PS3 Review – MX vs. ATV Alive

May 21, 2011Written by Paulmichael Contreras

When it comes to traditional off-road motorsports videogames grounded in reality, your choices are more limited than what they were last generation. Enter MX vs. ATV. This series has been a staple of Rainbow Studios, with THQ as the publisher, since 2005. Using the Reflex engine designed for the last entry in the series of the same name, does MX vs. ATV Alive improve on its predecessor’s formula, or is it dead on arrival? Find out in this review.

If you prefer your off-road games realistic, and not fantasy-based such as with the Motorstorms of the world, then you have definitely come to the right place. This game starts out incredibly challenging. This is due in large part because your rider starts out as a newbie to the sport, with a stiff stance and abhorrent reaction times. Your bike is also a simple 125cc, no-frills motorcycle, or a basic 250cc quad. Do not expect an easy win either, unless you play on the lowest difficulty setting. The control scheme does help here once you get the hang of it – turn with the left analog stick, and move your rider’s body with the right. It makes for a fairly realistic experience, since that is some of the basics of controlling off-road vehicles in real life – you have to turn both the handlebars and your body separately but in sync.

MX vs. ATV Alive does not have a career mode in any traditional sense of the word. Rather, you have a rider who, as mentioned previously, is an amateur in every sense of the word and it takes a while before things start feeling more fluid. Here is one way in which MX vs. ATV Alive innovates – you can level both your rider and the various vehicles. In each race you are given XP points based on your performance and various rider goals that you may have accomplished during the race – things such as lapping an opponent, keeping your average speed up, performing numerous tricks, etc. There is also a bonus based on your choice of one of the four difficulty levels. The XP is applied in differing ratios to both your rider level and your current bike/quad’s level. Each vehicle has four levels, from zero to three stars. As you gain levels on the vehicle, different – usually better – parts are unlocked, making it more stable/quicker/responsive. It seems that when you cross over the two star threshold the AI-controlled opponents become no match for you until you level up your rider a few times and the difficulty scales appropriately.

Speaking of the AI, it is actually quite impressive in Alive. While leveling up or selecting a harder difficulty level makes the riders quicker, one thing that never truly leaves the AI is fallibility. The riders will do everything people do in real life on offroad vehicles – they will take a turn too slow or fast, which results in you getting a chance to pass them, “case” a jump where they land right between the front and rear tires, typically resulting in a crash, or they will just plain lose control after a tough jump and bail. It makes for a realistic race, and quite a rush when you are closely trailing an AI rider and he mistimes a jump, giving you an opportunity to take his spot. In fact, when I was playing online, against other actual people, I would occasionally think I was playing against the computer again. These AI riders don’t stick to the ideal racing line, and seem to actually acknowledge when you are beside them.

This game does come with a number of caveats, however. As mentioned earlier, there is no traditional career mode. You start out with a severely limited track selection, and you have to achieve a rider level of 10 to unlock the next set of tracks. This will take several hours. While some may argue this helps you memorize track layouts, it really just ends up feeling like level grinding much like that which you would find in an RPG, but without any of the strategy – it’s just the same handful of courses for several hours. Once you do unlock those Amateur level courses, it’s time for another grind – this time you must gain 15 more rider levels to unlock a smaller, final selection of courses. After that, only chasing trophies is left – one of which has the goal of reaching level 50. After repeating these tracks that many times, the courses will likely haunt you in your dreams.

Beyond the serious level grinding, the graphics also look like they could use some touchup. The tracks and environments are serviceable, but the riders have an odd glow around them when in the air that makes them stand out from the rest of the scenery, and not in a good way. Also, despite the game shooting for realism, no matter the modifications you make to your vehicle, it sounds the same as the day you first acquired it. While some parts do affect performance, not even the exhausts seem to alter how your vehicle sounds.

The physics engine in MX vs. ATV Alive has a nice real-time terrain deformation element to it, which was originally introduced in the previous entry in the series, Reflex. After a number of laps, eventually the dirt contains grooves which can actually aid you in making a turn cleanly if you entered it too quickly. However, this does result in the occasional odd reaction, which can and will throw your rider into a very bizarre angle on a banked turn or jump. This usually results in a huge loss of momentum or even a crash. It seems to happen fairly regularly, though eventually you can learn to predict where this is more likely to happen on a given course.

Multiplayer makes an appearance here as well, although your choices are fairly limited. You have different tiers and vehicles to choose from, and you can create a private game as well as accept invites. There is no lobby – you are simply thrown into a random open game. This can present problems when only one rider is left in the game and leaves his console for whatever reason while not leaving the game, as you are placed in spectator mode and made to wait until the race is over. When you are placed into an active race, however, it is pretty exhilarating. Up to 12 players can be in one race at a time. The game gets loud at the starting gate, and the races are pretty lag-free. The starts of races can quickly turn into a mess of riders as you approach the first turn, and in fact the game’s audio engine seems to struggle outputting everyone’s engine sound effect, which is a bit jarring. Also, whenever anyone joins or leaves the game, everything stutters for a fraction of a second. While most of the time this is nothing more than a minor annoyance, if it occurs at a key moment it can ruin your race.

In terms of extras, MX vs. ATV Alive comes with the always welcome custom soundtrack support,but the music will stop playing the second you go online. There are plenty of trophies to be had, however some like the Level 50 trophy will take forever and a half to complete, thanks to the slow level grinding present here. Voice chat and USB keyboards are supported, and DLC is being planned in copious amounts. You see, THQ took the unique route of pricing this game at only $40, and the publisher is going to release DLC in the form of new tracks, vehicles, and more on a regular basis in the hopes that you will pay for it. Their reasoning is that not everyone likes short tracks or nationals, so why pay for that portion of a game if you’re not going to play or enjoy it? New copies of the game come with a code for “James Stewart’s MX Compound,” but as of this writing the PlayStation Store has not been restored and we were unable to test that DLC out.

So as one of the few options left for traditional off-road racing, does MX vs. ATV Alive hold up against the competition? As a budget title, it fairs well – your $40 will get you a lot of gameplay here. However, that gameplay is very repetitive, as you level grind to an almost nauseating degree in order to unlock a few more tracks, only to repeat the process again. The AI is surprisingly nuanced, which at least makes each ride on a course a slightly different experience. Leveling up both your rider and vehicles separately can also help to spice up the variety, but only so much. Online is functional and pretty hassle-free, though the occasional connection hiccup and wonky lobby joining functionality can annoy. Custom soundtracks are always welcome, and if THQ’s upcoming DLC is priced right, you could ultimately end up with a customized version of this game that fits your play style. MX vs. ATV Alive takes what was new about Reflex and tweaks it subtly, though the lack of a traditional career mode ends up hurting the game more than helping it.

PlayStation LifeStyle’s Final Score

+ Nice, realistic controls and physics.

+ At only $40, you get a lot of gameplay for your money.

– That gameplay has a lot of level grinding involved, online can stutter. No traditional career mode.

7 out of 10