In the 1800s when the combustion engine was new, if anyone had proposed fixing a motor between two knobbly wheels and using the apparatus to drive up giant earth ramps they would have been taken away as insane. Out of context extreme motorbike shenanigans is plainly a mad, bad and dangerous idea. Ah, the unfortunate Victorian dreamer might have said as the straitjacket was tightened, but wouldn't it be fun! The doctor would have smiled, soothed their fevered brow and administered laudanum with the generosity of a naval surgeon. Insanity and heresy in one era often becomes common sense in years that follow and so it was that the genteel clip-clop of hooves gave way to the ASBO guff of exhaust. In the cough of a fuel injector and the spatter of rainbow-oil placenta Motocross was born.
Motocross Madness is fun, very fun in fact, which makes up for the fact it is a Frankenstein game stitched together from well-worn concepts and that its graphics are far from top notch. Its general entertainment factor also just about makes forgivable the fact that the player character is your Xbox 360 Avatar, the gurning, attention seeking, illegitimate child of a playmobil figurine and the Windows 95 paper-clip. It is this unfortunate goon who you control on the dirt-bike, racing, exploring and backflipping your way through the game. This is irritating and charmless but thankfully has little or no effect on the overall experience.
The game has several modes. There's the basic race setting which sees you challenge nine different courses across three locations - Egypt, Australia and Iceland. Your opponents are seven computer-controlled characters and average gamers should be able to take gold on at least half of the courses first time and probably won't need more than a couple of attempts for the rest. Still, the courses are long and varied and there are more than enough shortcuts and jumps to make sure interest is held. There's a 'rivals' mode too where the challenge is to beat the times of the 'ghosts' of developers. These are not the actual souls of the programmers trapped inside the download but pre-recorded rides by the people who made the game. Beating these unlocks online leaderboards.
Next there's an exploration mode, which uses large maps where flaming skulls are hidden in locations requiring acrobatic and driving expertise to grab them. Gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded for the number you locate – what's particularly nice about this is that the exploration worlds are made up of a combination of the three race tracks from the competitive mode. Finally there is trick mode where the challenge is to score more points than computer opponents (those ghosts again...) in a fixed period of time, collecting floating hourglasses to extend the clock, a delicious fusion of Tony Hawk and Crazy Taxi. Multiplayer is also an option, both locally with one other friend against the computer, and online. This is fine, though as of the end of April the lobbies were quiet, and at several different points over a weekend there was no-one at all to link up with for quick matches.
Winning races and collecting the coins that are scattered around the tracks gives you cash with which you can buy new bikes and upgrades to increase speed, handling and acceleration. You can also fork out on new outfits for your avatar, not that it deserves them. Our avatar has been wearing a swanky suit and top hat since we played Red Dead: Redemption and the hat was so big we grudgingly spent (virtual) money on a bike helmet so we could actually see the road ahead. After winning around half of the races enough prize money will have been handed out to allow one bike to be fully upgraded which makes you a much stronger contender. However, the difference between bikes does not seem big enough to make increasing your collection of hogs an incentive, even when using specialist ones that are meant to be much better for stunts, for example. The other benefit of success (apart from obvious admiration from family, friends, pets) is experience points, which are garnered through pulling off what we understand is known as 'phat trickery'. XP levels your character up and in doing so unlocks new perks – different tricks, Road Rage-style kicks, and improvements to your bikes' afterburners. Completing individual events on the other hand unlock new levels as well as new bikes for purchase in the garage.
As the saying goes, triple-twister backflips are the spice of life, and Motocross Madness lives true to that adage. When you hurtle skywards from a bank of soil or a wooden half-pipe, pushing the L-stick in one of the four main directions in combination with different buttons causes your driver to attempt a trick which will score points if it is completed before touch-down. Providing you've got enough air you can chain tricks together for XP multipliers and increasing levels of sickness (in the 'dude that was sick' sense, not the 'talking to Ralph on the big white telephone' sense – geddit?). If you become overwhelmed by hubris and attempt more tricks than the jump allows you will find yourself dashed to the ground and will face a time penalty. Though you will lose any XP accumulated for the trick you were attempting, you do gain XP based on the distance you are hurled in a crash, which is nice. Landing tricks has the additional bonus of filling up your boost bar, which is essential for ever higher aerobatics and to keep a competitive edge in the harder levels. Though not a trick as such, the B button lets you drift around corners which can add another second to your reserves of boost if pulled off successfully.
Motocross Madness plays nicely, with enough skitter and slide to the bikes to give this cartoon offering a touch of realism. Most courses have some alternate routes where coins and boost power-ups can be found, some of these requiring careful driving, your back wheel sliding hither and thither as you go. There is a significant sense of satisfaction to be found in nailing long drifts, boosting out of them onto a ramp and adding another series of stunts to your score multiplier. Though mostly smooth the game is not perfect and once in every fifteen or so races a glitch can be encountered where your bike gets stuck in an impossible place - but you can always set yourself back onto the track with a tap of the back button.
The game looks pretty at times: the Egyptian tracks combine deserts, oases and archaeological ruins, the Australian ones span woodland and beaches and the Icelandic races rush over ice floes and angry volcanoes. The palette of colours is bright and cheerful in the vein of Mario Kart or any of its many clones but the overall design has a soupçon more connection to the real world – there are no roads made out of rainbows here. Overall in fact, the general impression of the visuals is that the 360 can't quite handle the detail that the game tries to achieve. Each race begins with a visible load of texture and bump maps and at times some of the scenery can look jagged and almost sprite-like, giving the impression that this is begging for a better chipset. This doesn't get in the way of gameplay though, and there is no problem with framerate, but it does make the game appear more dated than it should. The fact that the world is populated by hundreds of cheering, waving avatars only serves to emphasise the sometimes Wii-like appearance.
Motocross Madness achieves its aims all in all – it's an enjoyable racer with a range of features put together well that makes for a compelling and sometimes even addictive experience. On the downside, it has neither the originality or the graphical punch to set it apart nor does it present a substantial enough challenge to give it a long shelf-life. It is possible that if Motocross Madness gets a following and the online mode becomes busier it will give it a shot in the arm but without that the main game will probably only provide a few days of diversion to most – even if completing the exploration mode will add a few hours for the committed. Despite limitations this is fundamentally decent and worth a punt – strap on your leathers, give your helmet a polish and get ready for a bumpy ride!