Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. For the past couple of weeks I have been beholding Motocross Madness 2, Microsoft's latest hairdryer-'em-up, and my goodness is it beautiful.
Harping on about a game's graphics right at the start of a review might seem a little unusual, but this game's sheer aesthetic delight is what stands out so obviously above all the rest of its features. Hills roll gently into the distance and disappear into the light mist. Blimps, planes and helicopters hover above the vast tracks, slyly vying for your attention as you race, and wonderful set-pieces creep up on you as you progress across the landscapes. The game is a visual treat.
With the graphics engine stroking out of the way then, what is Motocross Madness 2 all about? Well, as if it wasn't obvious from the title, you take control of a two-wheeled buzzing death machine (my affectionate term for 'motorbike') and proceed to propel your hapless rider across a variety of landscapes and tracks at a veritably trouser-filling speed. Add to this the opportunity to throw the poor guy over hillocks and from off the top of huge cliffs, and you start to get the basic idea.
In order to create some point to your Evel Knievel imitations, there are five game modes available for you to try out. Enduro is a sprawling free-form checkpoint race, with riders making their own routes between each point in real life locations such as air strips, building sites and small tropical villages.
Baja is similar, but features more open landscapes like canyons and desert ranges. Stunt mode has the riders charging around the landscape performing tricks for points. National is a straightforward race on tough, tight outdoor circuits, while Supercross features some extremely tricky indoor tracks.
Of all these, Stunt is by far the most enjoyable mode simply because of the sheer freedom to do pretty much anything you like within the specified time limit. It seems the more freedom handed to you, the more fun you can have. Something about exploring the landscapes and accidentally finding the perfect stunt range is infinitely more enjoyable than being confined to the frustratingly difficult tracks.
What makes the circuit racing modes so unpleasant is their harsh layout and the unfairness to human players. If you so much as squirm slightly off-course, you are given five seconds to get back on the track precisely where you came off or be dragged back there. This wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't so easy to hurtle out of control and spin off the track in a cloud of dust. Although they are really a necessary part of a motocross game, the circuit racing modes could well be done without in this case, as the open landscape racing modes more than satiated my needs for a fun arcade racer.
Make Something Of Yourself, Boy!
Alongside the freely configurable racing modes against computer controlled riders, there is also a single player career mode in which you compete in a series of set events for money.
You start this mode at the very bottom of the motocross racing food-chain as a measly flannel-shirted grub, and race against other opponents attempting to catch the eye of would-be sponsors by performing well in each race, as well as displaying your flair for aerial acrobatics. The money you earn in each race is spent automatically for you on bike repairs and medical costs, which disappointingly strips away any form of self-management.
You don't have any choice at all over what you do in this mode, and your progress is strictly linear as you unlock each track one by one. Truth be told, this mode is worth only a fraction of attention, if any at all, as you can have so much more fun racing against CPU opponents in games which you can set up yourself. There's no real reason for you to put yourself through the career mode, and it serves only as a minor distraction.
But the game's real beauty lies in the clearly laborious attention to detail. From the shrubs and trees dotted across the landscape to the intricate landmarks and breathtaking undulating landscapes, everything is rendered with a wondrous clarity which I haven't experienced to this level before.
This is particularly evident on the Enduro races, as you jostle for position amongst roaming traffic, as airborne vehicles (including other riders) travel overhead - everything has a wonderful sense of simply being that's quite hard to describe unless you see it all moving. Of course, when you're racing, you hardly get to appreciate these wonderful details, which is where the facility to record and playback races comes into its own - only then do you get a true idea of how gorgeous the game really can be.
Going Out To Play
If racing against the sometimes strangely perfect computer controlled riders begins to bore you, you can always take on some real-life opposition online using Microsoft's Gaming Zone. Having to use this dire piece of Internet Explorer based software is a real pain, and it's clearly time that developers realised in-game server browsers are where it's at. Man.
However, once in a game it's all plain sailing from there on in. The netcode is very solid and is kind to both high and low-ping players - very rarely did I notice lag having any effect on the game, and even then it was extremely momentary. Of course, the only real way to play multiplayer games is over a LAN, and it is here that MCM2 really shines in most game modes, although the circuit racing still proves to be a chore.
Available for use in multiplayer games are all the single player game modes, as well as the really rather fun Tag game, in which one rider is "it" and the others have to make contact with him to become "it". The player who was "it" for the longest period after the time limit is up is the winner. It's surprising how such a simple idea can be so much fun, and alongside the Stunt event this one of the most entertaining parts of the game.
Motocross Madness 2 is a tremendous laugh, if exceedingly tough at times for an arcade game. The circuit races could be a little more forgiving on the human player, and the AI of the CPU players could do with some tweaking to ensure that they don't manage to land unfeasibly difficult jumps every single time.
To say that the game couldn't have been better would be to lie - it's not that much of a progression from the original to be truly outstanding, but it's definitely a huge leap in the right direction, particularly in regards to the multiplayer side of things.