It’s been a while since Rainbow Studios released an MX vs. ATV game. They took a two year break after MX vs, ATV Untamed back in 2008 but are back in the saddle with a brand new engine and a huge expansion of gameplay. Untamed was a broad multi-console affair that tried to update the mechanics of the last console generation with current gen visuals. For better or worse, Reflex is a bold new direction for the series with a strictly current gen, HD mentality, with all the graphics and physics that come with it.
Rainbow has been doing MX vs. ATV games for a while so they have the basic structure down to a science. There are career and arcade modes, both comprised of indoor and outdoor races and freestyle trick competitions. One new addition is the open world segments where you can explore a large patch of terrain for flags that start challenges and races. This mode added a bit of freedom to the typically linear gameplay, but it isn’t the game’s biggest new feature.
The titular reflex is Rainbow’s way of shaking up the series. They’ve completely overhauled the controls by implementing a unique balance system called rider reflex. In previous games you steered your vehicle with the left analog stick and your rider controlled his balance pretty much on his own. Reflex maps total control of weight and balance to the right analog stick.
This means that you steer with the left stick and shift your balance with the right stick. You need good control of both to maneuver and corner well, and the scheme has a pretty rugged learning curve. Reflex does offer some advantages, though. In addition to allowing finer control, it makes it easier to recover from bad landings. If you plant at a bad angle and are skewing into a crash, an arrow will flash on the screen, indicated the direction you need to shift your weight in to regain balance. It won’t save you from a catastrophically skewed landing but it’s a lot better than guessing.
The right stick isn’t just for balancing, though; once you’ve ramped into the air it’s used for tricks. When airborne you can hold down one of the 360’s bumpers and twirl in a quick sequence of directions on the right stick. This will initiate a midair trick, and as long as you time it right you should hit the ground running, so to speak. Each trick corresponds to a different sequence of stick directions so it’s a lot like memorizing combos in a fighting game. Unfortunately the detection can be a little flaky and recognize a different trick than the one you entered or more tricks than you intended to pull off, leading to occasional crashes. This gameplay is imperative to the freestyle challenge mode so the inconsistencies can get frustrating.
The second big change to the MX vs. ATV formula is that the game isn’t exclusively about bikes and ATVs anymore—Reflex throws trucks and buggies into the mix too. These bruisers lack a lot of the subtlety fans of the series have come to expect from the smaller, less stables vehicles. They are also a lot more straightforward, and racing them feels a lot more like a standard racing game, just with a lot more mud and off-road action. These vehicles are a fun twist on the established series but they aren’t as varied or customizable as the bikes and ATVs.
Each vehicle type has its own career track but there is also an omnicross mode that mixes them all together into a single race. This idea is good on paper but in practice it gets a bit crazy. The big solid trucks and buggies can positively steamroll through the bikes and ATVs so on a whole omnicross feels pretty unbalanced. Its fun for a taste of chaos once in a while but don’t expect to treat omnicross with the same level of dedication and seriousness as you would the individual career paths.This chaos tends to spill over into the other vehicle tracks at times because Reflex features a somewhat opportunistic AI. Computer controlled teammates will jockey brutally with each other for the best spacing along the track. Combined with the cerebral task of managing the reflex controls, this highly competitive atmosphere will keep you on your toes, but can lead to problems. Many races will begin with a crazed mosh pit of bikes vying for the best placement, resulting in a messy pileup only a few meters from the starting line. It’s best to give the AI players some room while they crash into each other, and then take the lead once they’ve all spun out.
Reflex has serviceable graphics for a 360 title but the 3D engine does more than just look pretty. Reflex is the first game in the series to feature real-time terrain deformation—each vehicle will cut a path through the muddy track as it moves, and the depth and width of the trenches depends on the size and weight of the vehicle. These ruts persist for an entire race—the terrain will get increasingly jumbled and cut up as you run through the laps, adding a surprising amount of realism and even more difficulty to the already steep learning curve.
The audio side of Reflex has its high points, but it’s about what you’d expect. The licensed music is a decent selection of metal pieces ranging a number of styles. The sound effects are par for the course, sounding very similar to the previous games in the series. My only real issue with the audio is the in-game announcer. THQ got David Lee, the announcer for AMA motocross, to narrate Reflex. It’s a nice touch of authenticity but he sounds a little too enthusiastic about what he’s announcing, like he’s making sweet love to an MX bike. Setting him as the commentator during the events would’ve been ok, but he narrates paragraphs of text at a time—hearing every tutorial and instruction in his announcer voice gets kind of annoying.
Reflex is still a decent refresh for the series. It’s obvious that Rainbow is still getting used to their new engine; the physics are a little jumpy, the controls take quite a while to get used to and some vehicle types are more fun to play with than others. What matters is that Reflex has the same depth of content that the series is known for, and it adds something fresh to the formula. If you’re a fan of the MX vs. ATV series and don’t mind adjusting to the new direction it’s taking, Reflex is a solid buy.