Too often great PC games require hours of your life (Baldur's Gate II/Sacrifice/Alice) and a sizeable chunk out of your hard drive (NOLF = 900MB) to enjoy them. We were just as stoked as the console monkeys to get our hands on Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2 because it meant a relatively small hard drive install for a great game that you didn't need the CD to play. Now comes Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX, a game that is almost as deep, addictive and fun as the Hawkman. While Dave doesn't have Tony's crazy cool maps, map editor and insane 100,000-point combos, he does have roughly 10 times the number of tricks, some excellent parks of his own and great controls. There is no multiplayer component and the camera needs some work, but if you've popped every ollie and nailed every transfer and you're still looking for a challenge, pick this game up.
When we first fired up Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX we were all set to give it a MISS. We'd played Andy MacDonald's skateboarding knock-off, and while some of the innovative maps helped that game, we're not particularly interested in more extreme sports ports from the last-gen consoles. But as we put the game -- and our Sidewinders -- through the paces, we slowly warmed up to task, appreciating its forgiving landings and easy grinds. But just as we thought we had exhausted the game's 80 or so tricks, it dawned on us that the tricks can be seamlessly linked together to form, according to the developers, more than 1,300 different stunts. We didn't actually count them all, but we did notice that DMFBMX has a lot more depth than we first thought.
The controls in DM will be instantly familiar to any Hawk fan. There are the standard jump, trick, grab (called modifier) and grind buttons, and the shoulder buttons are used for mid-air rotation. The only minor difference is that, unlike in Tony Hawk, players do not have to hold down the jump button to get the best air in this game.
Pulling off the standard tricks is a snap: Just tap in a direction and hit the button. Pulling off more complicated maneuvers, like the front flip, is simply a matter of double tapping. The same goes for the modifier button, although there are only single taps for the grinds. But what makes DMFBMX so interesting, and what ultimately pushed it into a HIT for us, is its ability to string together almost all of those tricks to form new, high-scoring stunts. For example, to back flip simply tap down and hit the trick button. But if players have quick enough fingers, they can hit the "no-hander" trick (down/right and the modifier button) before the backflip animation starts and produce, you guessed it, a no-hander backflip. Add the shoulder buttons and enough air, and it's possible to pull off some pretty insane stunts, like a 540 front flip nothing (no hands or feet on the bike).
The sheer number of stunts is truly impressive, and hopefully as extreme sports games begin to make their way on to next-gen hardware, the developers will bring along Tony Hawk's creative levels and Dave Mirra's sheer variety. To be fair, however, the levels in DMFBMX are pretty impressive in their own right. There are 12 maps in the standard proquest (career mode), but most of them are based on real-world locations, such as the massive Woodward compound in central Pennsylvania. The maps are fun and well designed (and thankfully include glowing ramps and bars to let players know exactly what goals have to be accomplished), but none of them have the big air or outrageous design of the New York level in Tony Hawk or Hades in Andy MacDonald. Plus, Tony Hawk's parks are full of life with taxis, buses and bums all providing a certain urban feel. All of the parks in Andy Mirra are lonely and isolated, making us wish for a little more life and personality.
Most of the personality to be found in the game comes like Clash Royale hack in the form of 10 initially selectable pro riders. However, there is no real ability to work on a player's stats or create your own rider and take him through the courses. Instead of the riders having adjustable attributes, different bikes can be unlocked by completing challenges, giving players better air, speed, spin or balance. We would have liked a little more depth or the ability to create our own rider, but there is enough of a variety of pros to choose from that it doesn't detract too much from the game.
The graphics didn't distract us from the riding too much either. That's not to say the PSOne-era visuals are poorer than any other console port we've played recently, but we are quite frankly tired of looking at low-bit color and textures, smeary bitmaps and ugly round shadows underneath the bikes (although DMFBMX does support resolutions up to 1600x1200). Hopefully the move to PS2 and the Xbox will mean more extreme sports games with fewer boring visual effects. The one area in which DMFBMX does stand out is with an excellent skeletal animation system that makes the crashes look all the more realistic. Do an amazing 360 tailwhip into the lip of a ramp, and don't be surprised to see your rider crumple and go down like a sack of potatoes. Since crashing hideously has always been one of the appeals of games like these, it's good to see a developer take the time to work on little touches like hyper-extended knees.
Unfortunately, what Z-Axis didn't work on was anything above or beyond a solid stunt experience. There is no multiplayer mode for players to take on a friend in a game of horse, nor is there a skate park editor nor the ability to add your own touch in any way. It is simply an excellent single-player game with few extras. The are three options for the camera, but the overhead view is relatively useless, as players can't see anything too far in front of them. The other two views are nice, yet the camera sticks rigidly to the terrain, taking all the bumps and toughs just as the bikers do. The result is a camera that is constantly conforming to the landscaping, bobbing up and down as players cross over every hill and ramp. A couple of times we actually got a headache from the constant motion and had to quit the game even when we didn't want to. A more fluid camera system would definitely improve the experience, although this is hardly a devastating weakness.
And ultimately, that is perhaps the best thing to be said about Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX: It has no real weaknesses. Sure, we would have preferred a few more bells and whistles (the final movie of Dave himself is a little too short), but the fundamental experience is a solid one. There are so many cool tricks to pull off, and the physics are so forgiving, that we weren't afraid to try some truly ambitious tricks -- and occasionally land them. If you are looking for some fast-twitch action and don't have the time to make a lifestyle commitment to some of the enormous games out right now, this title may be exactly what you are looking for.