"Our goal with MX Vs. ATV Unleashed was to expand beyond motocross and create the most comprehensive off-road racing experience ever." — Scott Novis, president, Rainbow Studios.
They succeeded, and then some.
If I had to choose one word to describe MX Vs. ATV Unleashed, it'd be "variety." The game takes the courses, events, and vehicles from the sports of motocross and ATV racing and crams them together into a single game, and then, just for overkill, it also adds monster trucks, dune buggies, golf carts, and fantasy courses into the mix. Picky individuals may find fault with the game's relatively low-key presentation, as well as its iffy physics engine (which strikes a balance between realism and user-friendliness), but those problems are easily overshadowed by how fun the game is and how much choice it offers.
In all, MX Vs. ATV Unleashed contains in excess of 140 vehicles and nearly 170 individual tracks. The tracks are organized into various events (Freestyle, Supercross, Nationals, Short Track, Waypoint Race, Hill Climb, Open Class, Supermoto, and Air Courses). Fans of previous MX and ATV games will recognize most of these events. Meanwhile, those that watch real-world events on TV will also recognize the majority of courses, since they're pretty much patterned after actual existing locations. If names such as Quechee, Smuggler's Notch, and Oceanside ring a bell with you, you'll feel right at home. Each track can be tackled individually on an event-by-event basis, or you can let the game dial them up for you in two different 16-week championship modes. What makes MX Vs. ATV Unleashed so unique is that it lets you choose to race each event "pure," that is to say, with only one class of vehicles, or "mixed," which means that bikes, ATVs, and other contraptions can compete together in the same event.
That sort of flexibility is one-half of what makes MX Vs. ATV Unleashed so enjoyable. The other half is that the game itself is a blast to play and also relatively easy to control. Races can involve as many as six different opponents. That's three or four short of a real scrum, but still a solid number for the typical five-lap races in this game. The CPU controlled racers are aggressive enough to keep pace at least, and you won't find yourself hurting for opportunities to bump them off the track or lock-up their front wheels. It helps to keep in mind too that this is one of the only (perhaps the
only) games out there that lets you put bikes, ATVs, monster trucks, and nutty contraptions like golf carts together into a single event. The track designs are great and have been loaded with hills and turns in order to make high-flying jumps and painful spills relatively commonplace. The controls are extremely sensitive and over-steer is common, but you'll get used to that after a couple races. Overall, the controls are very intuitive. In most cases, you only need to use the X and square buttons to apply gas or brake, and the left analog stick to steer, pre-load jumps, or adjust the vehicle's pitch in mid-air (especially important when you're trying to stick landings on a motorbike).
Stunts are a major focus of some events, especially the freestyle and mini-game scoring competitions, and they're also pretty easy to pull off. The circle, triangle, and R1 buttons–along with the four primary directions on the left stick or d-pad–activate specific stunts. Multiple tricks can be linked together, which can lead to massive point build-ups, provided you finish the whole combination before the vehicle hits the ground. Failure to do so will lead to a messy wipe-out.
In addition to the ample stock of single-player events and modes, the game also offers a good selection of split-screen and online multiplayer options. The majority of individual events let a second player join you, with the screen split horizontally or vertically (adjustable in the settings menu). The online component requires a broadband connection, and only supports a maximum of six players at a time, but the trade-off to these "limitations" is that races are free of lag. Thanks to the GameSpy interface, it's easy to go online and get into games. Once you create a login, you'll be able to log onto the GameSpy server and jump into a game lobby in as few as three button-presses. Hosts can choose from a variety of game setup options, including track location, number of laps, types of vehicles allowed, and how strict the physics are.
It does seem, however, that the development team poured all of its manpower and resources into packing the game with content and making it fun, and then subsequently didn't have much left over to sex up the game's overall presentation.
The graphics are crisp, for the most part, and the riders and their bikes exhibit a wide range of fine details, such as flapping uniforms and coughing exhausts. Likewise, the many different stunt animations and all of the fluid body movements that go into them are pretty impressive (as are the simple things like sticking a landing or spilling off the bike). However, when you look at the environments, you'll notice that they're wholly plain and unimpressive. There isn't a lot going on in the backgrounds; no spectators, for example; and the various buildings, trees, and shrubs that decorate the landscape are made up of simple polygon models that are often covered in very flat and sometimes distorted textures. The ground also doesn't quite look realistic at times, mainly because the developer chose to use three or four colors of mud to "paint" everything, and real life is more colorful than that. On the upside, the draw distance is huge and the animation isn't choppy whatsoever. Some details in the environment, such as the flapping banners and reflective pools of water, are also genuinely cool to see. A select few courses even feature large fixtures, such as Jumbotron video screens and amusement park rides. The game supports progressive scan capable (480p) monitors and TV sets, by way of an option available in the settings menu, and I'd highly recommend playing the game in this mode if you can. The graphics are so much sharper and the "blurry" textures look much less blurry in 480p.
As for the audio, you'll have to be happy with the sounds of the various bikes and the related grunts and groans that result from landing… or, not landing, as the case may be. They're adequately realistic, but the absence of environmental sounds, such as spectators or wildlife, is fairly noticeable. The soundtrack contains a good selection of 20 songs from big name artists like Papa Roach, the Black Eyed Peas, and Crossfade, which on the whole contribute more to the game than distract from it–so that's a plus.
Ultimately, what matters most of all is that MX Vs. ATV Unleashed is fun to play and packed with content. There's something innately wonderful about a game that lets you take a dirt bike onto a track and perform stunts, while simultaneously trying to win a race against an ATV, a monster truck, and a golf cart. Furthermore, between buying extra outfits and vehicles from the in-game store and unlocking all of the new tracks and events in the single race events, it'll take most players a good 30 hours to unlock everything that the game has to offer. When add up all those plusses, the minuses really don't matter all that much.