I'm not going to beat around the bush. I didn't start playing MX vs. ATV Unleashed with much hope of enjoyment. A combination of two extreme sports, that I hadn't had much interest in on their own, didn't seem like a great way to spend my day. Still, there must be some reason why so many similar games are released.
Having not had all that much experience with MX bikes or ATVs, I decided to take a look at the training, hopefully learning how best to ride these vehicles. Unfortunately, the tutorial isn't interactive at all, only offering a number of training videos. These do show you what you need to know, but some kind of test to make sure you know what you are doing would have been good.
So, my first race. You could say that it was twitchy. Starting off with the bikes I quickly realised that these are not the same as cars. They seem to turn better than a roundabout, making the initial few races rather embarrassing to play. If you're like me, you'll find yourself going from one side of the track to the other, constantly fighting with the bike. It's only after a few races that you start to gain control and handle things with a bit more delicacy.
Once you get the hang of things and learn to corner by riding the embankments, things become pretty enjoyable. The jumps in particular are brilliant, with your bike often soaring high into the sky. Learning to take the jumps well and land on the downward slope of other mounds is vital to your success; landing awkwardly on a mound will either slow you down or throw you from your bike.
Despite the racing becoming enjoyable after a while, if you play the game for any extended period of time you'll become annoyed by how regularly you are thrown from your bike after being hit by a rider who has seen fit to land on your head. Then there's the infuriating out of bounds zone around the track. If you deviate, even remotely, from the track you are told to get back on within a set time. This isn't such a bad thing, but you often find that going a few metres down the track before coming back on results in you not being allowed to continue racing from that point. You'll be restarted at roughly the point where you went off the track, losing you a lot of time.
Riding on ATVs is a pretty similar experience, but the game also lets you drive/fly a number of other vehicles, ranging from golf Karts to helicopters. It really is an odd mix. The ground based vehicles tend to control pretty well, although some are a little too floaty, but the air based vehicles are simply a pain to control. You never feel like you are in full control of them and flying in the game is simply not fun.
The majority of gamers will spend most of their time in the Nationals series and the THQ SX series. These two modes are limited to the bikes and ATVs and each comprise 16 race meets, with each meet containing a number of heats. The National series is all outdoor tracks, while the THQ SX series is made up of supercross tracks. The outdoor courses are generally a lot more fun, containing far bigger jumps and some extreme hills. Throughout the series you are asked to take part in one-off challenge races, with the chance to win the vehicle the race takes place in. Losing these races has no detrimental effect to your performance in a series, so you don't really have anything to loose.
Sadly for PlayStation 2 gamers, the European release is sadly missing the online play that was found in the US release. The Xbox version has support for six players online, giving a real reason to choose that version if you have the choice. If you can't go online there are a number of other offline modes that are worth checking out. Free ride, one-on-one challenges, freestyle, hill climbs, short tracks and waypoint races are there to take part in once you're finished with the National and THQ series. The hill climbs, in particular, are an interesting variation in gameplay, often resulting in your bike simply not being able to make it to the top.
MX vs. ATV Unleashed isn't a stunning game, but it is more than adequate. The environments are large and the game runs at a consistent frame rate throughout. At the peak of a large jump you can see vast amounts of the track around you and when switching to the 'Thrill cam' the racing is faster and even more intense. The game's muddy, blurry look and some uninspired textures hurt the overall appearance, but this is by no means an ugly game. Matching the game's rough feel is a soundtrack with artists such as Papa Roach, and Phunk Junkeez. It's not my usual taste in music, but it fits well, as do the minimal environmental sounds heard when racing outdoors.
There are a number of other problems that start to grate after a while, such as the excruciatingly long load times and the need to perform tricks to earn points needed to buy new tracks, riders and other things from the store. All problems aside, MX vs. ATV Unleashed is an enjoyable game. It takes a while to get into the groove, but many of the outdoor tracks are rather thrilling to race on. You have to wonder why all the other vehicles were included as they really don't add anything to the game. If you stick to the ground vehicles there is a lot to enjoy.