Version tested: Xbox 360
You might not convulse with pleasure at the sight of labels like MX (motocross) and ATV (quad bikes), but when brought together with buggies, 4x4s and monster trucks and vast tracks full of huge jumps, as they are in Rainbow Studios' MX vs. ATV Untamed, the result should be closer to something like MotorStorm. And you know how we love MotorStorm.
Untamed does bring them together on one track every now and then, but it also allows you to tackle them separately, emphasising the distinctive qualities of each. Riding motocross bikes and ATVs around tight stadium courses demands that you preserve speed to string big jumps together with soft landings, or else come undone.
When you go properly off-road with the bigger rides, as well as racing around set courses on broader all-terrain tracks, you also get to tackle waypoint-based races that take the rails off completely and involve navigating between huge rugby posts dotted around a few square miles, and preserving speed is again important, but uncovering the optimal route is more decisive across three massive laps.
Handling throughout is arcadey but consistent. There's a bit more float to every vehicle than there would be in real life, and clever use of the analogue stick lets you pre-load the suspension before lift-off, enabling you to perform aerial tricks for ATVs and bikes (with a specific trick mode one of the disciplines included), while the interaction between terrain and suspension is convincing and control is tight.
There are lots of different race and competition types, each with baffling labels like Opencross, Supermoto and Endurocross. Goodness knows what any of it means, but you get to do it all during the huge 27-event X-Cross Tournament mode, with several legs to each event. You work up a scale of difficulty across all the disciplines, with the option to branch down paths to change things up, meaning there's usually something new to do if you get stuck in one area. There's also an Event Series mode, where you can tackle longer sequences of each element, and a custom race option to specify your parameters.
And it's all fairly moreish, but inconsistent. Less flamboyant than MotorStorm (without a boost system, for instance, or any particularly meaningful track-surface deformation), it can be frustrating or boring if you start down the lesser of the many paths available to you. The waypoint races are alarmingly dull, even when they're challenging - sort of like old-days PS2 game Smuggler's Run, but without the edge. ATVs aren't particularly nippy, either, and suffer greatly for the harsh boundaries of the tighter tracks, which often reset you to the track for straying outside markers, and unseat you for the most trivial collisions or losses of balance.
Motocross is more satisfying, but like ATV you're perilously close to disaster every time you leap off a ramp. Unless you land on a down-slope, or reduce your speed (your adversaries won't, and at least one of them will get the right result), you land with a crash, losing speed and often track position. The buzz-phrase is "rhythm racing" - using the practice laps offered to you before each event to learn the ideal trajectories through corners, to achieve the correct velocity to jump and land optimally every time. Admittedly, when this comes off it's very satisfying, but the time investment is significant, and the punishments for slight failure very harsh, with no option to restart a track during an event other than quitting out and doing the whole thing again.
At least there's always something else to do, and you can go online, too, for big multiplayer races, or split the screen between yourself and a friend. As well as the main gameplay modes you can engage in various mini-games, like hockey, and an adaptation of Tron's lightcycles game, where you leave a permanent coloured trail in your wake and have to try and get the other player to crash into it. Best on bikes, and satisfying when you manage to outwit an opponent by leaping over his trail and landing just in front of him, it's enough to bottle another few minutes in a game that could fill a tanker with them.
Less grand are the visuals. Technologically a lot of good work has gone into the handling and physics, but the game looks quite tired when set next to modern 360 or PS3 racers, with a lot of pop-up way before the horizon, surprisingly crude track furniture and fauna and inconsistent texture work - at times the rutted racing line resembles an oil painting of raked sand - while spectators look out of place on the off-road maps and are a bit unconvincing on the whole. It certainly won't catch anyone's attention, and is reliant on the gameplay to hold yours.
Fortunately there is a lot of it. Tons. And a lot of it is perfectly enjoyable. If the quality were more consistent, it would be worth higher marks. But it's not, and when the various disparate elements are brought together for a big showdown you won't want to be in the nimbler, weaker rides as you still might in MotorStorm, and there's too much left to undo you - laps are surprisingly long, signposting isn't always great, the AI is up and down. It lacks cohesion, and ultimately frustrates too intensely and too often to keep your satisfaction at the right levels. It's a good path for Rainbow to be on though, and we look forward to seeing how the team gets on in the inevitable sequel, when a few lessons have been learnt in and around the hardware and in terms of bringing the elements lovingly together on the track.
6 / 10