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We grip the handlebars of the latest entry in THQ's Motocross racing series...
MX vs. ATV Alive is an existential melodrama, influenced by the works of Kafka and Nietzsche. The battle between MX and ATV is a metaphor for man's lurching internal struggle, the raging conflict between Super-ego and Id, played out along the dirt track of existence. What is it to be Alive? Is it to play a game about a game, racing round and round in circles? To collapse and lick the filth crushed across the corners of your lips? To rise and ride on regardless, raging at the surreal, spiralling accumulation of meaningless trinkets and tears?
Or Alive might just be about, you know, racing and stuff. And like, quad-bikes and those sports motorbike things that people do tricks on late night on Channel 4 sometimes. Turns out it's the fifth one in the series in fact. And the stand-out new feature? Bar-to-bar racing – where nudging into other riders either slows you down or speeds you up a bit, depending on who's in front. (Not to be confused with bar-to-bar racing, where middle-aged businessmen stumble from pub to pub downing expensive whiskey, vomiting on tramps and weeing themselves a bit.)
So - new, improved rider collisions, and the return of the Reflex control system from the last game - which lets you steer with the left stick, while shifting your weight about with the right. Want to lean into a sharp corner for a better line? Do it. Need to shift forward to absorb the impact of a difficult jump? Go wild. You can also now pump the clutch just before a jump to get a handy speed boost, and use an on-screen 'seat-bounce' gauge to check precisely when to shift your weight up for maximum air. Players interested in the game's competitive racing modes will need to master all these techniques to survive the brutal state of nature that is 12-player online racing; in addition to full-length National courses (set in woodland dirt-tracks and European castle grounds), frenetic, miniature short-course circuits – complete with busy cross-over jumps and murderous chicanes – play host to frantic, jostling battles, built for collisions.
But it's not all racing lines and castration anxiety, you can also take a break from competitive racing altogether, and ride around on sand dunes in Alive's Free Ride mode. Two Free Ride courses ship with the game (including an open-cast mine which has JCV's for ramps), and each features hidden areas and vehicles to extend their appeal; it's also now possible to drive across water to reach previously inaccessible areas, (as long as you can master the level of throttle control necessary to 'hydro-plane' across the surface of the sea.)
A third Free-Ride map, the personal racing complex of Motocross star James Stewart, will be released as free DLC on launch day - the first hook in an extensive DLC campaign set to stretch out over the course of a year. THQ are releasing the game at a lower price point, so that players can pick the courses and features they personally want from a substantial a la carte menu of digital content. It's a smart way of mitigating financial risk for both developers and consumers; players get to purchase a cut-price product and pay for the specific features they're interested in, while publishers can release their game earlier, spreading development costs out post-launch. Cynics might argue that it's potentially also a way for publishers to rush out a half-finished product mid-way through it's development cycle; a way to trick consumers into paying more than the cost of a full-priced game by staggering DLC that should've been included anyway. Nevertheless, in this era of spiralling development costs and software-as-service platforms, it could prove to be a fruitful model for niche titles like this; if developers can release part of a game earlier, and add features in response to market reaction, it potentially allows them to take more interesting risks with creative content. Conversely of course, they could also abandon further development if the game doesn't sell as well as expected.
Making Alive as 'sticky' as possible is clearly critical to the success of its new business model, (because if people are still playing, they're potentially still buying), and while occasional free DLC drops are central to that, the other key component is the game's new XP system - which rewards literally everything you do. Knock a rider off his bike – get XP. Do a trick in Free Ride mode – get XP. Come last in a race - get XP. Levelling up earns you new parts, vehicles and performance perks, but also unlocks the more advanced courses as you progress. Although the game ships with a generous selection of 18 tracks, only six of these are available initially, with the bulk available at level 10, and the final few not unlocked till level 25. It's perhaps a somewhat artificial way of rationing out the game's content to extend it's lifespan, and it's unclear whether a mere six tracks will be enough to maintain player interest over the four or so hours it takes to unlock the second batch of courses, especially given the lack of any form of traditional career mode.
Of course there's always the DLC to help pad things out if you can't wait. In addition to the paid-for content that THQ will be toiling over for the next year (such as the OEM Suzuki bike models), a steady trickle of freebies will also be released to give players an incentive to keep loading up the game. These will be available through the in-game MotoClub depot (although second-hand owners will need to purchase an online pass to gain access to the free content). New game modes and vehicles will be released in addition to tracks and bike decals, and the total amount of extra content planned is purportedly equivalent to an entire additional game.
Motocross fans are sure to appreciate the attention to detail THQ has lavished on the range of licensed riders, vehicles and tracks that ship with MX vs ATV Alive. It's clear that resources have been focussed on refining the core gameplay of the series, but whether those refinements are substantial enough to justify a sequel will only be determined by further play. The lack of a genuine career mode might somewhat limit the single player appeal of the game, and although its extensive levelling systems and online multiplayer have clearly been designed to compensate for this, there is a potential danger that the abundance of future DLC might ultimately serve to fragment the online community. Nevertheless, Alive seems reasonably well-polished for a budget title, and THQ are experimenting with a brave new DLC-driven business model which could prove mutually beneficial to consumer and publisher alike, providing the right balance between cost and content is achieved.