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TVG gets behind the handlebars of Rainbow's latest attempt to recreate the thrill of motocross...
When presented with imminent danger, adrenalin floods your bloodstream and kicks your heart and metabolism into overdrive, making you ready for anything. Unfortunately, more often than not, you're just left with a queasy stomach, damp palms and a niggling feeling that something inevitably awful is about to happen to you. At least this is pretty much what happens to me whenever I get on a motorbike.
Nevertheless it is this same adrenalin rush (the good kind) that lures so many to motocross. Launching a bike 60 feet into the air is a sure-fire way to dump a load of adrenalin into your body. Recreating that integral combination of danger and exhilaration in a game is a very tall order -one that games of this genre often fall short of. However, on first appearances, MX vs. ATV Reflex has brought the player closer to the experience of a motocross rider, and in doing so has recreated some of the excitement that comes with it.
If At First You Don't Succeed...
The game's predecessor, MX vs. ATV Untamed, only used the left analogue to steer the bike, however this time around Rainbow have realised that this is something of a blunt tool. Riding a motocross bike or an ATV requires both steering and balance to guide the vehicle across undulating terrain, which is why they have introduced dual stick controls: the left stick controls the bike, while the right stick controls the rider. The idea being that if you want to turn sharply then all you need do is tilt both analogues in the same direction or to avoid an accident you can shift the riders balance to ensure he doesn't fall off.
Even after just a brief hands-on session with the game, it's easy to see that this new system is a vast improvement over the previous games. On the one hand this addition takes the franchise further into sim-racer territory by giving fanatics what they want: more control. While on the other hand the eponymous reflex system, which shows you which direction to shift the riders balance when you're about to crash, makes the game more accessible than its unnecessarily punishing predecessors.
At first getting to grips with the system is a little tricky - the natural tendency is to steer using just the left analogue. However, several disfiguring accidents later, we began to take note of the discreet red arrows in the periphery of the screen. Poorly landed jumps can be saved with a flick of the right analogue and eventually you naturally start to read the rider's position rather than the arrows themselves. Mastery of these cues means you can keep up with the pack while pulling off foolhardy back flips, while missing them leaves you slumped on the side of a track looking like a man whose skeleton has given up on the rest of his body.
Fortunately, the crashes are rarely boring. Mistiming a jump or hitting a barrier hurls your dangling body across the screen, ricocheting off barriers and mounds everywhere. Although this is massively entertaining in the replays, it might have been nice to see something a little more restrained and realistic. We're not talking dismemberment or gore, but something more akin to what motocross riders experience would have been welcome.
While hurtling through the air after one of our many, many crashes, we noticed just how picturesque the setting was. In the freestyle mode, in which you can drive around an environment of your choosing, we were shown a map dubbed as "Icarus" which is set above the skyline in the midst of some snowy mountaintops. Zipping through the trees on the ATV over varied terrain, the considerable draw distance meant that the impressive sense of speed generated was always kept in check by how far away your destination actually was.
Almost inevitably, our first goal was the peak of a mountain, just to throw ourselves back down it again. This is where the rider control really comes into its own. By shifting your weight appropriately, every rocky outcrop can be overcome and with some reserve and skill you can even descend near vertical drops intact. This degree of control puts you closer to the experience of a motocross rider, and therefore closer to the actual thrill.
In A Rut
Similarly, the addition of real-time land deformation to the maps has added another dimension to the gameplay that takes this one step closer to a simulation without sacrificing accessibility. While driving around, you leave actual tread marks that get deeper as you go over them and then stay there for the duration of play. But your wheels aren't just sinking into the ground; they're actually displacing tiny, hi-res, specs of dirt so that every rut you make is actually banked on its sides. Rainbow say that in online play up to 12 players will be able to blitz around the maps, permanently deforming the land to their hearts content - cue the YouTube video of six people coordinating to draw a 40ft phallus on the side of a hill using ATVs.
Joking aside, the deformation system really comes to life in a race. As the bikes go round the track, they start to make long ruts along the racing line. During the first lap this is a useful guide for the racing line but, by laps two and three, you can actually use these tracks to 'rail' the bike around the corners at higher speeds. Missing the racing line and driving across them will throw the bike off course and even jog the rider off his bike if you're not paying attention.
Rainbow seems to have polished up the MX vs. ATV franchise this time around. The reflex system, which makes it easier to stay on your bike, looks to have remedied the huge amount of time you spent laying on the ground in previous games. The new controls and deformation system add a layer of realism that allows you to really become immersed in the game and actually feel like a motocross rider. However, like many racing games, this hard work could be undone by poor AI or a lack of variety. Even so, MX vs. ATV Reflex looks like it might take the dirt-bike genre to new levels.