It's easy to get lost in the details of the upcoming MX vs. ATV Reflex from THQ and developer Rainbow--things like the great-looking bikes and ATVs; the impressive vistas and scenic variety in locales as varied as Spain, Oregon, and many points in between; and even the motion-captured "30-second girls" who precede the dropping of the gate at a motocross event. And while those details all add to the racing experience, the heart of Reflex is still beating with gritty grimy dirt, mud, sand, and snow.
It's those different surface types that make Reflex such a challenging experience, as we found out during a recent THQ press event in Las Vegas showing off the latest build of the game, due in December. First there's the look of those different surfaces you'll be driving on. You can tear deep grooves in the dirt with your tires; do a doughnut in place for a while and you'll dig a crater for yourself to drive out of. Every bump and undulation in the track surface is permanent for as long as you run on that level--even when running in the huge open-area free-ride areas that can span many miles of drivable territory.
Art director Ian Wood told us that the new system powering those mounds of virtual dirt allows 10 times the resolution when compared to the polygon-based system in previous games. Undeniably, the dirt looks better than before, but the feel of the ground is just as impressive. Dirt and mud have a completely different feel to them when compared to snow, where even keeping your vehicle moving in a straight line can be a chore.
Rolling with the changes in the terrain will be one of your most valuable skills when racing in Reflex, because sometimes there are rather abrupt changes in surface types--hard-packed dirt changing nearly instantaneously to snow as you move up a mountainside, for example. Couple that with the game's already quick pace and Reflex will keep you on your toes.
The focus of the press event in Vegas was Reflex's multiplayer modes. There aren't any real surprises here--you can play practically any mode from the single-player game with up to eleven other people online. These modes include traditional race types like supercross, free ride, and waypoint races, as well as more specialized events like Championship Sports Track and Omnicross, the latter of which lets you race practically any type of vehicle in the game through long, winding courses, full of huge elevation changes and tricky sections requiring serious stick skills.
In addition to the standard multiplayer race modes, we got a chance to check out two online-only modes--snake and tag. Think of snake as a dirt-filled version of the Tron lightcycle racing game. As you race, you'll be trailed by a colored barrier, as will all the rest of the competitors. Any player who hits a barrier is immediately eliminated, and the fun racks up as the environment increasingly fills with each rider's barriers. Tag is a bit more straightforward--the mode starts off with all riders looking for a big ball located somewhere on the map (indicated by an icon on your radar at the top of the screen). The first player to touch the ball is "it," with the goal being to be in possession of the ball for a total of 60 seconds. Any time another rider hits the "it" ball, that rider becomes it. In the end, the game seems to devolve into a bunch of riders jousting it out in whatever open area they can find, but the first few minutes of trying to race to the ball are good fun.
In a way, Reflex might subvert what you know about off-road racing games. For one thing, the ATVs in the game--which traditionally are more stable when compared to two-wheel motocross bikes in other games--are squirrely and incredibly powerful. Reflex might be the first off-road game we've ever played where we actually preferred riding on MX bikes, in fact. The bigger class of vehicles--including buggies, super trucks, and the odd, boxy, and supremely bouncy UTVs--have their appeal too, but Reflex seems to be at its best with the smaller rides.
A big part of the fun with the MX bikes and ATV quads is the revamped controls--you use the left stick to steer your ride and the right stick to throw your rider's body weight around. At a basic level, you can use this technique to help you negotiate tight turns with great speed; once you acclimate yourself to the system, you'll find yourself using your rider reflex controls to alter the angle of your bike or ATV in midair, perhaps squeezing a few extra feet out of a jump or angling your bike's wheels just over the lip of a jump you'd otherwise crash into. If you're in danger of falling off your bike, a quick flick of the right stick in the direction indicated by a green arrow onscreen will often save you from a vicious crash.
While Reflex seems to be doing a lot of things right, it's not perfect. The quick surface changes mentioned above often feel too abrupt (both visually and from a driving standpoint). Also, crashes are prevalent and rider-to-rider contact can easily spoil the fun--especially at the beginning of a race. It's also easy to get stuck in tricky spots on certain maps that are tough to navigate without crashing, even at slow speeds. MX vs. ATV Reflex is due for release in December.
Editor's Note: The original version of this article suggested that MX vs. ATV Reflex will support eight players online. The game will actually support twelve players online. GameSpot regrets the error.