Their numbers might not be as many as pro football or college basketball fans, but enthusiasts of motocross and other styles of all-terrain racing make up more than a niche market—and just like any other sport out there, fans have high expectations when it comes to virtually participating in their recreation. As developers with a longstanding history of creating off-road racing games, Rainbow Studios is no stranger to such criteria. MX vs. ATV: Reflex marks the latest entry of an evolving franchise and is the studio's strongest outing to-date with independent controls for both rider and vehicle, but the formula still needs some tweaking and smoothing over to make for a standout racing franchise.
Cutting to the point, it feels like Rainbow are trying to cram too much into one package. Gameplay is varied across seven types of events, but anything beyond revving up 250cc or 450cc motorcycles and quad bikes feels like standard, derivative racing. The game is built around the motocross experience of dangerous holeshots, aerial tricks done by daredevil riders on open-air vehicles and pyrotechnics, which begs the question: Is the inclusion of sport buggies, trucks and other vehicles with reinforced cockpits necessary in a game where the primary mechanic involves shifting the rider's weight to influence control? Simply put, no.
“Reflex” is more than a subtitle here, it's what gives the player an additional level of control on terrain with real-time deformation. With the right analog stick acting as your rider's body, you're able to take corners sharper, take off and land rhythm sections in races more accurately, and just feel more engaged in a race than with vehicle controls only. At times the game's physics can be inconsistent with unexplained wipeouts, but for the most part, Reflex delivers in virtually re-creating the challenge and excitement of the motocross sport—it's just racing heavy trucks against fragile motorcycles in Omnicross events seem out of place here.
No matter your vehicle, the game is fairly easy to pick up and play as jamming on the throttle usually rewards you with a first-place finish throughout your solo career. On the other hand, Reflex can be surprisingly complex as competing against other players (and on harder difficulty settings) requires you to be painfully consistent with controlled acceleration and have a strong comprehension of how Reflex controls impact your racing. A couple of mini-games add a little distraction to the multiplayer action, but its the neccessity of consistency in racing events which makes for the most compelling gaming.
The need for technically clean, deft racing is addicting and rich, with growing ruts influencing how you race each lap, but the structure in which each play mode is delivered is comparatively simplistic. On the career side, a three-tiered setup of six types of events requires you to unlock racing events and show-off exhibitions across four environments, accessed via static menu interfaces. Doing well in races rewards you with money to purchase sponsored gear for you rider, new vehicles, and upgrades. All of this works, but there isn't much of a carrot at the end of stick as both the vehicles themselves and their upgrades are preset with little variance between components or manufacturers.
A lack of depth also carries over to the multiplayer side of things with a seemingly useless leveling system and a lack of stat-tracking. Additionally, a dubious judging system for the satisfying and easily executed trick system make Exhibition sessions a bit frustrating.
All in all, MX vs. ATV: Reflex is a solid entry in need of expansion: the bare-boned framework is there for what can be a stellar franchise in its genre. As it is, first on Rainbow's to-do list for the next game should include ditching the unnecessary trucks and buggies in order to focus on cleaning up physics glitches, load times for online matches, a broader soundtrack and a deeper career system with more vehicular customization.