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September 28, 2007 // 11:03 am - When it comes to offroad racing titles, you'd be hard-pressed to find a developer more experienced, praised and passionate than Rainbow Studios. The development house has been cranking out offroad games for nearly a decade now, starting with 1998's PC release of Motocross Madness. Now, the studio is ramping up to its seventh title, MX vs. ATV Untamed, set for release on December 17th.

Video: MX vs. ATV Untamed Trailer

With its first title for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, Rainbow Studios started from scratch and built MX vs. ATV Untamed from the ground up. This means that aside from having prettier visuals and more expansive online play, the game also features a more robust physics engine that not only allows for more precise interaction with the environment, but more personalization in your riding as well.

For example, you're now able to perform scrubs, which are where you flatten the bike like you would for a tabletop trick right as you're exiting a jump, thereby keeping your bike low so that you don't overshoot your landing spot. Some of the tricks are now physics-based as well, like flips and whips. Since they're based entirely on analog stick input and not on a pre-canned animation, you're able to tweak them and create your own style. The button-based standard set of tricks will still rely on animation sets rather than pure physics so that they look right, but the movement-based stuff will be your own.

One of the first new features that we witnessed was the new loading system. Rather than having you wait for a bit while a track loads, the game takes a few quick seconds to load a test track located in a hangar for you to drive on while the race loads in the background. This test track features a small loop with a variety of jumps, rhythm sections and whatnot for you to play around with before you head into the race. While it certainly serves as a nice distraction while the game pulls bits off the disc, you can also use it as a quick-loading map to test out new tuning setups for vehicles and to try out new tricks you've recently discovered.

Another cool use for the hangar is that it acts as your multiplayer hub while online. Rather than going to a chat-driven menu system where you sit and wait for the host to pick what you'll do next, everyone in a game can drive around and talk trash before or after a match and figure out what you want to do next. It's cool stuff.

As for the main environments themselves, MX vs. ATV Untamed will feature 10 outdoor worlds for you to compete on, which range from grasslands to deserts to mountain ranges and so forth. The Free Ride mode will let you ride around and simply explore these massive settings, though you need not hop out to a menu to take part in a race as you can simply drive up to an event and begin racing immediately, and then continue on your exploration when you've finished.

One of the new events types is the Opencross. While most of the out-of-doors races only utilize a portion of these worlds, the Opencross events have you speeding across the bulk of its layout and will test your knowledge and skill set across a variety of situations in a single race. These events are open to any vehicle class, allowing you to use the new ORV Sport or other vehicle classes that you wouldn't normally have access to in a Supercross, Nationals or any of the other events.

Another one of the new event types is Endurocross, which Rainbow and THQ snagged the official license for to use in the game. For those not familiar with Endurocross, the setup is similar to a Supercross race in that you're competing in an indoor arena on a specially-built track, except that it's littered with all sorts of crazy obstacles, like large pools of water, giant tires, scatterings of rocks and large tree trunks. It's just as much of a technical challenge as it is a flat-out race as you have to work hard just to keep pace and on your bike, which can be tricky with this many hazards in your way.

The main single-player progression sees a new direction this year with the X-Cross Tournament. This is a series of events that are lined up in a tournament-esque fashion, with a win in each event branching off to one or more successive events. In other words, you could take a straight path to the end of the setup by sticking mostly with one event type, or mix it up and try everything along the way.

You will want to mix things up however as the X-Cross Tournament ends with an event in each race type, followed by an overall championship. So while you can stick to, say, Motocross races for most of the tournament, you'll probably find that you'll need practice in Supermoto or Supercross when you get to the final stretch as you'll have to win them to progress.

After feeling that the first-person in the game wasn't quite up to snuff, particularly for the MX bikes, Rainbow went back to the drawing board and what we've seen looks fantastic. Rather than being glued to the handlebars, the view is tied to your character, giving you a proper, shaky view of the action. For example, when you land from a big jump, your head may snap forward and back, giving you a glimpse of the handlebars followed by the tip of your helmet as it rattles around on your head. The result is that even though there's a lot more movement here, it's a good bit easier to use as you can tell what's happening to your rider and bike, unlike with the stapled-to-the-handlebars manner that we've seen in other games.

Regardless of whether or not you're in the first-person view, the game feels great in classic Rainbow offroad racing style. Everything is very responsive and just loose enough to not feel jerky. Even when jumping directly into the Pro control setting, which allows for more direct control but requires more precision, we had no problem nailing rhythm sections or dialing in some tricks off a set of ramps. Even though the studio started from scratch, the game feels very similar to what we've played from them in the past and that's a very good thing.

As far as online goes, up to 12 players will be able to mix it up at any one time, and Rainbow has made sure to implement host migration functionality so that if the host leaves someone else will automatically take over. This means that you could set up a Free Ride room and have people coming in and out all day, and so long as at least one person is in the room at a time it'll never shut down.

One of the coolest things we heard today had to do with one of the mini-games, Snake. Working like an MX version of Tron's lightcycles, each player will create a beam of light in their trail as they ride, and anyone who touches it is out of the competition. The trail works in every direction, so if you head off a ramp you'll leave a curving, possibly twisting, line of death behind you in mid-air. With up to 12 players going at it at once, it's said to get crazy almost immediately. Aside from Snake you'll find a slew of other mini-games to play online, including Hockey and Graffiti, the latter of which works like the same mode in the Tony Hawk games where you claim areas by performing the biggest tricks off of them.

Rainbow Studios has proved time and time again that it knows offroad racing like no one else, and MX vs. ATV Untamed looks to take its franchise to the next level. We're impressed with what we've seen so far, and can't wait to see how it turns out come its December release.

MX vs. ATV Untamed Hands-on

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