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MX vs. ATV Alive – the PS3 Attitude review

Submitted by on Tuesday, 24 May 20113 Comments

THQ is conducting an interesting experiment with MX vs. ATV Alive. The company has released the bare bones, the core game essentially, to us at an affordable price with the expectation that we’ll complete our package with DLC.

The benefits: we get it earlier, pay less and can choose the content we actually want. Digital Studio Phoenix, the developer, also benefits because they can use our feedback to tailor their DLC program. So, if we ask for more tracks, they can focus on doing just that instead of designing hundreds of butt-patches no one wants.

If THQ price the DLC attractively, keep the quality high and keep us informed of its existence, this can turn out to be a winning formula. So, where’s the catch? Well, if they fail to convince us to part with our cash, we’ll be left with a game that’s noticeably barer than its predecessor, and if they are successful, we’ll likely end up spending considerably more in the end to get our finished product.

The lack of modes out of the box is a big concern. You’re limited to single race and free ride modes and their online equivalents. There’s certainly a lack of focus without a career mode or any tournaments; however, there is an XP levelling system that at least gives some sense of direction.

It’s similar to the one used in Gran Turismo. In the beginning, there are few cars and tracks available but you unlock more after you start winning races and gaining XP. It works for GT, which has a ton of tracks and cars within your reach at all times – even when Polyphony Digital are limiting the options – but it doesn’t work so well in Alive.

There are only four races available at the beginning, two nationals and two short tracks, and you must reach level 10 before the next batch (four nationals and a short track) becomes available. To get here you must replay those four tracks repeatedly. It’s a grinding experience and the grind continues until the next unlock at level 25, where you get six more nationals and a final short course. There’s actually a decent number of tracks in Alive, but you’re left thinking otherwise because of the heavy restrictions of this systems.

We’d prefer the unlocks to be more scattered. So, instead of receiving a large batch of content at levels 10 and 25, it would be better to have new tracks and vehicles fed to us every few levels.

It’s disappointing to be discussing a lack of supporting content for two reasons: firstly, the DLC while not available yet (partly because of the PSN issues) may resolve our mode concerns; and secondly, the racing on the track – you know, the important part – is actually very good.

It’s very much a simulation racer, so your focus is on maintaining perfect balance, finding the right cornering line and managing jumps like a pro. That doesn’t mean it’s too serious, though. Alive is every bit as sharp and bouncy as you’d expect from an off-road racer featuring bikes and quads.

The new bar banging system also makes the gameplay meatier. Before your rider would fall over more times than a pisshead in a brewery, the slightest contact would send them flying, but our riders are now thankfully made of sterner stuff and will happily go elbow-to-elbow with their opponent.

Both attacker and receiver can still end up on their backsides but they can withstand a lot more contact now. The animations are very basic – often it’s like two pillows colliding – but by letting us have more argy-bargy, we now have a more fluent and fun experience.

We’re less keen on the collisions on the short tracks, though. It’s rare to get through a race without at least one mid-air collision at a crossover. These kill all your momentum and there’s nothing fun about seeing your rider fall of the ground like a dead weight. It’s the wrong kind of chaos.

Momentum is so important for Alive. It feels turgid when it’s stop-start but when you’re riding on the brilliantly designed nationals, with their long downhill stretches and huge ramps, the gameplay can be genuinely thrilling.

The controls are a little daunting at first and newcomers will likely find the twin-stick mechanics especially tricky to master. The left stick does its usual navigational duties while the right stick controls the rider’s reflex (i.e. balance). You tilt the right stick to lean into corners, shift your weight off the front or back tires and to reposition yourself for the perfect landing. Balance is so important, so mastering the right-stick is key to being an off-road master.

While climbing ramps, you hold back on the right-stick to launch higher. If you hold down R3 at the same time, you’ll go higher again. It’s not uncommon to travel 100ft from a jump and it’s as fun as it sounds. Nevertheless, as exciting as high-flying is, it’s not always the best approach. It’s often better to travel less and land on the downslope than it is to travel further and land on an upslope.

Small alterations to your style make a huge difference, whether it’s getting your balance right while powering over whoops (a series of small bumps) or getting the perfect lean when heading into a sharp corner. There’s also a strong emphasis on clutch control. It’s these finer details that Alive does so well.

We’re just surprised Alive doesn’t make any real attempt to teach you how to master the core mechanics. Aside from the odd vague hint, you’re thrown into the deep-end and we’d be surprised if there aren’t a few players who’ll get disheartened. It’s not fun seeing your rider repeatedly fall in a heap.

There are big differences between the MXs and ATVs. The bikes are nimble and great for jumps while the quads pack a lot of power. The quads are harder to manage so we suspect more beginners will start with the bikes; however, once you tame the quads they offer possibly the more rewarding experience.

There are three MX classes (125, 250f and 450f) and two ATV classes (250f and 450f), In addition to this, each vehicle has three levels and every new level unlocks new customisation parts. Some are purely aesthetic while some offer performance upgrades. The stat boosting items, such as suspensions and tires, are upgraded automatically. There’s sadly not much scope to play around with your vehicles stats, so we wouldn’t recommend Alive to budding mechanics.

Naturally, the vehicles greatly improve in power the higher their class but it takes some time to notice the differences between each of the vehicle within a class. Eventually, you spot that some are a little rigid round corners and others are slightly faster, but we’d be surprised if the average gamer notices the differences. The important thing to note is that all the vehicles are more than capable of tearing up the track.

Track deformation is actually one of Alive’s strongest features. The track beneath you is constantly being ripped to shreds from the tires. Dirt that looked pristine on lap one will resemble a bog by lap five. It’s hard to tell how much it affects traction (if at all ) but it definitely adds to the experience.

Sadly, the stunts in Alive are mostly a disappointment. The button combinations to pull them off feel too imprecise and the riders feels very stiff in the air. Most of our attempts to do something interesting resulted in a painful landing. Sure, the best moves should be hard to pull off, but there’s no reason why simple moves can’t be streamlined and made more responsive. Even a move list explaining how to do each move would’ve helped.

Sure, it would’ve meant adding some arcade sensibilities to a simulation racer but it would’ve made Alive much more enjoyable. As it stands, without a decent stunt system, the free ride areas are mostly wasted, which is criminal because they’re genuinely beautifully designed.

One is a sandy peninsula full of lush sand dunes and the other is an industrial quarry. Both feature large open exapnses full of bumps and canyons – they should be a stuntman’s dream. Those who purchase the game new will also get access to the James Stewart (pro motocross racer) Compound. Sadly, we weren’t able to review it because the DLC store is down along with the PSN Store.

The free ride areas offer a welcome change of pace, a chance to chill out and just mess around, but we think the studio has missed a trick here. These areas should be filled with tons of challenges and mini games. There are challenges but they aren’t many and they mostly revolve around getting a certain combo score with your stunts  – and we’ve already mentioned our disappointment with the stunt system. A global leaderboard, so we can compare our scores with gamers around the world, would’ve been welcomed as well.

Admittedly, the free ride areas are much more fun if you can invite a friend to join you. You can compete with their scores and show-off your moves (if you can pull them off) or simply use it as an excuse to have a chat while having a stress-free ride.

Online play is where MX vs. ATV Alive really comes, erm, alive (sorry!). The online competition is fierce and we’ve we had some exciting races. We haven’t had many technical issues either, aside from the occasional lag. This has mostly happened when we’ve been at the back of the pack behind several riders. Thankfully these occasions have been rare.

One thing that’s definitely missing from the online play is a leaderboards. It’s all fine and well gaining XP, but we want to see where our times sit in the world. We want reasons to return and targets to aspire to beat. Sure, it’s fun racing against our fellow man, but we’ve come to expect much more features from our online games. This is the basics.

There’s no question MX vs. ATV Alive has solid gameplay but there are few incentives to continue returning to it. A week’s play will see you unlock all the tracks, vehicles and upgrades, and you will have completed most of the challenges.

But that’s the plan, right? It’s supposed to be incomplete. Now all we need is good, affordable DLC to arrive on the store. Or, you could just buy Reflex –  the last game in the series – and have the complete package.

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