In the late eighties and early nineties, exclamation marks were the most important part of any text. The more exclamation marks you had, the cooler and more important you were. Sticking those upside down “i”s around with gay abandon made you EXTREME! TO THE MAX! And OTHER GENERIC TERMINOLOGY! Nowadays though, we gamers are more refined, less susceptible to the canny wiles of punctuation, and see those wandering expressions of sudden volume increase and emphasis as a bit of an affront. It’s the equivalent of someone running up to you in a shop and shouting into your ear about what you should buy.
MX vs ATV Alive is peppered with exclamation marks. As well as slang terms, alternative music, neon colours and crowds of baying, digitally realised fanatics, eager for you to push the envelope, max the letterhead and re-conceptualise the postbox. Other features include clumsy controls, physics stolen from a world unlike our own and a system of career progression that relies on guess work more than anything else.
The game is a muddy racer that sees you throwing yourself and your quad or bike around a variety of sloppy, snowy and treacherous tracks, avoiding the attentions of the over zealous AI and trying not to plough into any of the scenery that THQ have decided to leave littered around the edge of the circuit. Egged on by a monstrously convoluted control system, that’s never quite explained, you race your way through the ranks in hope of one day becoming proficient enough at your chosen sport that people stop pointing and laughing as you scramble past the line in a far from respectable last place.
Alongside the drama and injustice of the races, there is a free ride option in which you’re dropped into a large, sort of open area and allowed to ride around like a maniac to your heart’s content. Here, you can practice your “tricks”, an arcane branch of magical mysticism that the game decides to keep hidden behind a veil of shadowy secrecy. Occasionally, you might accidentally “pull one off”, but it’s almost impossible to figure out how, and you’re so stunned once you’ve done it that you fluff the landing and end up drowning or breaking both your legs. Neither of these ailments are considered a boon.
The visual fidelity of the mud-caked world into which you are forced is alarmingly inconsistent. In one particular location, a corner of the track is plunged into such impenetrable darkness that only guess work and a liberal application of prayer can be guaranteed to get you through safely. In another, a gloomy pool of water is rendered in colours so imperceptibly different from the solid ground that surrounds it, that for the brief, aquaplaning moments that you remain afloat, you wonder why the spray from your tyres has turned white.
There is an odd kind of enjoyment to be sucked from the measly marrow that MX vs ATV offers. Sliding around corners, using unsuspecting AI opponents as brakes, crossing the finishing line backwards and upside down. All of these things engender hope in your embittered heart that perhaps the game has hidden itself behind a veil of sloppy mud, waiting until you were tuned and accustomed to its nuances to reveal its unearthly splendour. Alas, no such revelation is forthcoming. The fun you are having is tempered by the knowledge that soon, cruel physics will catapult you into a damp oblivion.
As you might expect, the incessant buzz of small, highly tuned engines forms the major part of the soundtrack, becoming so ubiquitous after the first hour of play that you only notice it once it stops. The musical delights on offer speak of “attitude” and “rampant self-actualization”, all of which is tossed to the wayside when you wrap yet another motorized vehicle around a tree or a spectator because you clipped a pebble as you swung yourself around a corner.
In a world where a duality of racing styles exists – realism and the ridiculous – MX vs ATV: Alive sits in an uneasy middle ground. On the one hand, swamped by its attempts to add scientifically provable physical reactions and on the other unable to accept that some of us want to perform back flips, in the simplest way possible, at almost every given moment. Traversing this narrow bridge is the game’s downfall.
There is a simple pleasure to be dug out from the swampy bog of MX vs ATV: Alive’s identity crisis, but it doesn’t last long. Consistency is of the utmost importance whilst you hurtle around a track at breakneck speeds, avoiding men dressed in jumpsuits who are doing their utmost to force you into the deadly scenery that lurks mere inches from the safety of the raceway. It’s that consistency, that certainty that performing an action will always result in the same outcome, that the game lacks. And when you’re not sure if turning a corner will lead to glorious victory or a frustrating traipse through a variety of “you have crashed, idiot” screens, what should have been an enjoyable and frivolous experience becomes frustrating and, ultimately, pointless.
MX vs ATV: Alive is much like the exclamation marks that emblazon its box. A few years ago, they were acceptable, but now they seem archaic – reminders of a time when we were willing to accept entertainment of a lower quality because there wasn’t much else around. Sadly, we’ve grown up now, and average simply isn’t good enough. You can exclaim all you want, but in the end, you need more than symbols and rock music to make a decent game.
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