I’ll admit, I haven’t played a racing game on DS since I got over my Mario Kart dependency. The genre is surprisingly under-represented on the DS, but THQ is looking to change that with MX vs. ATV Untamed. The latest in a long running franchise of off-road racers, the DS port of Untamed was developed by Tantalus Interactive, who handled some of THQ’s racing games on the GBA and PSP. They do a pretty good job with Untamed for the DS, even if the end result is a little short.
The big accomplishment for Untamed is that the gameplay is just as complex and enjoyable as it is on home consoles. Untamed uses the gameplay principle of rhythm racing, a more nuanced way of playing a racing game based off the handling of real ATVs and MX bikes. Most racing games require you to simply hold on the accelerator and steer, but Untamed goes deeper than that. You have to manage your gas and clutch, and pre-load jumps by shifting your weight with the D-pad, all in the proper rhythm.
Most of the courses require you to use the subtleties of your vehicle; deep trenches will bog you down if you don’t pre-load, and trickier areas are unforgiving to players who lead-foot the gas. The ten courses may seem unfair at first, but practice will teach you how to time your jumps and maneuvers. Tantalus did a very good job of building courses that adhere to the mechanics of the series, and challenge players to perfect their rhythm racing.
There are two modes of play in Untamed: X Cross Tournament and Stunt Challenge. X Cross consists of three cups that progress in difficulty and complexity, with the courses getting harder as you go. Stunt Challenge has you racing on the same courses, but competing with other racers for points, by pulling off tricks with your vehicle of choice. As I played I discovered that Untamed has a lengthy and varied selection of tricks, some of them requiring some good timing and button combos. Thankfully, these trick combos are listed in the manual.
Both modes allow you to choose what vehicles are in play: MX, ATV or an even mix of both. Once the vehicle is decided, you pick your character, from a selection of four ATV drivers and four MX. Finally, you can choose between Amateur and Pro difficulties. These are really the only options the game gives you, which limits replay value. There is a “custom” mode that lets you pick the course, number of AI riders and laps, in addition to the other options, but it doesn’t add much variety. On the upside, it does let you practice any of the courses you’ve unlocked.
Untamed also has a decent multiplayer to extend the experience. Up to four players can compete multi-card in either the standard cup races or a custom race set up by the match’s host. The multiplayer mode has all of the features, courses, vehicles and drivers from the solo mode, so technically you could play the whole game over again once you’ve unlocked everything. There’s no play over wifi, and you can’t add any AI opponents either; in fact, the whole game is limited to four riders on a course, regardless of what vehicle type they are driving. Eight racers on a course would probably get a little busy, but I can imagine five or six being okay. I’m guessing the four racer cap is due to the DS’s hardware limitations.
Speaking of which, Tantalus has done a lot with the DS’s meager graphical abilities. The racers, vehicles and courses have crisp textures and modest polygon counts. There are even some dusty particle effects for wipeouts. The animation and physics are impressive for the DS, considering the tricks and the different handling of the ATVs and MX bikes. The vehicles control and react smoothly and realistically, which is more than I can say for the unfortunate PS2 port of Untamed.
MX vs. ATV Untamed is an accomplishment on the DS, simply due to its spot-on recreation of the series in portable form. It nails the signature gameplay and offers a decent handful of courses and options. On the other hand, it lacks the wealth of extra goodies and the massive selection of courses and riders you’ll find in Mario Kart, or even the console versions of Untamed. You’re getting a slimmed down, fine-tuned version of the game with perfected essentials and not a whole lot else. More casual players might be turned off by this, but hardcore fans can expect the essence of what they love about the series, in a size they can carry in their pockets.