The MX vs. ATV series is one of the longer running franchises on consoles today. I had only dabbled in the games previously, never spending more than a few minutes racing around. MX vs. ATV Reflex is the first motocross game I spent playing at length, and after a few hours, I had wondered why I hadn’t given this franchise a fair shot before. With a strong focus on better controls, improved physics, and sharper presentation, THQ and Rainbow have not only made a solid racing title, but they’ve also established a new status quo for the genre.
Upon starting up a game, Reflex asks you to create a Motocard. This is your virtual ID for the game, and you’ll be able to pick what name and number appears on the back of your jersey. From there it’s either off to your Motocareer or Multiplayer. Motocareer should provide you with plenty of play time considering the sheer number of races and events available. There are seven different types of challenges (Nationals, Supercross, Omnicross, Champion Sport Track, Waypoint, Free Ride, and Freestyle), with each race utilizing one or more of the various vehicle types (MX, MX Lite, ATV, sport buggy, UTV, sport truck, and sport 2 truck). Higher finishes earn you more cash for new bikes and gear, but the customization is fairly limited. You’ll find no shortage of ways to play, but advancing in your career is solely tied to finishing in the top three in every single race. If you’re having trouble with a particular set of tracks, you’ll be stuck there until you can at least finish third on all of them in order to unlock the next series of events. It’s a bit strange, particularly since the real MX season utilizes a point system. It can also be a bit daunting for newcomers who struggle initially with learning how to race the various courses. The game’s learning curve isn’t overly difficult, but for someone like me who has spent more time with the open tracks found in car racing games, the tight, hill-infested courses of motocross can be tough to get used to. Once you do finally find your groove, you’ll find the racing highly enjoyable.
The opponent AI is pretty solid during the single-player career, and learning how to navigate your bike with eleven other drivers on any given track is one of the more challenging aspects of the game. The titular Reflex controls (mapped to the R-stick) not only help you shift your weight around when trying to kick the back end around on a tight turn, they also provide the necessary tool for recovering from control losses that would normally throw you from your bike. If you are about to get tossed, often you’ll have a split second to respond to an on-screen prompt telling you which way to flick the R-stick. Time it right, and you’ll maintain control of your rider and the bike. Miss a prompt, and you’ll go crashing down to the ground. It takes some time to get used to, but once you get the hang of it, the mechanic becomes almost second nature. It’s a good thing too, because at the start of nearly every race, you’ll be jockeying for position with the other riders, and things can get a bit hairy. On ATVs in particular, you’ll find that getting too close to other riders almost always ends badly for you. Most of the game’s physics are very good, but almost to a fault. The slightest bump can often send you careening out of control, and off the track, or worse, off your bike. There are times you’ll wonder how a computer rider is able to stay on his bike when he crashes into you, and send you flying, but for the most part, Reflex’s collision physics are consistent.
Another of the key features in this year’s game is real-time terrain deformation. As you and the other riders drive around a given track, ruts and divots will form in your wake. The tire tracks remain for the duration of the race, affecting track conditions for each subsequent lap. By the time you’re on the final lap, there are so many ruts that controlling your bike becomes extremely challenging, especially if you don’t learn how to handle it properly. Obviously larger vehicles, like trucks, leave larger tracks, meaning you’re going to be bouncing around the course more than you would on a bike or ATV. On the more constricting Supercross tracks, staying out of ruts in and out of turns means all the difference when trying to keep up enough speed for the next series of jumps. Sticking to your lines becomes extremely important, but finding new lines when corners are full of divots is even more so.
When you think you’re ready to take your game online, the extremely fun multiplayer awaits. Every race type in the single-player is available online, and you can race on any of the thirty-plus tracks in the game with up to eleven other people. Jamming twelve racers onto a given track provides a great deal of challenge, and a single slip-up can mean the difference between first and tenth. Lag wasn’t really an issue for me, but playing online really showed me just how far behind the MX curve I was. It was rare that I finished above 5th or 6th, a distant twenty to thirty seconds behind the top racers. It’s not a condemnation of the game at all, just more reason for me to keep practicing offline to improve. While the single races will test your racing mettle, the real fun comes in the more arcade-styled modes like Tag and Snake. Tag drops you into a level, with a compass pointing you in the direction of a giant head. The first man there dons the oversized item, and drives around trying to rack up as much time as possible. Crashing or coming into contact with another driver causes the head to change possession, and the chase begins anew. Snake takes a page from Tron, drops you and the other racers into one of the open world areas normally resigned to Free Ride, and has you driving around with each bike leaving a colored wall in its wake. Crashing into the wall eliminates you, and the last man standing wins. Both modes provide a nice change of pace from the more serious online races.
Reflex really shines in the presentation department. The game not only does a terrific job recreating the race day experience, but it looks good doing it too. Bikes are well rendered; as are the riders, and the crowds and surrounding areas all look good, despite the lack of minute details. The game’s draw distance is pretty solid, but it mistakes texture pop-in for depth of field, and it’s a pretty glaring flaw. Thankfully, the rest of the game looks so good that it’s easily forgivable. The bikes, trucks, and ATVs all sound different, and I guess they’re pretty accurate. I don’t spend a lot of time at the track listening to the various types of engines they’re equipped with, but each vehicle definitely has its own sound. The soundtrack for the game is rightfully metal infused, and there’s even a track from one of my personal favorite bands of all time, Clutch. There’s no commentary, though I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. With all the lead changes and wrecks that occur, it’d probably get pretty tiresome listening to the same guy call out rider names and numbers all the time. Letting the player soak in the graphics, and forcing you to rely purely on what you observe visually and audibly in order to navigate a race is much more interesting. The terrain deformation looks great, and the fact that it stays for the duration of the race is an impressive feat.
Prior to playing MX vs. ATV Reflex, I didn’t really have an interest in motocross, but after a few days with it, I have to admit that I’m surprised I enjoyed the game so much. There’s a lot to like, and the impressive package Rainbow and THQ have put together makes Reflex easy to get into. While there’s still room to grow going forward, it's most certainly a game worth checking out, even if you’ve never played this particular genre before. If you’re looking for a game to curb that racing fix you so desperately crave, or just looking for something new to give you a break from the endless array of shooters on shelves, MX vs. ATV Reflex will more than answer the call.