When it comes to off-road racing, be it with motorcycles or all-terrain vehicles, lately it’s been Rainbow Studios that’s ruled the roost, with taking over the ATV Offroad Fury franchise from Sony’s internal developers, to the madness of MX Unleashed, it seems that if it’s involved either, Rainbow Studios has nailed it.  So, this year, Rainbow decided to get some chocolate in their peanut butter, so to speak.  They took everything that was working on both series and crammed it together in one huge game to see what they could come up with. 

The answer, of course, is MX Vs. ATV Unleashed, which has basically everything that the other games had, all together, and then some more.  You’ve got your MX bikes, ATVs, monster trucks, airplanes, helicopters, dune buggies, sand rails, even a golf kart to run around in.  There’s also a huge number of events involved, including freestyle, hill climbs, free ride, supercross, supermoto, short track…the variety in this thing is huge.  Beyond all that, there’s also online, although it requires broadband to play.

The question becomes, then, did the Frankenstein-like approach work and create a sales monster?  Or, like Frankenstein’s monster, will it end up tortured, abused, and unloved?  To tell the truth, it seems that it’s a combination of both, and a lot of it will depend on the person playing it and their patience.  Like many games, it’s neither perfect nor utterly without merit.

The graphics in MX Vs. ATV Unleashed are very nice and clear.  The tracks are appropriately muddy, the machines and riders are quite detailed, and the skies are beautiful.  The best things about the graphics, honestly, are the uses of light and shadow.  When racing outdoors, you can see the shadows of the people behind you if the sun is behind you and the visuals on a sunset in the game are lovely.  However, and this is less a knock on MX Vs. ATV Unleashed than it is a comparison, with all the games coming out now that all but take your breath away (Gran Turismo 4, anyone?), the graphics just don’t seem as outstanding.

Everything’s well-represented visually, and the HUD never takes away from the gaming experience either.  Another very nice thing graphically is the use of a ‘thrill view’.  By pressing R2 down, you can see what appears to be a side-view as if the racers were zipping past a camera on the side of the track.  It’s a very nice image to see, especially when doing a good jump or a sweet trick.

With 20 tracks to choose from, the soundtrack’s no San Andreas, but what is, really?  These 20 tracks are a nice blend of some good hard rock bands including Papa Roach, Black Eyed Peas, Powerman 5000 and others.  The inclusion of Nickelback in here dosen’t exactly mesh, but it’s still a very good choice of music and honestly a refreshing change from the huge amounts of rap and hip-hop that permeate most sports games (this means you, EA). 

The sounds of the vehicles sound very lifelike, the roars of the engines and crowds, the grunts of pain as you crash…it’s all in there.  All and all, the sound is one of the strongest components of the game.

Since MX vs. ATV Unleashed is an arcade title, you’re not going to get the responsive controls of a sim title.  However, that being said, the controls in this title are very solid for what the game is.  The vehicles have good turning radii, especially with use of the throttle.  Each type of vehicle handles differently on the jumps and turns, which is also good, and you have some airborne control of your ground-based vehicles, which can help landing some of the more awkward jumps. 

The only real drawbacks are in the flying missions, which…are awkward at best.  It’s almost as if the game is trying to adapt the bike or ATV controls to an airplane, and the result isn’t the best in the world. 

Beyond that, though, some of the tricks can have almost Tony Hawk-levels of difficulty as far as how to work the controller, which is odd considering only four of the buttons (L1, R1, Triangle and Square) are used for doing tricks, combined with the analog stick.  It makes the freestyle competitions a bit more difficult than they perhaps would be otherwise, although this may depend on the playing style of whoever plays it.

One of the things touted about MX vs. ATV Unleashed is that you can pretty much go anywhere and do anything with just about any kind of vehicle.  While this is true, the truth of the matter is that nearly everything from vehicles to riders to accessories to tracks themselves begin the game locked.  There are a number of game modes to unlock things in, from your standard track races (indoor and outdoor), freestyle races (trick attack, basically), hill climb and others.  The meat of the game however is the two Championship modes.  Every so often while racing in the championships, you’ll be asked to do challenges, which are used to unlock various of the extra vehicles (dune buggy, monster truck and the like). 

Everything else, however, is unlocked via the store, and here’s where the problems begin.  Store credit is earned by doing tricks.  The best way to do them, of course, is going to be in the free ride or the freestyle modes.  This means lots of races.  The drawback to this, however, is the extremely long loading time before each race, easily pushing 30 seconds or longer, especially in the case of the hill climbs, which load a series of races at one time.  Also, when in the store itself, changing items to look at can sometimes make it load for three to five seconds for each item.  MvAU?  2001 called, they’d like their load times back, please.

The other major problem is going to be that the AI is somewhat lacking.  Most of the difficulty, in fact, is presented by the tracks themselves in the various races.  Changing the difficulty slider from 80% (default) to 100% didn’t make much difference, and while the slider goes up to 125%, there’s no reason to penalize the player for lacking AI.  In the freestyle races, this is not the case, as the computer is quite adept at pulling off chains of tricks and landing them perfectly while the player struggles not to crash all over the place.  Since most of the unlockables are earned by trick points, it means that there’s more challenge and reward by doing the freestyle races.

Unlockables are fun, and it seems that every game has a slew of them.  MX vs. ATV Unleashed is no exception, and the unlockables flow mightily.  There are ATVs, MX Bikes, trucks, buggies, airplanes, helicopters, golf karts…and that’s just the vehicles!  There’s also gear, riders and tracks to unlock, and the total number of unlockables are easily in the hundreds (there’s 40 ATVs alone).  With that in mind, there’s a lot of emphasis on playing all of the tracks over and over to unlock everything, and then playing with what you’ve unlocked.

With all of that, there’s still multiplayer to consider, with different game modes online as well.  There’s no reason to think that this game isn’t worth the $40 for all of the content to be had in the title.