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MX vs. ATV Alive Preview

By Jeff Buckland, 4/26/2011

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The motocross and ATV racing genre has gone through a lot of bumps and turns over the years, strangely mirroring the challenges of a real dirt track. Rainbow Studios' first offroad game, Motocross Madness, had true racing, but it could be argued that the most fun was simply in puttering around its bowl-shaped maps and having fun making huge jumps. More recently, MotorStorm pitted bikes and ATVs against trucks and rigs in races, challenging the smaller ones to avoid being bullied and fly over the mud-infested pits that the bigger vehicles happily wallowed in. But no franchise quite defines the genre like Rainbow Studios' MX series has over the years, and this time around, owner/publisher THQ is changing the game more than you might expect.


The motocross and ATV racing genre has gone through a lot of bumps and turns over the years, strangely mirroring the challenges of a real dirt track. Rainbow Studios' first offroad game, Motocross Madness, had true racing, but it could be argued that the most fun was simply in puttering around its bowl-shaped maps and having fun making huge jumps. More recently, MotorStorm pitted bikes and ATVs against trucks and rigs in races, challenging the smaller ones to avoid being bullied and fly over the mud-infested pits that the bigger vehicles happily wallowed in. But no franchise quite defines the genre like Rainbow Studios' MX series has over the years, and this time around, owner/publisher THQ is changing the game more than you might expect.

Where THQ is really changing things up is in the game's pricing structure. Here, the game will be priced at $40 to start and more of the secondary content - bikes, tracks, and parts - will be offloaded towards day-one paid DLC. I've heard comparisons to the "freemium" MMO games out now that are free to play but are best enjoyed after having spent at least a few bucks on in-game items, but that doesn't seem like a terribly apt description when you still have to shell out $40 to start. On top of this, there are questions: does the full set of initial DLC cost more than $20? Does the game feel incomplete without it? Do players who buy the DLC get a gameplay advantage, and will you be able to see your opponent's awesome helmet that he bought, even if you didn't buy it for your own use? (We've seen cases where that's not the case, due to restrictions imposed by Microsoft.) Few of those questions have been answered, or at least not to some gamers' satisfaction, so this is very much a fledgling business model that may or may not work on today's online gaming networks.


All that said, the hours I got to spend with MX vs. ATV Alive were great, both with and without the full pack of DLC content that should be shipping with the game. There are a couple of free-roam areas with their own sets of accomplishments and goals (along with online leaderboards for things like longest jump and biggest trick combo), and the online racing we tried was fun and full of drama - especially when tracks looped back on themselves, forcing riders to cross paths and often collide with each other. (The XP system and perks you gain on leveling up will also keep you coming back over and over again.) First place often changed hands even in longer races with six or more players, and the constant battle to keep control of your bike through the corners kept us focusing on the physics of our bike as well as the behavior of nearby riders. Going on the outside of a turn gave opponents an easy chance to bump my back tire (or deliver an elbow to the ribcage) and send the back half of my bike out wide, but that also slowed them down - often leading to a third player behind us overtaking us both. Going into a turn on the inside was better for staying away from opponents, but it meant a wider exit to the turn and a slower overall time through the corner. These are considerations you have to make on the fly, all while worrying about making a proper approach to the next jump (and its landing) and managing your clutch which harmlessly pulls your bike out of gear when you're braking, but boosts your take-off speed in the straight.

The Reflex system from the previous game makes its triumphant return, so you'll be using the right stick to shift the weight of the rider. Like before, you'll need to use it to stay on the bike after a sketchy landing or certain types of collisions, and you'll also be using it to lean the bike - forward and backward to land jumps at the right angles, or left and right to lean into or out of turns. You'll want to either get a steeper angle to make a sharp turn while the rear tire kicks out, and you might want to lean out of an easier turn to stand up straighter and increase traction. It's not exactly sim-quality material here, but it is still fairly complex and plenty of fun.


You've also got tricks to consider. These are performed in mid-air by holding RB/R1 and either flicking or rotating the right stick so as to hit three directions (up right down, down down left, that sort of thing). That adds up to a pretty large library of moves, and you can make them even more ridiculous by also doing simultaneous flips. Tricks aren't much good in races, but there are free-roaming events and such where you get more use out of them. One thing I do appreciate is that you are allowed to get away with landing some of these tricks even if you're not quite finished with its animation. If you've got the bike balanced and your rear end on the seat, that's usually good enough; each trick has a specific animation "frame", often not at the very end, where your landing will be fine.

I have very few doubts as to whether MX vs. ATV Alive will be an exciting and fulfilling racing game when all the content is thrown in, but it's easy to start asking questions once you consider the pricing model and what we get for our money. We don't know the total cost of the game plus all of the launch content, and I didn't get enough playtime with the DLC to know whether you need all of it to make this $40 game feel "whole" for the majority if its players. If the total cost of the game plus the DLC is well over sixty bucks, then that might be a profitable windfall for THQ for now, but I'm not sure it'll be healthy for them (or the industry) in the long run - especially if it seems the game needs a good chunk of paid content just to get started. That said, new copies of the game will apparently get some of it for you for free right off the bat, so if things wind up a bit sketchy, then hopefully that'll be enough.


If the game feels complete without much in the way of DLC, then THQ has simply charged less for what otherwise may have worked as a $60 game. I know quite a few gamers, journalists, and industry professionals that would like to see some real-world data on this kind of play on prices, but of course the existence of paid DLC of this kind at launch will almost certainly disqualify it as a worthy experiment. Fans of the series might be a little weirded out about THQ choosing their favorite motocross franchise as the subject for this trial, but it does seem to be worth the effort - especially with the shrinking amounts of disposable income going around today.

MX vs. ATV Alive is set for release on Xbox 360 and PS3 on May 10th.


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