Pop into any video game retailer in the run up to Christmas, and you'll see a vast array of new-style sports games. Viciously poking aside the more traditional sports games such as those based on football and the like, extreme sports games allow people to pursue activities that would normally take a lot of practise and skill to do well. You better get used to descriptions like "extreme", "sick trick", and "540 ally-oop superman to tabletop to luc-e grind", because the alternative sports circuit is here to stay!
Dave Mirra's Freestyle BMX is, unsurprisingly, a BMX game which is going directly head to head with the alternative sport kings of Neversoft and their BMX offering "Matt Hoffman's BMX". Aiming to emulate the successes of the Tony Hawk's Skateboarding series, Dave Mirra's allows players to grab hold of a brand new bike and throw themselves off a selection of ever higher ramps in order to perform tricks of awe-inspiring proportions.
Career mode sees you starting off as a wet-behind-the-ears rookie who has just got a sponsorship with a low-grade meat product company and a starter bike (mind you, the training wheels have been removed!). You then have to work your way through each level performing set tricks so that you can earn the right to take part in competitions. Also included is the standard two player mode that allows you and a friend to take part in a number of different events. These include a standard two minute run each to compare scores, and a few more interesting ideas such as competitions to perform the highest wall-tap (knocking the bike pegs against a wall) and seeing who can crash the most spectacularly. These add a fair amount of life to the game because it is always fun humiliating your opponent, but I do have a few gripes. The biggest disappointment is the fact that although both players have their own controller, you have to take turns playing, unlike Tony Hawk's which used cut-down versions of the levels so that the Playstation could still handle the polygon output. This leaves you with an almost eternal two minute wait between turns when you are just itching to have another go!
Sports games must always have an excellent control mechanism if they are to succeed, because it is important that the game controller is effectively an extension of your body and will allow quick reactions. Initially, I had trouble controlling the game but this was mainly due to the fact that it strayed from the set-up that Tony Hawks Pro Skater onto which I had been weaned through many hours of enjoyable gameplay. Once I had re-attuned myself to the new control system I was good to go, and what a ride it was! The missions are innovative and don't just involve performing the same old tasks in differing environments. For example, you may have to do a dare devil leap through a certain part of a train to another area or smash through a set of windows in a warehouse.
Another good idea is that there are a number of levels of play within Dave Mirra's BMX which will not leave those players who aren't very good floundering on the first few levels. Initially the game starts off with the basic challenges - such as gaining a feasible amount of points in two minutes or riding into some boxes scattered around the level. Once these challenges are completed for the first few levels, players must go back and complete the advanced and hardcore missions, gradually opening up more and more levels for play. In the end you have to start grinding overhead wires for 60 metres and the like, which certainly lives up to the "hardcore" label.
Look ma, no hands!
Possibly the most impressive element of the game is the almost infinite selection of tricks at your disposal. Flicking through the manual only reveals a very basic selection of moves which does not look too impressive. However, when you experiment during the game you find that you can manipulate tricks in the air thus performing un-documented stunts of ariel trickery. On top of this there is also the potential to create your own moves altogether on the fly. Imagine this: you are flying through the air performing a no-hander when you hit the key to do a no-footer - the game then registers a "nothing" and you have created your own move on the fly. Some of these tricks pull your score astronomically skywards and are therefore well worth investing time in inventing new moves.
Invented moves also come in handy when taking part in the competitions that crop up every few levels. You are given two consecutive runs in which to impress the judges with your skills, and get a mark out of one hundred accordingly. Using some freshly baked new moves can really help here, where every jump counts and every fall is met with sad muttering and general discontent from the judges. Although they are much harder to pull off and harder to land, a brand new trick is sure to impress those who are keeping a critical eye on you.
Dave Mirra's features a fairly impressive set of graphics, even though the game is on the ageing PSX system. Each rider is made up of a large amount of polygons which allows the game to accurately represent all the tricks which are available. The crashes therefore look quite spectacular if not slightly outlandish - a particularly bad bail can make your riders limbs flap and bend in ways that would only be natural to a rag doll.
Overall, there are very few complaints about Dave Mirra's. The main gripe is the way that in-game physics is handled in the game world. There are a great amount of exploits due to this fact which can be mined for vast amounts of points, and the game also lets you get away with some very dodgy jumps where you should have fallen flat on your face. The graphics engine also allows you to travel through some solid walls during your run, which is disconcerting to say the least, although this does not occur so much as to spoil the game considerably.
If you are looking to sate your desire for another extreme sport game after the recent skateboarding efforts of Tony Hawk and the Neversoft team, you could do a lot worse than to opt for Dave Mirra's Freestyle BMX. Although it is not as instantly accessable and classic as the yardstick of alternative sports games, it features a nice set of pro BMX-ers and sponsors, and plenty of tracks on which to perform your art. Only minor gripes will stop it from being the king of BMX games once Matt Hoffman's BMX comes along.