In a bumper year for racing games, it's increasingly hard to stand out. From your classic annual fare like F1 22 and MotoGP 22 to simulation-level behemoths like Gran Turismo 7, it's tough to leave a mark. The only notable gap in the market so far in 2022 is the arcade racer: focused on off-roading, more forgiving handling, and fun rather than skill. That's where MX vs ATV Legends steps in.
The latest game in the long-running franchise from THQ Nordic is a much-anticipated return, with the previous entry arriving four years ago. Sadly it doesn't do too much to reinvent the wheel, providing a solid off-road experience even if it doesn't revolutionise the franchise.
The more ambitious career mode and almost-endless range of races will no doubt appeal to hardcore fans of the MX vs ATV franchise, but it's a little too rough around the edges to tempt gamers away from established hits like Gran Turismo or Forza. MX vs ATV is back for sure, but not with quite as much conviction as you may want.
A New Career
The standout feature in MX vs ATV Legends is its revamped career mode, which is far more ambitious than anything we've seen before. There's a heightened focus on narrative, with opening cutscenes outlining your character as an up-and-coming hotshot on the racing scene. You then dive into a reasonably sized open sandbox, driving across the map to interact with NPCs and hunt down collectables scattered throughout.
It's not a game-changer by any means, but it's nice to see THQ Nordic do something different with the career mode. It takes clear inspiration from the open hub world of Forza Horizon 5, and it's nowhere near as detailed or fun to drive through, but the idea is certainly one to be acknowledged. It's a good way to get a feel for your bike early on and to gradually ease yourself into the wealth of races on offer. However, between events there's really nothing to do there aside from a brief chat with the NPCs, so you'll likely just be heading to the menus to get racing again.
However, the chances are you won't end up especially invested in your racer's career. The narrative is as thin as it comes, but in all fairness, the game isn't trying to tell a story. Rather, it's a unique glue used to tie together the range of race events and modes on offer, and on that front, it does the job. You may not feel especially bothered as your number of fans goes up, but you'll still want to partake in the next race regardless.
Two (Or Four) Wheels on the Track
The racing in MX vs ATV Legends has one problem, but ironically it's a very good problem to have. The issue at hand? You'll rarely if ever, want to be out and leading a race. That's because the gameplay when you're amidst the pack, battling for an overtake or just to stay on the track, is so damn fun.
It's split into three different gameplay types, each of which handles very differently. As you may expect, those are two-wheeled motorbike races in MX, driving quad bikes in ATV, and dune buggies in UTV. The latter option is probably the most enjoyable, due to the meaty handling of the buggies as they soar through the air and clatter back onto the earthy terrain. Quad bikes are slightly less enjoyable, often a bit too snappy when handling, and lack the challenge required to master the tankier buggies or more nimble motorbikes.
It won't come as any surprise, but the MX modes are by far the most fleshed out in all of MX vs ATV Legends. There are more MX races in the career mode than the other options, with hundreds of races available in single-player across all three. It's a staggering depth of choice on offer, but especially in the early stages, races can be way too easy. Particularly in the ATV series, I breezed past the first few races almost a full minute ahead of the second-place driver, and being out there all alone isn't quite as fun.
Motorbike races are enjoyable due to the inherent verticality and stunt-based gameplay loop, as you soar into the air on ramps and try to land safely. The series' wacky ragdoll physics make a welcomed return, and an increased focus on weight distribution means you need to pre-plan your positioning prior to hitting a ramp in order to gain the maximum distance. It's deeper than most racing games take the physics, which is always nice to see.
Aside from the career mode, there is a slew of other gameplay options. Exhibition and split-screen modes are fairly rudimentary one-off races, but the online options are more impressive. There's a hub world called the Squad Compound, where you and some friends can all explore the hub world together - though its inherent problem of lacking things to do remains. The more notable part is the general online racing modes, consisting of random events across the various maps.
The online portion isn't without its problems though. The first time I loaded into the Quick Race mode, I was instead placed as a spectator at the start of a race, which feels quite baffling. The second time around I was spawned into a hub world totally alone, again not in a proper race. The game's difficulty in actually finding a slot in a race is concerning, and the fact I couldn't get into an online game on any of my attempts doesn't bode well for the game's survival as a live-service racer.
These problems with the online services are hugely disappointing because on a technical level MX vs ATV Legends more than holds its own aside from that. It isn't as graphically impressive as other triple-A racing games, but the game still looks decent on PS5, runs at a smooth 60 frames per second, and loads fairly quickly. Some cutscenes are quite choppy and render very poorly, but when it comes to in-game performance, you won't ever find yourself frustrated.
Nonetheless, it's hard to acknowledge the positives of MX vs ATV when the glaring problems are so apparent. It's no good having a racing game that's fun to play when, in the online modes at least, it's almost impossible to actually do so. It's a shame because deep down there are engaging mechanics and fun races to enjoy, but the problems lingering elsewhere make it hard to recommend when better packages exist.
Unfortunately, with the current alternatives within the genre, it's unlikely that MX vs ATV Legends will mark its stamp on racing games. While the core gameplay is enjoyable, the disappointing online functionality and lack of gameplay alternatives mean there isn't too much going on under the hood outside of the career mode. The attempts to add a narrative and sandbox world to the series deserve to be applauded, but once you've gone through enough career mode races, you'll find that MX vs ATV Legends has little else to offer.
Reviewed on PlayStation 5. A code was provided by the publisher.