ATV Offroad Fury: Blazin' Trails Review
Sony and Climax have basically transformed the PS2 version of ATV Offroad Fury 3 into a portable special edition that is in some respects better than its console counterpart. The graphics and audio are roughly the same, but there's a little more to digest in the PSP game. It clocks-in with 30 ATVs and 38 tracks, whereas the PS2 game "merely" had 28 and 30, respectively. As if that weren't enough, they've kept the comprehensive training and championship (a.k.a. career) modes intact and have upgraded the PSP game's online mode so that wins and rankings now unlock bonus goodies for use in all modes.
Instead of just focusing on a single aspect of ATV competition, such as supercross or freestyle, ATV Offroad Fury for the PSP serves up a buffet of all of the various types of competition. That includes supercross and national (long track) races, short track races, enduro races, and freestyle trick competitions.
On the solo end of things, you can tackle events individually in the "single event" mode or take them on in groups in the "championship" mode. The single event mode offers a full range of play options, including race, lap attack, free ride, freestyle challenge, and classic timer-based freestyle. There are a slew of unlockables--such as new ATVs, gear, cheats, and video clips--just waiting to be earned in both modes. Like many games these days, ATV includes a card collecting "quest" of sorts. There are 103 unique cards in all. Every time you win an event, you'll earn a card or two, which the game will put into an album. The individual cards aren't much to look at, just a hodge podge collection of rider portraits and ATV mock-ups. However, by completing different sub-sets of cards, you can unlock super-rare ATVs and gear that can't be acquired by any other means. Another neat bonus is the game's waypoint race editor, which lets you create as many as 3 different custom courses for each of the 7 included enduro tracks.
Perhaps you're interested in the game's multiplayer options, of which there are many. Multiplayer match-ups support both Ad Hoc (local) and Infrastructure (online) connections. Every event type and track from the single player mode is available in multiplayer, along with roughly a dozen kooky mini-games such as tag, basketball, and hockey. A maximum of four players can participate. This relatively "low" player count is a slight disappointment, but the trade-off is that races are very smooth. You won't experience the same lag and choppiness in ATV that people have reported in games such as Twisted Metal or MLB. There's also much more to the multiplayer modes than just exhibition races. In the Ad Hoc mode, you can trade ghost laps and ATV cards with your friends. In Infrastructure mode, the server keeps track of your win/loss record and rankings in various events. Certain rare cards and limited edition gear items are automatically unlocked once your ranking reaches a certain level.
Whether you choose to face human- or CPU-controlled riders, you'll definitely have to put in some "work" in order to beat your opponents. The track designs are full of nasty hills and sharp corners, and the physics are frighteningly authentic. Meanwhile, the controls feature a full boat of handling and trick maneuvers that you absolutely must master in order to keep pace with the pack. Thankfully, the learning curve isn't too-too bad, so long as you make sure to practice the controls, complete the training mode, and explore everything that the career-style championship mode has to offer.
The controls are easy enough to learn, and flexible, although they may come across as complicated at first. You can steer using either the analog nub or the directional pad, lean on the gas or the brakes with the X and square buttons, and kick in powerslides by holding down the R button. The analog nub and d-pad also let you pre-load jumps (for greater distance) and re-orient the ATV in mid-air, which is handy if you come off of a ramp off-line. The remaining buttons are used for tricks (ground and mid-air), which is mainly worth mentioning because tricks are the best way to rack up points for use in the championship mode's pro-shop.
Since the PSP has fewer buttons than the PS2, they had to double up on one of the buttons. The dev team chose to map ground-based bicycle tricks and the third air-based trick button onto the same button (left trigger). This compromise is satisfactory, but it does mean that it's real easy to attempt an air trick "by accident" while rolling over bumpy terrain, when your mere intention was to yank the ATV onto its side and ride it like a bicycle. The resulting wipeouts aren't pretty. This happenstance can be avoided by limiting bicycle tricks to flat terrain, which is an acceptable solution.
Terrain plays a major role in how your ATV handles. Also, the physics are frighteningly accurate. Bumps and hills can make it tougher to steer, so much so that in some cases you'll have to consider using a slower and more stable ATV as opposed to one that's rated for raw speed. Running into the pylons and hay bales that line the course are a sure way to lose speed or end up flat on your butt. You also have to watch out and make sure that one of your opponents didn't knock one of them into the middle of the course area after an earlier spill. Even the angle that you take a jump at can have significant effects on your stability and speed. If you land outside the course area or plant with the nose pointed too far down, you could end up losing speed or crash outright. Powerslides are often the best way to get through turns on dirt tracks, but you'll have to employ a much softer touch, or even slap on a different set of tires, on sandy or icy courses.
That's where the championship mode comes in. New ATVs, parts, and equipment can be bought or unlocked in the championship mode, and it is the gradual assimilation of these parts into your arsenal that will play the biggest role in your ability to beat the CPU (aside from skill, of course). In a nutshell, the championship mode presents 12 different championships, each offering between 5 and 8 individual events. Every discipline is represented, be it supercross, freestyle, short tracks, and so forth. When you win an event for the first time, you'll either unlock a new ATV for the garage or a new card for your card book. Furthermore, every time you place in an event, you'll earn points that you can spend in the pro shop. There are all sorts of goodies available there, including new ATVs, better tires, and color-coordinated gear for your rider.
Once in a while, you'll hit the wall (figuratively) on a track and only be able to make further headway by buying a new ATV or a new set of tires. That's why earning points and picking up new items in the championship mode is almost as important as how much skill you develop. Thankfully, it's pretty easy to jump back and forth between the different championships. If you "hit the wall" in supercross, you can always rack up points in freestyle and short track until you can afford the upgrade you need.
You'll need to learn and master all of these aspects if you hope to beat the CPU, which is honestly the only legitimate complaint I have regarding the game. Aside from the fact that their ATVs are usually one-step above your own, the A.I. controlled riders don't make many mistakes and have a nasty habit of catching up during the final lap. They're not necessarily cheating. You can see that if you watch them out there. The A.I. has just been programmed to be that good, particularly near the end of a race. This is especially obvious when you see them bust out no-handers while coming off the small molehills lining the straightaways. This sort of rubber-band A.I. is a cruel thing to spring on players right at the beginning. Don't let it scare you off though. Your skills will catch up and the items you buy in the shop will help a ton.
The graphics and audio may also help you to forgive the game's unrepenting depth...
If you're familiar with how the PS2 version of ATV Offroad Fury 3 looks, then you already have a good idea of how Blazin' Trails on the PSP looks. The graphics are sharp, the riders are heavily detailed and animated, and the courses are absolutely huge. Even though there are pylons and hay bales laid down to keep you pointed in the right direction, you can pretty much go anywhere you want. You'll notice active environmental touches all over the place, from basic things such as waterfalls and streams, to really awesome things like rescue vehicles and locomotives. The roostertails that kick up behind the ATVs reflect the terrain you're driving through, be it dirt, mud, grass, snow, or whatever. Some courses also feature harsh weather conditions, such as rain or snow, which are simulated by little droplets of water collecting and dissipating on the screen in much the same way they would on a rider's goggles. For whatever reason, the developer had to remove all the spectators from the stands, which is a shame. However, to make up for it, they've increased the overall sight distance. The only real nitpick I have with the graphics is that the frame-rate tends to dip and sputter when other opponents are in the field of vision. Sometimes, the dropped frames disrupt my timing and cause me to steer too sharply, which does occasionally lead me to drive right into a wall or pylon.
On the audio side of things, the sound effects and the various environmental noises are top-notch, but the quality of the musical accompaniment is a topic that's open for debate. The noises that the engines make, the sound of the tires grinding up the dirt, and the vocalizations that the riders make when they land are all very lifelike. When you drive past a stream or a shipyard, you'll hear authentic atmospheric noise piped in at an appropriate volume. The musical soundtrack is a collection of 36 songs from popular artists like Crossfade, Red Tape, and Ween. That's nice if you're into loud alternative rock, but not so nice if you're into other musical genres. You can add your own music to the soundtrack by placing ATRAC format files into the game's music directory on the memory card. This feature doesn't always seem to work though, which explains why it isn't documented in the manual.
One last thing I'd like to talk about before wrapping up are the load times. Specifically, they're too damn long. It takes well over a minute just to get booted up and almost 60 seconds to load up a track. That's about how long it takes to transition back to the results and setup screens after a race too. Ugh.
To sum up everything I've said in a more succinct manner, ATV Offroad Fury: Blazin' Trails is the total package. It's fun, it's involved, and it's portable. Some of you will no doubt have worries that the A.I. may be too challenging or that the career mode may be too time consuming. With regards to those concerns, my only advice is that you cowboy up and at least give this game a rent (or borrow it from a friend). You'll be missing out on one hell of a great ATV game if you don't.
5/4/2005 Frank Provo