MX vs. ATV Unleashed is a game that gives fans of off-road racing practically everything they could want in a two- or four-wheel dirt-racing game...and more. The "more" part of the equation, however, doesn't always ring true to the arcade racing series that has built a reputation for itself with a blend of fast action and responsive control.
Though motocross bikes and ATV four-wheelers are at the heart of the rides found in MX vs. ATV Unleashed, they are far from the only machines available to race. The game tosses everything but the transportation equivalent of the kitchen sink at you--golf carts, dune buggies, monster trucks, helicopters, and biplanes being only a portion of the available rides in the game. This may sound like great fun, but the controls for some of these vehicles--particularly the airborne ones--are frustrating and unresponsive, a stark contrast to the majority of the earthbound racers found in the game. If the planes or copters had anything approaching the level of accessible controls found in a game like the PlayStation 2's Sky Odyssey, you'd have a winner on your hands. As they are in the game, any race involving flight is an exercise in frustration, which is probably why these airborne races are so haphazardly (and infrequently) placed throughout the game.
Even when you're racing the two- and four-wheeled beauties featured in the game, you can expect to spend plenty of time in the air. The same bouncy physics model that has propelled previous ATV and MX games is in full effect here in MX vs. ATV Unleashed. Your bike will rocket off the lip of a jump and propel you high into the air, where you'll be free to perform as many points-grabbing style tricks as you can manage before descending back to earth. If you manage to preload your suspension--by moving the left thumbstick backward, then forward--before your wheels leave the ground, you'll gain even more air. Preloading your bike's suspension is a key technique for navigating the bump-filled courses found in MX vs. ATV, but it won't be a technique you use for each jump. In fact, the game effectively forces you to choose your spots for preloading--take a jump too long and you may crash directly into the apex of another hill; take it too short and you'll lose precious momentum.
Your knowledge of how to navigate the tracks found in MX vs. ATV is the key ingredient to winning races. There doesn't seem to be much in the way of performance differences among vehicles of the same type, so in all-ATV or all-MX races, your main advantage will be knowing exactly how to tackle each hill you find on a course.
This is made all the more intriguing by the imaginative and immersive environments found in the game. While the majority of the stadium-based motocross tracks are only mediocre, the track designs come to life in the outdoor courses. The 16 Nationals Championship series events, for example, are a tantalizing mix of forest courses, dusty desert roadways, snowy mountain trails, and sandy beachside tracks. The wide variety in track types is further bolstered by individual features that are sure to provide thrills lap after lap. Huge pillars of dirt--resembling walls more than jumps--dot tracks that find you leaping felled trees, open-air gulches, and even your competition. As you speed your way toward the finish line, the dirt tracks twist and turn, wrenching your ATV or bike from side to side as you try to keep up with the constantly shifting camber.
On the most difficult sections of track, such as tight hairpin turns, you're best served by making liberal use of the clutch control found in MX vs. ATV. By using the trigger button on the PS2 or Xbox controller, you can engage or disengage your bike's clutch, which lets you gain short bursts of speed around tight corners or at the start of a race. It takes some getting used to but soon becomes an essential weapon in your driving arsenal. Then there are the tricks you can perform, imaginatively titled stunts such as the lazyboy, the can can, and the nothing. For each trick you successfully land, you'll earn points that can be spent in the store to unlock new rides, gear, pro riders, and tracks, among other goodies.
Similar to the big lineup of available drives in the game, there's simply a lot to do in MX vs. ATV Unleashed through the game's many modes. Most players will spend the majority of their time either online--racing against up to six other players in both the PS2 and Xbox versions--or in the championships mode. Here, you'll be able to run a series of races in either the Nationals series or the THQ SX series, both of which are composed of 16 race events. The Nationals series features the outdoor courses, while the THQ SX championship is made up of supercross courses. Unlike other modes in the game, these two series are restricted to either ATVs or MX motocross bikes and feature multiple heats. In both series you'll also be periodically challenged to one-off races that will have you racing the aforementioned trophy trucks, helicopters, or biplanes. Win the race and you unlock the winning ride; lose, and all you've lost is your pride (or in the case of the air races, a little bit of your sanity).
Other modes include a single-player game, which features freestyle, free ride, one-on-one challenges, and individual racing events, such as hill climbs, waypoint races, and short tracks; multiplayer racing, both online and split-screen style; a quick race feature; and a training mode that will introduce you to the basics of high-speed dirt driving, as well as some of the finer control points. The same variety found in MX vs. ATV's single-player mode is also available online on both the PS2 and Xbox. Straight-ahead races are the norm, but you can also compete in events such as the points challenge, where whoever can rack up the most points in a preset time limit is the winner. Online races run with minimal lag, and the controls are as responsive online as they are offline. Unfortunately, like in the single-player game, you're limited to a maximum of six competitors in a single race.
If the graphics aren't the finest you'll find on the PS2 and Xbox, they're certainly serviceable. The dirt textures on the roads look appropriately dingy, though the bikes don't always kick up as much mud as you might expect them to. Also, tread marks left in the dirt on lap 1 will have disappeared by lap 2. The same is true for roadside obstacles, such as padding or signage that happens to get knocked onto the track--on your next go-around, that same object will be back in its original place. These are just nitpicks, however, for an overall solid graphical package that runs at a speedy clip and saves the special lighting effects for tracks that make the most of them--such as the snowy Northern Lights course complete with an aurora borealis painting the sky.
So what's not to like in MX vs. ATV? For one, experienced players won't find much challenge except on the hardest difficulty settings, as the game lets you stay in a race even if you fall well behind. In effect, the biggest challenge in the game is racing against the course, rather than racing against MX vs. ATV's computer-controlled opponents. Furthermore, collision detection can be spotty against other opponents--you generally won't crash if you sideswipe an opponent, yet when the time does come for either you or your AI opponent to take a tumble, it's usually you taking the fall. While up to six players can compete in a race composed of only one vehicle type, that number is reduced to four when you start mixing up the machines. Finally, loading times tend to be a pain in both console versions of the game, and we even saw one freeze-up during our time with the PS2 edition.
While we're tempted to write off the game's soundtrack simply for including a Nickelback song, in all honesty the music found in MX vs. ATV is well in keeping with the rugged vibe of the game and features acts such as Papa Roach, Powerman 5000, and Phunk Junkeez. The whining bleat of the ATV and motocross bike engines sound true to life, if not extremely varied, and attempts at adding environmental noises such as chirping birds and hooting owls are fine, if unremarkable.
Because the air races found in MX vs. ATV Unleashed are so frustrating, one wonders why they even made it into the game in the first place, especially when you consider how fun the game is with two (or more) wheels on the ground. Still, MX vs. ATV Unleashed is a fast-paced and fun-filled arcade racing game, loaded with enough variety of modes and unlockable content to keep you engaged for quite a while.