bumped around, so if you wish to get used to how races work, it's recommended to start with the national races.
I mentioned earlier that the last MX game I played was Excitebike. Back then racing games were simple. You just start up your bike and go. As long as you don't overheat you just pressed ahead. There was no drafting, no drifting, no extra boosts out of the gate. If you're like me when it comes to playing MX games, then definitely do not go into this game with that mindset. MX vs. ATV allows you to control the rider as well as the bike. Allow me to explain. When you're accelerating down the course you can use the left control stick to maneuver the bike back and forth and turn corners, but if you've ever ridden a bike of any sort before, you know that you have to lean into your turns. That's where the right stick comes in. The right stick controls the Rider Reflex System, which allows you to shift your rider around the bike to help with turns, stunts, and can even save you from wrecking your bike. This comes in handy for turns where you have to lean into a sharp curve. There is a button for the clutch, but as someone who has never ridden a real motocross bike, I couldn't tell you the first thing about using a clutch. Every time I use it on a curve or turn I end up facing a direction I don't want to and have to majorly correct myself. Once you get the hang of controlling the bike and rider and can manage turns, you can pretty much handle the courses on the easiest difficulties.
It does seem like I've found a non-Mario Kartish racer that I enjoy...mostly. There is one aspect that I'm not to thrilled with, and unfortunately it's one of the biggest factors in the game: unlocking content. Most racers have unlockable content, be it new vehicles, gear, or courses. In terms of gear and courses, MX vs. ATV Alive has those to unlock, but the method in which to unlock them is a little ludicrous. Other racers may have you unlock things based on how you do in races and such. MX vs. ATV is kind of like that, but it works on an experience system. For every race you complete, you gain experience depending on a couple of factors such as difficulty, how you finish, and whether curve control is turned on. Much like in RPGs, you gain a level when you gain enough experience. After you gain so many levels you can unlock new courses. That's fine, but there's one problem: your first new courses unlock at level 10 with the next coming around level 25. It takes a bit to gain a level, let alone ten of them. It may not seem like much, and it may not take hours to get that far, but until then you're essentially playing the same two free roam areas, same two short courses, and same two normal courses over and over again, even if you do really well all the time. I'm not knocking the game's way of unlocking new courses. I'm knocking how long it takes to do so. Then again, there is always one other option of unlocking new stuff: using Microsoft points. That's right, to unlock all the courses you have to either pay Microsoft points or play the same courses over and over and over and over again. If they lowered the level requirements to unlock the new courses it wouldn't be that bad, but having to gain that much experience to unlock the rest of the game is a bit ridiculous.
Overall, the game is pretty fun. The graphics are nice, even as you whiz by them at full speed on a motocross bike, and the control setup with the Rider Reflex System wasn't that hard to get the hang of. For someone who hasn't played a lot of motocross games, I really had a lot of fun with MX vs. ATV Alive. My only real complaint is the experience system. I understand what they were going for, but having to replay the same courses constantly just to unlock the new ones or paying to unlock them with Microsoft points is a tad ridiculous. Other than that, I would definitely recommend picking up MX vs. ATV Alive. Just be prepared to race the same courses for a couple hours unless you have a lot of spare Microsoft points.