Reviewed: January 12, 2003
Reviewed by: Mark Smith
Just over a year ago THQ put a unique twist on the world of snowboarding with their release of Dark Summit; part snowboarding, part adventure. They’ve now turned their attention to the extreme sport of BMX racing with their latest release, Toxic Grind that has you racing for the ultimate prize, your life!
Toxic Grind has a fairly ingenious backstory that starts in the year 2086 in a futuristic society that has banned BMX racing and all other extreme sports. When extreme sports become outlawed only outlaws will become athletes and an Underground society is formed. In order to appease the masses thirst for extreme sports action, violence, or both, the government sponsors a TV show called Toxic Grind where what few outlaw BMX bikers remain engage in a fight for their lives in various arenas full of deathtraps. It’s part reality TV and part public execution. The entire premise resembles that of the movie, The Running Man, only everyone is now riding BMX bikes.
Naturally, the bloodlust of the public has made Toxic Grind one of the most popular shows in history but the producers are running out of riders. Fortunately, they happen to have a time machine at their disposal and what better place to “recruit” new riders than the year 2002 where BMX is at its peak.
This is where you enter the picture. You are Jason Hayes, a young and upcoming star in the sport of BMX. The game starts off innocently enough with you entering the local stunt competition down at the pier. Unbeknownst to you, the event is being watched by recruiters from 84 years in the future and when you finish in the top three you are whisked away to the futuristic world of Toxic Grind.
But the story doesn’t end there. You have also been injected with a lethal poison that is slowly draining away your life. The only way to counteract this poison is to perform stunts and keep your adrenalin levels up, but in addition to having to worry about stunts you are also competing in some of the most twisted and evil arenas ever devised and you are competing against other riders who will try their best to eliminate you permanently.
Beneath this inventive story lurks your typical extreme sports game that mirrors just about every other extreme sports game released in 2002. You’ve seen this concept in Tony Hawk, Aggressive Inline, Gravity Games Bike, and even BMX XXX. You are dumped into a level, given a time limit and a huge list of objectives. Do as many as you can in the available time and when you have checked off enough goals you can move on to new levels.
Toxic Grind offers several game modes including Arcade, Pro Circuit, Multiplayer, and of course, the Underground mode, which presents the game in a story mode complete with hand-draw stationary cutscenes. The Underground mode is where you unlock levels for use in the other modes and will probably be the focus of your attention, at least at first. Arcade mode simply lets you play any unlocked level and Pro Circuit lets you create your own little tournament from the available levels and compete for the best scores.
Multiplayer games come in four flavors; Score War, Turf War, Tug of War, and Quick Draw. Quick Draw has you trying to beat your opponent to a predetermined trick score (10K, 50K, 100K). Tug of War is a bit more inventive and starts each of you off with 5,000 points. By doing tricks you can take points from the other player and the first person to 10,000 points wins. Turf War is exactly like the Graffiti mode in Tony Hawk, and Score War is simply a timed level where you compete for the highest amount of total trick points.
Control is pretty straightforward and Toxic Grind plays like just about any other BMX or extreme sports game you may have played in the past. There is a very nice tutorial that teaches you the various buttons and gives you a good feel for the handling of your bike. The trick system is probably simpler than Dave Mirra fans are used to and the physics model leans a bit on the low-gravity side, but it all works for this particular game. Training takes place in a back lot stunt course and your rider is a crash test dummy – cool stuff! Once you are comfortable with the bike physics and the controls it's off to the competition where you make your bid for fame and fortune.
Thanks to the time machine concept you get to race in 11 very unique areas in the past, present, and future. After a trip to the futuristic New York City you can test your BMX skills in ancient Greece, the legendary Sherwood Forest, and many more. You will compete in large outdoor areas and claustrophobic arenas full of whirling blades, deadly pendulums, spiked pits, and other deathtraps waiting to end your career.
When I see the “ONLY ON XBOX” branded in yellow on a game’s DVD case I am always expecting something special that no other system could pull off. While Toxic Grind looks pretty good there is honestly nothing here that couldn’t be done on either of the other two game systems. Sure, the levels are large, there are interesting designs complete with lengthy and complicated trick lines, there is some interesting texture work, and a creative visual style to the static cutscenes, but nothing is pushing the Xbox to any uncharted locations.
Models are pretty simple with bikes and bikers getting the minimum amount of polygon necessary to make them convincing. While the camera movement is as smooth as the framerate, the animation is often jerky and can interfere when you try to chain multiple tricks. There are some interesting lighting and special effects like sparks, smoke, fire, and blood, but again, it’s all standard stuff we’ve seen before in countless other games.
The only good thing I can say about the music in Toxic Grind is that you can turn it off and replace it with your own custom soundtrack. I pity the people who don’t have a few hours of MP3’s on their Xbox hard drive, as the default music is truly horrible. Normally, these extreme sports games feature lots of licensed contemporary music, but we get none of this goodness here. If this is the music they are listening to in 2086 then please kill me now.
There’s not a lot of opportunity for a huge library of effects in these types of games. You get the same grinding noises, hum of rubber tires on pavement, and all the grinding and mashing of the deadly devices in the arenas. Some of the best sounds are the chanting and various crowd reactions to the events as they unfold.
Voice work is hit and miss. While you have an excellent performance by the Adriana character, you have Von Blass, the evil villain of our story who tips the scales of overacting into the absurd if not downright laughable. It’s all B-movie stuff that may fit the style of the game and the story, but won’t meet the increased expectations of next-gen gamers.
Once you have mastered the controls and adapted to the floaty physics you can finish the Underground mode in 15-20 hours. There are some characters available to unlock but they are hardly enough incentive to keep you going much further than a single pass through the story mode. The multiplayer modes are pretty standard stuff with the exception of the Tug of War, which was surprisingly cool and very challenging.
There is no shortage of BMX games for the Xbox right now and Toxic Grind tries to carve out its unique niche by including a story element to put a new spin on the extreme sports genre. It does so with about as much success as Dark Summit did last year, proving that gameplay rules supreme over story any day of the week. If the game isn’t compelling enough to play then gamers may never explore the entire story.
Toxic Grind isn’t a bad game, and there were more than a few memorable moments for me while playing it. It fell just short of the mark and probably the original vision that Blue Shift had in mind when they came up with this bold concept. I’m guessing this title was rushed out the door for the holiday shopping season and will ultimately suffer from an early release. If you are looking for a quality BMX game with good physics and a huge library of stunts then move along…nothing to see here.
On the other hand; if you take your BMX biking as seriously as your snowboarding and you enjoyed Dark Summit over the more serious games like Amped or SSX, then you might enjoy this futuristic and fanciful romp through the world of BMX – arena combat style. While those other games will have you pedaling for high scores, Toxic Grind has you pedaling for your life.