When I last sat down
with one of THQ/Rainbow Studio’s MX vs. ATV games, it was the “Untamed” version. I never did really figure out what the “untamed” aspect brought to the game, but I do remember liking it, despite the fact that I was very, very bad at it. Remembering more my overtly dramatic and ostentatious face-plants and crashes than any modicum of demonstrable skill, I recall that I wasted a lot of time that should have been spent racing picking myself and my racing vehicle up from the track and trying to get back into the thick of things. I also remember enjoying the head to head racing events far more than doing any of the aerial tricks that are so popular with the X-Games crowd. It’s not that I have anything against throwing the bike around and showing off a little bit, mind you. It’s more that I couldn’t seem to memorize the esoteric stick motions that would summon forth any particular trick. My methodology rapidly devolved into a “stir the sticks around, hope for a good trick, and splatter on the landing” kind of thing.
Here it is, two years since I last kicked an engine to life, twisted the throttle, and tried to survive at least through the first turn. The MX vs. ATV series has not sat idle in that time as evidenced by the release of MX vs. ATV: Reflex. Having had the opportunity to spend a week with Reflex, I can honestly say that I understand where the appended ‘reflex’ comes in. I’ll share that insight soon, but first we need to review some well understood facts about riding a motorcycle.
Well, one fact, really. But it’s a big one. That fact is that you don’t ride/steer a motorcycle in the same way that you steer a car. By that, I don’t mean that the technique differs in the fact that you use a handlebar on a motorcycle as opposed to a steering wheel in a car. Seriously, it would be insulting to both of us if I felt that I needed to point that out, No, what I’m referring to is balance. More specifically, I’m referring to the balance of the rider. In a car, you can sit perfectly still and upright and simply turn the wheel in the direction you want to go. Not so on a motorcycle. At least not if you want to stay on the motorcycle, anyway. Even riding at a sedate pace on a street requires some measure of weight shifting to make turns. On a motocross bike and/or in a race, the need for weight shifting is even more critical. In some forms of bike racing, the lean is so extreme that you wonder why they don’t simply topple over.
Interesting, right? No? Well, I’ll keep going. In the earlier version of MX vs. ATV, the rider leaned into the turns more or less automatically. It had to be this way because there was only one control; steering was accomplished by moving one of the analog sticks on the controller. There was no separation between the virtual movement of the handlebar and the position of the rider. In Reflex, that has changed. Now the left analog stick controls steering while the right analog stick allows a separate movement of the rider. With this capability, the player can lean deeply into a turn if he wants to tighten it up, or lean out if, for some crazy reason, you want to. The rider can also lean back to get better grip when climbing hills or preparing for jumps.
In theory that sounds really cool, but in practice I found that it took quite a bit of getting used to. I found that things are pretty hairy when moving relatively slowly, to the degree that I often found myself over-controlling so horribly that I went from one side of the track to the other, back and forth, over and over. Once I got moving, though, I found my footing and was able to control the cycle much better. I also found that there’s a balance to be found in managing your, well, balance. Sure, you can lean tight into a turn and get through it in a very small radius, but you give up a lot of speed in doing so. You can try to take a wider turn, but you run the risk of running off the outside of the track and into the crowd of spectators. It takes a bit of practice to learn when and how to best utilize the leaning functionality.
The Reflex has another use, though, and it comes in quite handy. If you start to lose your balance for some reason, the most common causes being bad jumps or getting bumped by another rider, a directional arrow will briefly flash on the screen. If you can move the right analog stick in the indicated direction quickly enough, it will often help your rider regain his balance and continue on. If not, you crash. You were going to crash anyway, of course, so every wipe-out you catch and recover from in time is a bonus.
While the ability to recover from a pending crash is important during motocross races for an obvious reason (that being that you would fall way behind the rest of the pack, in case it's not as obvious as I thought), it's also important in the Freestyle competitions. In Freestyle, you are judged not on your speed or position at the finish line but on style points for the various tricks you do. Tricks are performed using the right analog stick with one of the left trigger buttons held down. It took me awhile to figure out the timing and pace of the required movements (well, actually my daughter had to show me how), but once I did I was impressed by how easy it is. I was trying to time my stick movements to the pace of the trick, but what you actually do is enter the movements as if you were entering a cheat code. With the correct three movements of the stick, the game takes over and performs the trick. There's even a nice, heavy paper Trick Guide included with the game to show all of the available tricks and the correct incantation for each. It would have been nice if it also included the difficulty rating for each trick to better help you design a high-scoring freestyle routine, but that's just nitpicking.
The thing is, though, that once the trick is completed you are fully back in control of your rider. If you entered the trick at a bad angle or with some other motion vector going on, your landing may not be the greatest. A bad landing can detract from the points that you would have received had you made a clean landing. This is again where the Reflex recovery comes in handy: it lets you have at least a chance of recovering from a bad landing and preserving a good score.
The rest of the game is very similar to previous versions in that you have broad categories of races you can participate in, either as part of a career or using the Arcade setting. There are races on traditional indoor and outdoor motocross tracks, the aforementioned freestyle competitions in large arenas, and waypoint races that have you traversing large, open areas of diverse landscape. There are even omnicross races that allow racing against diverse vehicle types, although those can be tricky and dangerous if you select one of the small, more vulnerable vehicles. That's just physics at work; a guy racing a light motocross motorcycle probably ought to be careful about getting run over by a huge Baja truck. The AI can be pretty unpredictable at times, so that avoidance can be more difficult than it sounds.
I enjoyed the racing types that have you riding around in wide open spaces more than I did the indoor track races because the scenery was much better, and because I found it easier to avoid hitting obstructions. That's not to say that I didn't plow into my share of trees, of course, but the absence of hay bails at the side of a narrow track better suited my erratic riding style. I did notice, though, that the constant motion of the camera as I maneuvered through various valleys and tight turns did tend to make me a bit nauseous. I found that the best cure for both erratic steering and view-induced nausea was to shift to the 1st person view and enable the tilt control for steering. That combination did make it much easier to prevent over controlling since tilting the controller offered a wider range of movement than that available with the analog sticks, but it did make harder to judge the correct balance for landing a high trick. It's easy enough to shift views to whatever works best for the riding style you're currently using, though, so it's easy to tailor it to suit your needs.
While Reflex isn't a revolutionary improvement over Untamed, there are enough new evolutionary capabilities to make it worth choosing over Untamed if you are selecting your first MX vs. ATV title. I don't know if there is enough improvement to warrant buying it if you already have the previous version, though.