MX vs. ATV Alive

For: PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360

From: THQ

ESRB rating: Everyone (mild language, mild suggestive themes, mild violence)

Price: $40

Just in case the current economy of video games wasn't confusing enough for you, along comes the newest and strangest chapter in the long-running MX vs. ATV series to confuse the situation just a little bit more.

You didn't think the lower retail price - $40, down from the usual $60 - was because THQ loves you, did you?

It isn't. Rather, it's the basis of a new pricing plan that, if successful, may become a new normal.

For that lower price, Alive arrives with the best iteration yet of its unique brand of off-road racing. It also comes standard with a smattering of tracks and single and multiplayer (two players split-screen, 12 online) modes. Initially, most of the tracks and events are locked, though every mode has a few that are available to play straightaway.

Instead of the usual career mode, Alive outfits you with a single experience points bar that accrues experience across every mode of play. Upgrade to a new experience level, and new parts avail themselves to your rider and his motorbikes and ATVs. Achieve certain level milestones - level 10, for instance - and you get faster vehicles to ride, new tracks on which to ride them, and new events (online and off-line) that are available only to players of certain level classes.

Beyond that? Open up your wallet. Alive prominently features an online store in its main menu, and THQ plans to gradually stock it with new events, vehicles, and tracks you can purchase piecemeal, eventually turning your $40 investment into whatever price you're willing to pay.

Cynicism about the "have it your way" messaging aside, Alive's handling of this idea could be worse. If you never drop a dime into the store, there's still a respectable amount of content to unlock simply by playing the game and leveling up. (New copies of the game also include a voucher for a free download that includes what are, until you reach level 10, the best tracks and events in the core game.)

But for being a game that's all about the art of the continuous reward, Alive errs by unlocking that core content at an aggravatingly slow pace. Until you reach that 10th level, for instance, you're stuck riding the same four long tracks, two short tracks, and three free-ride environments (voucher content included) ad nauseam. A trickle of new events becomes available then, at which point you repeat the process with a little more variety until you hit level 25.

The idea, of course, is for you to alleviate the tedium by buying new stuff online. (Predictably, you can even pay to unlock all core content straight away.) But when all the math is done, that isn't a terribly great trade-off when you consider this so-called flexibility comes at the expense of the more full-featured career modes from previous games.

But if you have to ride these tracks over and over, at least it's fun to do so. Alive continues the heavy infusion of physics that really came into focus in the last game, asking players to control their rider's body and position while simultaneously controlling the vehicle. The dueling weight factors (along with the effects of heavy track deformation) add a subtle but unmistakable layer of strategy to the art of cornering and fighting for position - in the air, post-ramp, and on the dirt. But none of these factors works at the expense of the speed, danger, and general freneticism that have made the games so accessible all these years.