Reviewed: May 22, 2011
Released: May 10, 2011
Motocross racing is one of those sports that holds a certain mystique for most boys and men. Sure, the sheer brute-force power of NASCAR and the awesome cornering of Formula 1 definitely impress, but neither delivers that constant feeling of awe that comes from motocross. Pretty much every boy has dreamed of shooting 25ft in the air, pulling off a perfect cross-up, and nailing the landing having cleared a set of doubles spaced 30ft apart. So it’s no surprise that motocross games are as popular as they are on the gaming consoles.|
Since the original release of Excitebike on the NES, gamers have been trying to make good on their motocross dreams – and developers have been pretty good at dishing out quality titles over the years. Of all the developers who have made a name in the motocross gaming world, there is none that has had more success than the folks at Rainbow Studios – originators of the ATV Offroad Fury, MX Unleashed, and MX vs. ATV franchises. Rainbow’s titles consistently score at the top of their genre, and are solely responsible for introducing unique gameplay mechanics like spring pre-loading and dual-analog Rider Reflex steering.
Rainbow has recently undergone a name change to THQ Phoenix – but their newest release, MX vs. ATV Alive lives up to the Rainbow’s legacy. But this time around the changes have little to do with the game mechanics - which are nearly unchanged from the series’ prior release, Reflex - and nearly everything to do with a newfangled a la carte business model that THQ hopes might change how gamers purchase their games. Over the past five years or so, we’ve dealt with downloadable full games, downloadable episodic games, and downloadable add-on content for our games – but I would have to believe that Alive is the first true a la carte release to hit the consoles, and I will explain how this works.
MX vs. ATV Alive sells as a physical disc from your local retailer for a reduced price compared to typical new releases (at the time of this review, the MSRP for Alive is $39.99 compared to $59.99 for a typical new releases). Inside the game packaging, there is the game disc and a single-fold information sheet that details the basic button layout and lists a website URL where a full manual may be downloaded. Obviously, since few gamers actually read the game manuals, this is a cost savings measure that would go relatively unnoticed – that is if instructions were not as necessary as they are to understand Alive’s complex Rider Reflex controls, but more about that later.
But that is only the beginning of the a la carte model as Alive with only a fraction of the tracks that a typical Rainbow release would have in the past – in fact, there are only 12 tracks in total within Alive, and only a handful are available at the outset and the rest require a ton of replaying to unlock them. That is – of course – unless the gamer would like to unlock the tracks by purchasing them in the in-game marketplace using real-world money. This is where the a la carte model takes its form: everything in MX vs. ATV Alive is for sale.
Indeed, everything from vehicles, to rider outfits, to the tracks, and to all of the available upgrades therein - everything is for sale in the in-game market, available for gamers who might not have the patience to play through the incredibly tough single-player mode. And yes, it appears that the developers have purposely designed the game to try the gamers’ patience and drive them to the marketplace. But it is not all about bilking money out of impatient gamers, the developers have also promised biweekly (every two weeks for the grammatically impaired) DLC to further add to Alive’s selection of content.
The benefits of the a la carte model are fairly obvious. Gamers can get their hands on a functioning new release for under $40, and pick-and-choose only those add-ons that hold some important enough to pay for. Developers can release what is technically a partially-finished game, and then take the time to design and develop additional content – feeling out those aspects that are important to gamers and focusing on those. It is a risky proposition in today’s short attention span world – and to be honest, I am not sure how I feel about the implementation in Alive, but I have to give credit to THQ for taking the plunge into this new world of micro-transactions – I just hope that gamers know what they are buying when they pick up the game.
As I stated, Alive’s gameplay is not much different from that of MX vs. ATV Reflex – the game that first introduced the dual analog Rider Reflex controls. The Rider Reflex system definitely takes some getting used to, especially for fans of the old ATV Offroad Fury and MX Unleashed franchises as Rainbow has changed up the preloading mechanics significantly, and cornering does not seem as intuitive as it should be – especially with the cornering assists and jumping assists turned on which definitely add to the initial confusion.
Gamers will quickly realize that MX vs. ATV Alive (and Reflex for that matter) is nowhere near as plug-and-play as the earlier Rainbow releases – it takes a lot of work to master the Reflex controls, and the learning process is extremely frustrating. But if Rainbow had simply churned out another simple and intuitive Unleashed title, we would probably be complaining that they did nothing to further the genre – so we get what we ask for. The game features the requisite motocross (outdoor) nationals racing and free ride (albeit without the “hits” and “tricks” of the classic MX Unleashed). One addition that really amps up the excitement comes in the form of the crisscrossing “short tracks” which play like a Figure-8 demolition derby. The short tracks experience is wild and confusing, but it’s actually possible to have a leader collide midair with cross-course traffic and be taken out of the race. Obviously, this delivers some much-needed suspense to the proceedings.
Rainbow has always put a lot of work into the presentation and Alive is no slouch when it comes to the overall package; the visuals, the sound effects, the menus – it all first-class work. Visually, the tracks are especially beautiful, with some of the best dirt effects and trackside foliage seen in the genre. The sunlight and atmospheric shadowing is fantastic, at times reminiscent of the beautiful horizons from Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption. Probably the only aspect that could use some tweaking would be in the proportions of the riders to the bikes which seem a little off – the riders looking a bit too skinny atop their steeds and a tad too stiff to match the fluidity of motocross. When reviewing a motocross game, the sound portion is always a bit of a joke – it doesn’t take a whole lot to mimic the constant whining and revving of a motocross motor for hours on end. But the folks at Rainbow/THQ know what they are doing when it comes to capturing the ambiance of a motocross race, and Alive delivers a spot-on experience.
The game allows gamers to develop their own rider through a modest RPG-style of character leveling in which points are awarded after each race that the gamer can apply to particular racer attributes such as jumping and cornering. While this is kind of a neat addition to the gameplay, it seems a bit awkward in a genre where the skill is really supposed to be more in the hands of the gamer than in the attributes of the character he is playing. The biggest reward in the prior releases was the sense of accomplishment that came from mastering the racing lines or the preloading technique, not from building an uber-character designed to make things easier.
I actually felt less in connect with my character now that I was leveling him up than I was back in the old days when I was the honing my own skills. And speaking of these characters, they are a tad annoying with all of their thumbs-up, arm waving bravado, and “yeahs!” and “all rights!” that that goes on during the races. I tend to align myself with the nice guy gentlemen racer types; not the testosterone meatheads that I was forced into with MX vs. ATV Alive. I actually got to where I did not like my character and that is not a good sign for a game.
Online, the Alive seemed a bit fairer than the single player modes – simply because a majority of the other online players were trying to make heads or tails of the Rider Reflex controls as well. The game allows up to 12 online gamers to play through the nationals, short track and free ride tracks, and it is quite impressive to think that the system can handle all of that commotion without crashing. I did notice a bit of lag during the initial runs, but that may have had more to do with the bad weather that was hitting the Midwest than the actual coding of the game.
Still, I foresee problems in the near future, because if we’ve learned anything from games like Halo, DLC can play absolute havoc on online matchmaking – when some players have differing content it is sometimes difficult to find the common denominator that is shared by all. True, this will probably help to drive the “peer pressure” purchases, but it does nothing to enhance the gameplay. And this is precisely why I have my reservations about the a la carte business model – especially when it comes to a game like MX vs. ATV Alive. Now if it were a new high-profile shooter (Halo, Gears of War, etc.) or even a high-profile racer (Forza, Gran Turismo) I could see how the system would pay off – but motocross titles do not generally appeal to as large or as dedicated an audience, and therefore may not have the same staying power.
We all know that there were still Halo 2 fans playing on their old first generation Xbox consoles when Microsoft shut down the servers a year ago, and gamers can still be found online playing classic titles like Rainbow Six – but you do not generally see people waiting in lines for the midnight releases of a motocross game. I am afraid that MX vs. ATV might come of the gate with a bang, but over the months, either by ignorance, ambivalence, or sheer lack of interest on the part of the gamers, it will result in a diminishing amount of DLC leaving the few dedicated gamers holding a game that really is just a shell of what it could be. I’m glad THQ is experimenting with it, I just don’t know if it will work. Only time will tell.
I don’t want to sound too down on MX vs. ATV Alive. It certainly is an enjoyable title and well worth the low selling price. It looks great, it sounds great, and once you get a hand of the awkward Rider Reflex control scheme it becomes a rewarding experience. I may not be sure if Alive was the best game for THQ to try the a la carte model, but am glad that they are trying it nonetheless. Heck, I wish the cable companies would offer a la carte purchasing so I didn’t have to weed through all of the shopping networks and music channels, so maybe this is a start.