When it comes to messing about on motorbikes in the mud, gamers used to have a fair few options to choose from. Acclaim, THQ, EA, Microsoft and others were involved in publishing games that varied from average to outstanding, but that all fell away as gamers grew bored of annual releases that lacked passion. Now, the landscape is less cluttered, meaning that there’s a slot for a truly excellent simulation of motocross to swoop in and take the spoils.
Unfortunately, despite Milestone’s MxGP having the official motocross licence wrapped up – it tells you as much right there in the title – it isn’t a truly excellent simulation of motocross. From the very first rev, the experience feels disappointingly unpolished, even though there's the very occasional high spot to be found. The game’s focus on replicating real motorcycle physics is admirable, but a lot of players will find it to be frustrating to say the least. In MxGP, one stick controls the direction that the rider is pushing the handlebars, whilst the other controls the way in which the rider is leaning. This means that for the truly sharp corners that the winding tracks require you to navigate, you can turn the bars to steer around the bend, and then lean your rider in to make the bike turn more quickly. When you get this right, it feels great. The bike digs in to the mud, sending up a spray of debris, your back wheel gets a bit of traction, and you power away into the straight. Brilliant.
When you do the slightest thing wrong though – such as braking whilst turning, which locks the wheels up – you’ll find the bike shooting out from under you, with your rider ending up on the deck. You can learn to not make mistakes such as these of course - which is tougher to do if you enable the game's "pro physics" mode - but even if you do get a bit of knowledge going on, the ground itself causes issues. Again, admirably, the thick mud that you’ll be careening through becomes deformed as bikes move through it, creating deep ridges. This looks great – barring the horrendous amount of times that you can see the ground changes being drawn before your very eyes when there’s no other rider within five seconds of you – and to an extent, works beautifully. The problem is that when you’re approaching a corner at full throttle, you can’t necessarily see that there’s a ridge of mud that’s been created by other riders that have gone before you. You turn in, lean correctly, hit the mud ridge...and down you go.
When you throw another 15 riders into the mix, all of whom seem hell bent of sticking to the racing line, pushing you out of the way in the process, the problem worsens.
On the upside, the developer has chosen to make it so that falling off your bike hardly affects you. There's no damage system at all, so you can throw your bike into any piece of scenery at full throttle and not suffer any consequences. Your rider goes into ragdoll mode and lands in the mud – generally with half of his body clipping through the floor horridly – and within half a second, is back up and riding again. We’ve had times where against the toughest AI setting, we’ve taken a tumble and then gone on to take pole position on the same qualifying lap. When racing from that pole position, we fell when leading after 20 seconds of the race, only to rejoin the race in second place, going on to retake the lead two bends later. How anyone thought it felt anything like realistic is absolutely beyond us. Like we say though, it’s somewhat fortunate that things work out as they do, given the amount of times you’ll be unfairly bundled off your bike or be thrown into a wall after the camera – which is set too low – didn’t give you a chance of seeing that there was a high-banked bend right after that jump you just took. Also fortunate is the fact that if an opponent's bike hits your rider, the opponent will unrealistically almost always come off worst and you'll get away scot free without so much as being pushed off course.
Off the track, things are perfunctory at best. You get to take part in the official MX2 and MX1 championships, joining one of the official teams, trying to build up a fan base by beating the competition and impressing the managers at other, better teams. This is made somewhat pointless by the fact that you can win a race with seconds to spare on the first bike you’re given, if you ride it correctly. In other official racing titles, such as Codemasters’ F1 series, you’ll have trouble winning races in the cars of the less prestigious teams. That makes working your way up somewhat worthwhile. In MxGP, there’s absolutely no reason to forge ahead, other than to pick up achievements. There's not even any real draw to trying out a new course, since even though they're based on official layouts, they're all so dull and devoid of character that you'll forget which one you're riding around most of the time anyway.
Visually, the game doesn’t reach any high standards in general. Far from it. The lighting system lends a look to the game that makes it look a lot older than it truly is. At times, the flat visuals are far too reminiscent of those older titles that we alluded to in the opening paragraph. There’s no nice way of saying that an Xbox 360 game released some 9 years into the console’s life-cycle looks like it could be an upscaled original Xbox game, but there you go.
As a package, MxGP just isn’t up to scratch. Of course, fans of motocross will get a kick out of being able to belt around the official tracks, on an official bike (even though they all handle very similarly), against representations of the same real-world opposition that they watch compete week in and week out. But that doesn’t mean that the developer should be happy to just serve those people a lazy game and hope that the fans ignore the pitfalls. Ultimately though, that's what they've done.