"That means that if you hate the MX moments, you'll likely despise the frequent stretches where you're forced to drive a motorcycle. The worst news of all, though, is that you have to clear each track twice consecutively within a series of events. Once you finish a race the first time, regardless of your position, you have to turn around and immediately play through it again (or exit out and lose your progress)."
What do you think about when you hear the word 'untamed'? Perhaps you envision a lion roaming the African plains, a hulking beast that is king of his domain and completely unwilling to surrender that position to another because he's wild and he loves it. It's an exciting thought, and must be the sort of thing THQ was going for when it settled on the title of its latest off-road racing title, MX vs. ATV Untamed. Unfortunately, a more fitting term would have been 'housebroken.'
Rainbow Studios, the title's developer, has been in the business of making games for a long time now. Most savvy consumers now understand that if they want a little motocross mayhem, they just need to look for the rainbow. The ATV franchise is known for its satisfying blend of simulation and arcade-like controls, for its big air and its dust clouds and the adrenaline rush that comes from taking that final corner just sharp enough to snag the lead on the final lap. The good news for MX vs. ATV Untamed is that none of that has changed. The bad news, though, is that it has lost some of its shine over the years.
Repetition is largely to blame, and it'll affect you even if this is the first in the series you've played. Suppose you begin a tournament. You'll be presented with a branching diagram that shows different sets of events. As you clear them, you unlock the next node on the spidery graph. Working through each series allows you to continue pushing toward the right, where everything merges for a final set of competitions before the crowning moment. Progressing through everything looks like it could be really cool, but that goes out the window with the realization that you'll have to repeatedly play through a lot of similar areas you might not like much at all.
As you might hope, ATV and MX vehicles control quite differently from one another. An ATV is fairly stable and doesn't get as much air when it comes over a bump. Its cornering feels reasonably tight. In contrast, a bike will glide through the air much longer and you have to get into a more precise position to really stick the landing (though with both vehicle types, the physics system is still fairly forgiving). Cornering is quite loose, to the point where sometimes it feels almost like you're sliding across ice as you round tight bends in the track. In the process of working through the game, you'll find different events that favor one or the other of the vehicles. This is a nice touch, except that you're forced throughout the single-player campaign to alternate between the two styles. That means that if you hate the MX moments, you'll likely despise the frequent stretches where you're forced to drive a motorcycle. The worst news of all, though, is that you have to clear each track twice consecutively within a series of events. Once you finish a race the first time, regardless of your position, you have to turn around and immediately play through it again (or exit out and lose your progress).
Only a few words come to mind that might accurately describe such a perplexing mechanic. None of them are 'untamed,' and none of them are fit for print.
Suppose for a minute, though, that you like both the ATV and the MX sequences (an entirely reasonable possibility, given their general level of competence). Does the game suddenly improve? Yes and no. On the one hand, you can probably lose yourself in a quest to craft the perfect airborne freestyle tricks, or to find the best lines on a favorite course. On the other hand, there's that constant necessity to repeat each race twice in a row (and if you race the qualifier beforehand, that number grows to three). Even if that unpleasant requirement didn't exist, though, you'd be left completing three or more laps around quite lengthy but unremarkable courses that bring certain other shortcomings to light.
You've maybe played MotorStorm, a similar game and a beautiful one. It treated players with particle effects that were out of this world, with detailed grass and dirt and rocks and signs that practically looked like they would bust out of the screen. Even if that title wasn't much to talk about overall, its visuals were. When you play MX vs. ATV Untamed some six months later, the drop in visual excellence is downright disheartening. Spectacular vistas from Sony's effort are replaced by generic sunsets and trees scattered sparsely around courses lined by barrels and ambling crowds of onlookers. Water looks okay but not great. Dust trails are credible but hardly mesmerizing. Textures everywhere else are sharp and get the job done, but none of them call attention to themselves. When the best thing a person can say in defense of the game's appearance is that it isn't ugly, you know there's a problem.
Audio doesn't do anything to make up for the lack of visual gusto, either. Vehicles all sound convincing, as they should when a franchise has been around this long, but they don't seem loud enough. Launching into the air, or even hitting a bump that lifts your wheels an inch off the ground, cuts off engine rumblings almost entirely, and once the hum returns and possibly changes tone after you land, the sound effects don't do much to make you feel like you're anywhere close to an engine. Instead, your television speakers will be pumping out licensed music--mostly punk from the likes of MXPX, NOFX and Bad Religion--that will leave you wondering if you're sick of it because you just heard it in some other racing game you might have played, or if the soundtrack has already looped back around.
Lackluster visuals and disappointing audio don't change the fact that MX vs. ATV Untamed is built over an engine that has driven great racing games for years, though. As such, there are moments when everything gels and you understand why THQ felt confident releasing this game to market. Even in the early tracks, there's a certain rush as you drive up a steep embankment with your competitors swarming around you. Then everything goes up another notch as the lot of you launch into the air and suddenly you're twisting and turning, doing everything in your power to land in a position that will let you take that next corner properly and nail the next ramp. Generic punk music and a dull texture or two are quite happily forgotten as the thrill of the race consumes you.
It all just goes to show that there are times when a competent design and polished gameplay are all that a game needs. MX vs. ATV Untamed provides those two things to varying degrees... and no more. If you pick it up with your expectations properly adjusted and you aren't anticipating something wild--if, in other words, you're not looking for something untamed--then you'll probably be satisfied with your purchase. Rainbow Studios is surely capable of better and maybe we'll see it next time around, but this will do for now.
Staff review by Jason Venter (January 09, 2008)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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