THQ’s MX vs ATV Alive is an interesting experiment, and it’s certainly not the last of its kind. The idea for Alive and other games like it is that developers will sell their titles at a lower price ($40 versus the standard $60 in this case), and then they will sell additional content online. To some it’s a great idea that will allow you to save money and just purchase the things that you want to purchase. It trims the fat and cuts down on ballooning price tags, and in theory is sort of like the Burger King “Have it your way” motto. After all, why pay for pickles if you hate the things. The people in that happy group are almost certainly in the minority though, as the cynical nature of people will almost certainly paint this as a cash grab.
The result of this ala carte approach is a game that feels stripped down, so much so that no amount of additional content can fix what are some glaring omissions. And that’s a shame, because the mechanics of driving around on a dirt bike and an ATV are fun. In fact they are some of the best ever developed for the genre. The gameplay works, the races are frantic and exciting, and the courses and free maps are well designed. But with only two types of game modes and no career mode at all, the long running series takes one step forward and two steps back.
Ok, so there is no story. Racing games aren’t typically known for their dramatic narrative, and Alive is no exception. There is, however, a gap where the campaign should be. Progress is neat, and those of us that are part of the human race tend to enjoy the sense of advancement that a campaign offers; we like shiny, pretty rewards. With racing games, that feeling of advancement doesn’t have to be much, but just having the sense that each race you are in is working towards something – even if it is minor – can be the difference between an engrossing game and one that you find in the discount bin for $10.
With Alive, you begin with a level rank, which determines the maps you can race. The more you play, the more experience you get to level up and unlock perks, courses and add-ons. To begin with there are just four tracks and two game types: race and free ride. More tracks open up when you reach level 10, and even more open at level 25 – plus you can download a free map when you purchase the game (which is essentially a bonus for not buying the game used). The problem is that it takes a long time to level up to level 10 – several hours at least. This means you will be racing the same tracks over and over and over again. Then once you hit level 10, you will have access to a few more maps, but you then need to repeat the process and race the same new and old maps constantly until hitting level 25, which will also take a very long time. The alternative is that you can purchase maps and equipment from the start for under $10, but even with every map open, it will take a couple hours to have seen everything the game has to offer.
There are also customization options for your bike and ATVs. Most simply involve changing the aesthetics as you pimp your ride with licensed gear, but there are performance enhancements for your vehicles, as well as perks that you can equip, which allow you to do things like restart faster after a fall, avoid knockdowns, and a few other things that should help shave some seconds off your best times. There are a lot of options, but none of them are really all that impressive or significant.
For those determined to skip purchasing the things you can unlock on your own, it feels like the game is pretending to be longer than it is by making you race the same tracks repeatedly. It is an artificial sense of depth, and only the most stalwart will have the patience to see it through to the bitter end.
But even with all the content unlocked, there just isn’t much to do. The variety isn’t there with just two gametypes, and things get old fast. THQ is promising more and more content, but unless they can find a way to download massive new sections of the game, it is hard to justify the purchase, even at the low price.
The Framework is solid
It is also a tragedy that the game is so devoid of things to do, because the gameplay is solid. In fact it borders on phenomenal at times. A lot of thought and finesse went into the mechanics of driving the bikes and four-wheelers, and fans of the series will appreciate the evolution of it. Alive is the best game in the series in terms of gameplay, but there is a learning curve.
Anyone can pick up the game and join a race, and they will probably have fun in the process–but it can take a while to master all of the tricks available. You’ll have plenty of time though, as you race the same tracks over and over again. The game uses both analog sticks to control the movement of your vehicle, which can lead to some interesting tricks, better ways at taking jumps and a good feeling of precision. It can be awkward at first learning the controls, but once you get it, it feels natural and correct. You can also control the clutch if you like (although you don’t have to) which will help as you learn the game, but it is slightly advanced for newer players. The options are robust though, but the lack of a tutorial is just one more glaring omission in the game. There are so many little things to learn that skipping on a tutorial is just dumb.
Both the MX bikes and the ATVs race and react differently, which makes for some interesting options. The physics for each are similar, but you cannot race the two vehicles the same—they each have their own pros and cons. You are still limited by the number of tracks available, but being able to switch between the two types of vehicles could make for a great game–if there was more content.
All-in-all, the gameplay is among the best of any off-road game available today. You can tell that a lot of effort went into balancing the speed and maneuverability of the vehicles with the ability to pull off some impressive tricks. Plus, the more you play, the more you realize how deep the mechanics are. It could take a long time to fully exploit all the options the bikes and ATVs have to offer. Unfortunately you will probably grow tired of the maps and lack of gameply long before that.
The online multiplayer is…well, it’s there. Once you get online, the races are fun, and you can easily jump into a match, but there still isn’t much variety. The same maps await you, and even with the promise of new tracks to purchase, the game modes are limited. A split screen multiplayer is a neat idea, but isn’t much more than a quick diversion.
There is a great game somewhere buried in the skeleton of MX vs ATV Alive, but it’s so gutted that it just doesn’t come close to being where it could be. The best comparison would be to buying a really nice car that was so stripped down that it didn’t even have air conditioning or a passenger seat. The $40 price tag is appealing, but oddly there isn’t much content available online yet to get a good idea of whether or not the new pricing experiment will work. The idea is sound, but for $20 extra dollars you can get a racing game like Gran Turismo 5 or Forza Motorsport 3. Granted, they both offer a different style of racing, but the amount of content on those two games far, far outstrips anything that Alive can, or even will offer. If it even tried to come close, you would almost certainly be spending a ridiculous amount of money.
If there were a better sense of presentation to the game, then you could forgive a lot of the missing content. But the lack of a campaign, tutorial and only two game modes make Alive feel like a part of a game that is incomplete. Even with a dozen more maps, it would still feel slightly hollow. You race with no real sense of purpose other than to race some more. Having additional vehicles and maps to purchase is one thing, but it needs to be in addition to a somewhat complete package, not just more stuff flung at it.
Rather than an experiment in game pricing, Alive is a bargain basement game that is stunted from ever being a great game, no matter how much new content is released. The graphics are alright, but nothing special. The music features some licensed tracks you may recognize, but nothing that will really blow you away. And that pretty much sums up the entire Alive experience—it is underwhelming. And that is a shame, because with a bit more effort, it could have great.
Score: 7 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PS3 on a copy provided by THQ)