It's been a couple of years since the last MX vs. ATV entry in 2007, and Rainbow Studios is getting ready to take us off-road once again in their latest entry, Reflex. With THQ opting to ship Baja: Edge of Control last year in place of its annual MX vs. ATV game, it's given the developers at Rainbow Studios an extra year to introduce a number of welcome changes to the series. At a recent media event, I was given an opportunity to go hands on with a near final build of the game.

The biggest change to Reflex is an all new driving and control model. The developers at Rainbow have made great strides to improve the realism of the game, while keeping it entertaining. The control scheme is vastly different this time around, and physically separates your rider from the vehicle. The left thumbstick controls the handle bars, while the right thumbstick can be used to shift your rider's weight around. This is really useful when taking a tight corner, as by leaning into it you'll be able to clear it much more quickly. Another past complaint of the series has been addressed as well; in past years wiping out was a consistent problem. While you can't always avoid taking a spill this time around, in many situations you'll have a chance to save yourself. When taking a landing and finding yourself off balance, the game will provide an on screen indicator, and by flicking the right thumbstick in the direction indicated, you can shift your weight and regain your balance. While it'll cost you some time on the track to get settled back into your seat, it addresses one of the biggest complaints of past years.

As well, you'll find the freestyle system much improved over past games. Where previously you'd have to fumble around with button combos, this year tricks are much easier to perform thanks to the use of the right thumbstick. When you want to perform a stunt, simply hold down the left bumper and by moving the right thumbstick in a pattern you'll perform a trick (or a combo of tricks). While it's not perfect, as occasionally I'd performing an extra trick at the end of a sequence by accident resulting in a wipeout; it's light years ahead of past iterations. In fact, it actually makes the freestyle mode enjoyable, which isn't something I couldn't say for Untamed.

Visually, you'll find a huge improvement in Reflex over past iterations of the series. Environments are much larger this time around, and you'll find a wealth and variety of terrain. From large snowy mountainous environments, to backcountry dirt tracks, and large indoor and outdoor stadiums, the environments look both sharp and vibrant. The detail this time around is astounding, and one of the developers noted that the dirt textures under the new engine are nearly ten times the resolution of past games. As part of the visual enhancements the worlds feel more alive, notably the indoor events. For the first time, you'll feel the excitement of an indoor event, to everything from the roar of the crowds to the motion captured thirty second girls that shake their hips prior to the start of a supercross event. The emphasis this year was bringing the production values and excitement to the sport and Rainbow has done an excellent job in this respect.

Another important mention in Reflex is the introduction of deformable terrain. As racers kick up mud and dirt, this year it actually has a place to go. As races progress, you'll find new grooves dug into the track, and bumps that will force you to change your line. These grooves last the entire length of the race, even on the largest of environments. I took special note of this during the developer presentation, and spent a few minutes performing a donut and carving a deep rut in the preloading stunt course. When approaching this rut at full speed, it resulted in a wipeout, proof that the deformable terrain can indeed alter the outcome of an event. This is a nice realistic touch (notably in the supercross events where the tracks are drastically altered throughout a race), and a welcome addition to the series.

Reflex offers a wealth of single player and multiplayer events, nationals, supercross, omnicross, and champion sport track. As well, you'll find a free ride mode, which allows you to explore the environments and tracks at your own leisure, freestyle which is a competition to perform the slickest tricks in both indoor and outdoor stadiums, and waypoint races, which are boundless point-to-point events. Reflex also has a multiplayer mode for up to eight players, which offer all of the above modes as well as two additional modes called tag and snake. All in all, there's plenty of gameplay options for both the offline and online racer, and a wealth of vehicles to take to the track as well.

In terms of vehicles, Reflex offers a huge variety of classes, including ATV, MX, MX Lite, UTV, Sport Truck, Sport Buggy, and Sport 2 Truck. I had a chance to try out each of these vehicle classes, and while the ATV's and bikes handle really well, the larger trucks and buggies could use some tweaking. They feel as if they're almost floating on the ground, and roll over far too easily. To be fair, the bulk of your time with the game will likely be spent with the bikes and ATV's, but the larger classes are an area that could use some tweaking. As a quick aside, Reflex doesn't offer much in the ways of licensed manufacturer content like bikes and ATVs (especially from non North American manufacturers). While this is an area I'm fairly indifferent about, I can recognize that enthusiasts may be disappointed.

Set to ship out in early December, MX vs. ATV Reflex is looking like a very solid improvement over past iterations, and the extra year of development is clearly present. The enhanced physics and graphics engines, and independent rider and vehicle controls are an improvement over past releases, and addition of deformable terrain is a nice touch. We'll see how it all comes together when the game releases in a few months.