It's easy to have a good time when you combine majestic heights, exposed engines, and an utter disdain for basic safety measures. For the most part, THQ's latest PSP title MX vs ATV: Untamed is a strikingly good enabler of your small-scale racing fantasies. Sporting an impressive roster of real-life motorbikes, ATVs, dune buggies, and other mechanized pleasurecraft, along with an assortment of treacherous landscapes, Untamed offers up an enjoyable enough experience - provided you can get over some maddening inconsistencies.
The core of MX vs ATV is the X-Cross mode, a single-player campaign taking place across an array of environments; including deserts, arctic plains, industrial complexes, and pastoral farmland. Each location features six main events at the start, with others that can be unlocked. Some are variants on races against competitors, including "classic" lap-based racing and waypoint events, while others pit you against the clock in capture-the-flag battles and "top this" trick-point scraps. Nabbing the top spot in five of the six arena events will unlock the next location, where another round of the same kinds of competitions await.
Even with its issues though, MX vs ATV: Untamed is a rollicking good time, incredibly well-suited for a portable platform.
Each stage is undeniably fun, up to a point. The races on traditional tracks offer a real pulse-pounding intensity, although it's way too easy to veer off course and find yourself hopelessly behind the leaders. Boundaries are non-existent, and if you happen to be in the front-running position, you won't always be able to discern exactly where to go. Naturally, this can get pretty annoying after spending the better part of three laps desperately clinging to the lead. Stunt competitions tend to be a hit-or-miss affair as well, as a combination of a timer, ramps, and a myriad of curiously-placed obstacles will hamper your ability to execute basic tricks. Overall though, a little bit of practice and a dash of trial-and-error will put you in a position to win.
In addition to participating in competitions, each area allows you to roam freely to explore every nook and cranny. Not only can this help you learn the terrain to prepare for upcoming battles, some hidden keys and DVDs also open up all sorts of unlockable vehicles and real-life professional riders. Unfortunately, there's nothing that tells you how close you might be to being able to use any of these additional goodies. There will come a time when nothing in your current stable of rides is powerful enough to let you win, and not knowing what you need to do to nab the equipment you really need is exceedingly annoying.
From a controls standpoint, the steering, acceleration, and braking mechanics are all rock solid. Turning, on the other hand, is pretty darned sensitive. It definitely takes some getting used to, and you'll unwittingly fly far off course at times until you learn to control the various machines. In addition, frustration will undoubtedly settle in when it comes time to execute and land tricks. Considering how crucial these stunts are to your overall score (which in turn unlocks some of the interesting vehicles), it can easily get in the way of getting the most out of MX vs ATV.
Ultimately, getting airborne then kicking out the trick-style jams is easy enough, as preloading then boosting jumps is simple to master. The bugaboo in all of these daredevil antics is landing; after more than a few hours practicing, crashing, then doing it all over again, I can say without a doubt that I have no idea how to properly land my rider. Sometimes I let go of the trick with plenty of time before I hit the ground, and I was fine. Other times I do the same thing and my poor alter ego goes careening painfully across the landscape, with any chance of winning the race or stunt competition dashed (along with his dignity). While it makes sense that some tricks demand different techniques than others, there's no sense of consistency and it's by far the biggest drawback in an overall solid effort.
Taken in bite-sized chunks, most of the single-player challenges can be solved after a few times around the course. Many of these events require a bit of memorization to win. A 30- or 45-minute commute is the perfect setting to master a particular task, and build towards completing a level. On the other hand, you may run out of steam midway through the campaign, since the environments don't offer a tremendous amount of variety other than background colors. Each area typically has similar features – plenty of small and large hills, ravines, and smooth spots. There are some differences, including water, ice, roads, and so forth. Until you unlock some of the more interesting vehicles, these differences won't inspire a deep longing to plow through to the game's finish.
Even with its issues though, MX vs ATV: Untamed is a rollicking good time, incredibly well-suited for a portable platform. Its basic features are simple enough that anyone can pick up and play, but there's enough depth to the controls and length to the campaign that serious gearheads and casual riders alike are welcome to the party. It'll also remind you why most of us aren't crazy enough to actually do any of this in real life – and why seat belts are such a wonderful invention.