MX vs. ATV Alive needs to be reviewed as two different things: a video game, and a sales strategy. To those who don’t keep abreast of the news, Alive, the fourth game in the MX vs. ATV franchise, is the first THQ game to use a new 'A la Carte' DLC system: in plain terms, the game is sold at a lower price with a large quantity of downloadable content to enhance the experience – and THQ's coffers.
At launch, there's a decent amount of content, but the success of the game's marketplace will likely take months to determine. Right now, all that can be confirmed is that MX vs. ATV Alive is an extremely enjoyable racing experience and well worth its low price tag.
With the previous game in the franchise, MX vs. ATV Reflex, THQ overhauled the game's engine in a major way, creating a racing experience like no other. Key to the game's changes was two layers of physics – rider balance and environmental deformation. Those two elements remain front and centre in Alive: the right analog stick shifts your racer's position within the vehicle, and the constant changes made to each track's jumps and barrier items. As a result, each racer needs to be consistently managed and each course needs to be reappraised through every single lap. With a much improved visual style, it's easier than ever to note the slight changes in position and environment that could be major factors in determining the winners and losers.
The most refreshing part of Alive is the fact that races are unpredictable, yet still very much dependent on the player's ability. Getting knocked off course and dropping multiple spots during the race isn't a death sentence, nor is a 10-second lead if your opponents take risks while you rest on your laurels. Similarly, failure isn't the fault of zealous item-shooting enemies or random environmental mishaps – the ability to win is completely based on how you can handle your vehicle and the track.
Simple additions to the race UI detail the tension in the bike's seat – key for getting the most distance and speed out of a jump – and a timer that notes how far ahead or behind you are add a layer of intensity without deterring from the on-track experience. There are problems, of course: boundaries for a few of the races are poorly defined, and it's tough to tell how long you can stay offroad before getting reset on the track and losing valuable time, and both of these factors can lead to rare frustrating experiences, particularly during the faster-paced "Short Track" races.
The refined racing bleeds over into the game's general progression. New items, vehicles, courses, and other assorted content are doled out when your racer hits certain experience levels. The experience points in MX vs. ATV Alive are earned in such a way that no race is a wasted opportunity, but performance, style, and difficulty conditions can lead to greater gains.
It's a great system that encourages players to keep going, especially in online races, but the game leaves far too little in the way of content for beginners. Limiting the vehicle choice is understandable – there’s no need to overwhelm the player at the outset, and upgrades can be earned – but players who start the game without using the pack-in DLC code will have to stick with the same six courses. When all is said and done, there are more than enough tracks to justify the game's price tag, but far too little of it is available at the outset.
True to its title, MX vs. ATV Alive is a game competing against itself. On one hand, you've got an amazing experience that any racing fan should check out – it truly is the realisation of a series that has been refined to near-perfection over the last half-dozen years. On the other hand, the game's pricing strategy has created a bit of an uneven value in which the available content is too lean for beginners to keep racing, especially if they're unable to go online.
Fortunately, the game's positives are currently outpacing the negatives, and THQ's ability to create constant, quality DLC at a fair price can only widen the gap even further.