Reviewed: April 27, 2005
Released: March 16, 2005
So who out there noticed? You know – that this year’s ATV Offroad Fury 3 was actually ATV Quad Power Racing 2? Pretty tricky on Sony’s part, eh?
Rainbow Studios has teamed up with Sony for the ATV Offroad Fury series since the PlayStation launch, when this relatively unknown and unexpected sleeper surprised the media and gamers alike with stunning graphics, realistic physics, and high-flying high-speed action. What began as a consolation purchase for gamers who hadn’t arrived early enough to secure a copy of Madden (I mean who really cared about four-wheelers then, huh?) became a bit of a cult hit and media favorite.
When Sony introduced their Greatest Hits line, ATV Offroad Fury was the first game on the list of the value priced 128bit titles, and simply finding the title in stock anywhere proved to be a chore.
It was only natural then, that when Sony unveiled their online service, they did so with big-budget advertising campaign featuring a follow-up, online-enabled ATV Offroad Fury title, aptly entitled ATV Offroad Fury 2. Given the fact that for nearly a year, ATV Offroad Fury 2 held the distinction of being the only online console racing game (remember, Sony launched online long before Xbox Live came around), it gained quite a following.
Then something happened. Rainbow Studios picked up their gaming engine, left Sony and their console exclusivity behind, and joined forces with THQ. This time however, they made four wheels into two and released the multi-platform MX Unleashed – which featured the same caliber of graphics and physics, the standard nationals (outdoor) and supercross (indoor) career modes, and an incredible free ride challenge mode. Really, the only feature that MX Unleashed lacked was a proper online mode.
MX Unleashed easily trumped the competition in nearly all categories – graphics, control, variety, depth, tracks, etc. – except two: price and online multiplayer. Activision’s MTX Mototrax – Unleashed’s only close competition – featured a fairly active online community, and a price tag that averaged $10 less. Not surprising, a great number of people were willing to sacrifice the 30-or-so extra tracks, half a dozen special vehicles, and dozens of free ride challenges simply for the chance to play with a buddy online.
Meanwhile, Sony quietly handed over the ATV Offroad Fury franchise to their previous competition – the developers of ATV Quad Power Racing – and hoped that nobody would notice the difference. Needless to say, people did. While ATV Offroad Fury 3 deserves some credit – it is nowhere near the quality of the previous two releases in the series.
So what does a company like Rainbow, with a killer racing engine, two great ATV games and a sweet MX game all under their belt do to top themselves? Well, they combine it all into one sweet package, of course - MX vs. ATV Unleashed!
MX vs. ATV Unleashed plays much like any other motocross racing game (or any other “structured” racing genre for that matter) – pick a rider, pick a bike, pick a racing series, pick a track, then race. Racing series’ circuits consist of sixteen races each, and take place on either outdoor nationals tracks, or indoor supercross tracks. This is all standard for motocross games. Well, except for the whole vehicle thing, that is. You see, MX vs. ATV Unleashed also has you picking the type of vehicle to race as well; four-wheelers, motocross motorcycles – even sand rail dune buggies can be raced (not in a series, however).
That is only the beginning, because as you progress through the career mode, you begin to unlock racing challenges, which will pit you up against another racer in one of many traditional and non-traditional vehicles including trophy trucks, monster trucks, biplanes, helicopters, and so on. As you win these races, you unlock the vehicles and tracks for future use. For fans of MX Unleashed, most of these items are recycled from last year – but they are still a bunch of fun.
The extra vehicles might be all right as a side dish – but the actual racing is the main course, and MX vs. ATV Unleashed doesn’t disappoint. Featuring the near-perfect controls of the previous Rainbow titles, managing the tight courses is still just as fluid and fun as ever. The mechanics haven’t changed much; mastering precision clutch control and suspension preload is vital to getting smooth racings line over sets of jumps and around tight turns. Rainbow has been tuning their controls in for nearly half a decade now, and it shows.
Series fans will notice that the bouncy physics we have come to expect from the Fury/Unleashed titles seems to have been scaled back quite a bit; bikes don’t jump as high, land as soft, nor float as long as they did in previous titles. The result is that MX vs. ATV Unleashed is a grittier, rawer racing experience than any of its older siblings. While I like big air as much as the next guy, it is hard to complain with a game that emphasizes mastering the rhythm of the racing line over merely praying to clear the whole section each and every time.
The different vehicles exhibit most of the benefits and disadvantages you would expect based on wheel (or wing) configuration and weight. As well, the different tracks and track styles (MX, SX, truck racing, etc.) offer up a wide variety of environments and obstacles from sandy deserts to lush forests. The jumps are generally well laid-out; favoring fluid racing line yet requiring your full attention to keep from getting gravel grind.
Whether purists like it or not, there is still a great deal of rubber band AI in MX vs. ATV Unleashed; AI riders will generally try to match your speed, it is neigh impossible to get either too far behind to catch back up with the pack or too far ahead to not worry about the pack catching back up. Crashing is common, but thankfully the recovery will generally warp you back near your previous position in the pack. Given how many times you crash for reasons outside of your own – it’s nice to at least know the race isn’t a complete loss over some silly mistake.
Sadly, while MX vs. ATV Unleashed is easily one of the best motocross game to ever hit a console, there are still a few issues – both minor and major – that keep it from truly reaching perfection.
As for the minor issues, there isn’t much here that we haven’t seen before in other games – but for a gaming engine that is as established as Rainbow’s, there are a few bugs that will leave you scratching your head.
There are the extremely long loading times, which are only exacerbated by a cumbersome menu system requiring multiple Yes/No acknowledgements and decisions each of which has a load time of its own – Do you want to load profile? Do you want to load career from profile? Are you sure you want to load from profile? In the same vein, there are the general loading and saving issues, which require the same multiple decisions and acknowledgements – and the default selection highlighted is always the one you don’t want – and the point at which the game actually registers your save is always in question. I don’t know how many times I had to race a track over and over because the game somehow registered my post-race save the night before as a pre-race save. Since each race requires you to run at least two motos of 3 to 5 laps, it gets a bit tiresome.
Then there are a few issues with the AI. While they usually react well for 90% of the time, every now and then there are still some weird glitches you see where riders suddenly go AWOL and turn off the track, or turn 180° and come at you head on – I have even witnessed AI riders stopping altogether and simply idling in the middle of the track. These instances are not common between and generally the result of some rider-to-rider nudging – regardless, for an established gaming engine, this is quite puzzling.
As for the two major issues, only one could really be considered a nonconformance; the other is more of a disappointment for fans of the Rainbow racers – but a major disappointment nevertheless.
As for the nonconformance – at the time of this writing, the PS2 online mode is broken. Yes, broken – it does not work on our office’s brand-new slimline PS2, nor has it worked on any other online PS2 we have tried. A search on the Internet finds that the online problem is widespread, with many people unable to contact servers or join games – and the lucky few that have been able to link into a game report that the game is laggy and voice communication is unintelligible. Again, for an established gaming engine – the one-time poster child for PS2 Online – it’s strange that there are so many problems with the online portion of the game. Thankfully, is appears to be a server-side problem, so hopefully the issues will be cleared up soon. But for those of you expecting the smooth sailing online of ATV Offroad Fury 2 – you might be a bit disappointed.
Now for the disappointment – one of the greatest aspects of Rainbow Studio’s line of motocross games is all but gone in MX vs. ATV Unleashed: Free Ride. Looking back at the ATV Offroad Fury series, last year’s MX Unleashed, even Rainbow’s 1998 original Motocross Madness for the PC – there has been one mode that has made each of the titles a bit different than the standard fare and that has been the Free Ride.
Since day one, Rainbow’s motocross games have featured a mode that presented the rider with large, open environments and allowed them to ride to their heart’s content without the constraints of a track, laps – nothing. Riding for the sake of riding. If a person wanted to compete, there were waypoint courses that could be selected – but were not mandatory. When MX Unleashed came around, they bumped it up a notch by infusing an open-ended challenge mode into the free ride – positioning challenges around the map and allowing the gamer the ability to accept challenges at will. I won’t go into further detail, but just realize that this mode alone made last year’s MX Unleashed a true classic in gaming.
Free Ride is all but gone in MX vs. ATV Unleashed. Although the mode select screen shows the option for a Free Ride mode, the courses offered are arena-based freestyle courses sans any of the challenge mode additions from MX Unleashed. After spending a year with MX Unleashed making “hits” and “runs” (I won’t explain - you will have to check it out for yourself), finding Challenge mode absent in the sequel is a real bummer, and really is a step back in the franchise.
Since Rainbow’s original ATV Offroad Fury still looks great even after four years, it should be no surprise that MX vs. ATV Unleashed – effectively the fourth title in Rainbow’s PS2 lineage – looks like a million bucks on Sony’s console.
Really, not much has needed to change since the original PS2-launch title, and to be honest…well, not a lot has. The settings are still every bit as lush as before; ranging from barren deserts to tropical beaches, lush forests to barren wastelands – as well as the arena supercrosses, of course. Of the 32-plus courses, many seem to be very familiar to – if not outright recycled from – the tracks featured in Rainbow’s previous releases. No matter, because with the library of tracks that Rainbow puts in each game, you hardly have time to play any to the point of memorization.
Impressive as always, the lighting and shadowing are top-shelf quality, as are the textures and water reflections. Racing animations are fluid and realistic – even when flashing to the television camera-style action view – and the crash animations are devastating enough to leave you checking yourself for broken ribs.
As a whole, the visual package’s minimal popup, little-to-no jaggies, and a solid framerate all combine with the new less-floaty physics package of the previous games to make a game that feels and runs faster than ever before. Really, for a PS2 game to run this fast and fluid with this clarity – we can forgive little things like the odd AI opponent going squirrelly every now and then.
Again, not much has changed here - MX vs. ATV Unleashed sounds exactly like every other game in the lineage, and is as a whole, the sound package is probably one of the lower points of the game.
Each vehicle type has a sound of its own – quads are generally deeper pitched and throatier, while the MX bikes have higher pitched whines. Within each group however, the differences from bike A to bike B are not all that distinguishable. Still, there isn’t much you could expect from a motocross game – you can basically close your eyes and visualize six dying sheep bleating through a Jimi Hendrix fuzzbox and you’ll get the picture.
I made mention earlier that as a whole, the sound package was probably one of the low points in the game. If you turn your attention to the licensed music alone, you will find the absolute low point of the game. Just like the ATV Offroad Fury and MX Unleashed titles before it, MX vs. ATV Unleashed features the most boring collection of Emo-drivel chunky depression-rock yet to hit a game console. My apologies go out to the bands; this music has a place where it belongs, and it is not in a videogame about racing motorcycles at high speeds. Sure, there are some more upbeat hip-hop crossover tunes, but more often than not you’re hearing some guy whining about not being accepted by girls, or by society and how he’s going to get back at them. But more than the depressing content, the fact that the tempo of these songs is about half as fast as the racing onscreen causes for a bit of a disconnect.
How can you go wrong with a game that serves up a hefty helping of two kick-ass racing games – ATV Offroad Fury and MX Unleashed – adds a dozen or so alternate vehicles to drive, 32-plus tracks, and a full featured six player online mode (if it ever works - Ed)? You can’t.
Really the only problem with MX vs. ATV Unleashed is that without the Free Ride Challenge mode of MX Unleashed, racing in circuits can soon get tiresome – especially when the online is not currently working. Still, with a retail price of $40, you are basically getting two online compatible greatest hits games in one package and that’s pretty much an even trade in my book.
Rainbow Studio’s PS2 titles have always been visually appealing and a real treat to play – MX vs. ATV Unleashed is no different. Taking equal parts of their two past franchises, they have come up with one great motocross game.
Last year, I believed MX Unleashed to easily be the best motocross game to ever grace a console. This year the decision is a bit harder, because while the actual lap racing may be better than ever, the game is missing some of the key elements – MX Unleashed’s Free Ride Challenge mode in particular – which helped defined the previous title. Normally, online play alone trumps most other features – but when it doesn’t work, well…that is a problem. As it stands, MX Unleashed is still tops in my book, with MX vs. ATV Unleashed coming in a very close second. With only a few changes, next year’s edition could easily be holding the trophy.
Let’s hope that they fix the online problem, bring back the open-ended Free Ride Challenge, and get rid of that slow as molasses Emo. Until then, there is a lot of fun to be had with MX vs. ATV Unleashed, and dropping a pair of twenties for this one will not disappoint.