Tony Hawk: The first name in extreme sports entertainment. That is easily a claim Activision can make about its award-winning series, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. He's on every console. He's reinvigorated a genre that's been dead since Skate or Die. It is difficult to escape the looming shadow of the ubiquitous skater, but Acclaim has done an admirable job trying with Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX 2.
Conceding the skateboarding world, Acclaim has staked its ground in freestyle biking, an intense extreme sport just as extreme as Tony's. Dave Mirra is a world-class biker: a worthy avatar for this past-time. Players bike as Mirra and 13 other pro riders through ten enormous arenas, earning points for tricks, which unlocks new bikes and arenas. This is the formula Tony Hawk set for the genre. However, Dave Mirra is not a simple rip-off: rather, a he's a fun and worthy alternative.
Each of the fourteen pros is nicely and accurately detailed. Better is the animation: riders transition fluidly between pedaling and catching air, between air and grinding, and between grinding and wiping out.
The arenas are likewise a pleasant average. Textures are fairly crisp. Random interactive items are scattered about each level. Trees do look reasonably like trees. They all look nice; but what matters more is their architecture and design, and in this Dave Mirra is a revelation.
Mirra's levels are enormous. This is quite a step up from the previous generation. Levels are huge -- and filled with architecture. Some arenas are so dense with ramps, half-pipes and other obstacles, that if you miss your mark, you're likely to hit something anyway.
Levels vary from traditional bike parks to a highway; each is built upon the theme of its setting -- grind rails in the Trainyards, or tree branches in the swamp. There is some rare pop-up, but as the player will be focused on the immediate terrain, that's hardly a distraction.
Less impressive is the camera. It is generally functional, exceptional even, during 80% of play. However, it does get stuck behind elements, and usually in the middle of some delicate combo. After racing for two minutes to complete some frustrating challenge, only to have it foiled by a dysfunctional camera-- this is controller-slamming misery. It's as good as Tony Hawk's camera, or any of the competition in this genre, but that's still far from perfect. A basic first-person toggle would have helped once in a while. The Z button's just sitting there.
Occasionally, Mirra suffers from slowdown. On rare occasions it is egregious, seemingly worse in some levels than others. I encountered the worst in the swamp level. It's abominable, and does interfere with gameplay. Thankfully it's rare.
Grinding and crashing sound good, tires hum distinctly over concrete and grass. It isn't the most distinguished aural environment in video games, but it's adequate. The audio never quite compliments the video: each level is so detailed, and so dense with obstacles, but they all sound empty. It's a pretty sparse soundscape. Even at the Trainyards, with engines rolling along tracks and cranes groaning at the docks, sound is shallow.
But like the pop-up, the sparse sound doesn't detract from gameplay. You might even say it focuses the gameplay. So... how's the gameplay?
Proquest: Proquest is the primary single-player mode. Players are presented with Challenges of varying difficulty; completing these Challenges opens up new arenas, bikes, and moves, earns new sponsors, and eventually qualifies the player for a competition.
The Challenges can be frustrating. They often require such precision and finesse that I spent half an hour perfecting just one. Some Challenges, set in specific sections of a level, get lost in the huge environments: "Grind on four glowing tree branches." It's a fun challenge, and the branches are actually quite close to each other, but camera does not cooperate. It's difficult to locate them all through the foliage. That's one of the least frustrating examples.
Session: This freeform mode has the same fixed time limit the Proquest does, but there are no specific Challenges. Earning points here unlocks nothing. High scores are registered in the same section as the Proquest scores.
Freeride: Appropriately named, Freeride puts a player in the level of his choosing, with no set objectives or time limits. Remember running around the castle exterior in Mario 64? Freeride has that feel, with more staying power.
Acclaim has integrated a trick system that allows for significant freedom. B performs primary tricks, while X performs modifiers: used together, and with taps of the directional pad or analog stick, Acclaim claims over 1,500 tricks are possible. I didn't count. I never ran out of new moves to try, though.
The joy of this trick system redeems the modest graphics, lax camera, and frustrating Challenges. Typically, frustration leads to controller slamming, a series of curses, and a good nap. But after giving up on the Proquest (as I did about once an hour), I routinely dropped into Freeride for a little BMX cooldown. It's fun, refreshing, and can be enjoyed for fifteen minutes or half the day.
Also worth noting is Dave Mirra's monstrous Park Editor. This is a far, far cry from the track editor in Excitebike. Players can build their own parks, from the ground up, in several different templates. Any obstacle featured in the game proper (and I think, a few extras) is available in the editor. Design a really sadistic course, save it to your memory card, and bring it to a friend's house.
Dave Mirra's Proquest is painfully flawed. However, the basics of gameplay are so delightful it almost doesn't matter. There's much more replay here than in Nintendo's atypically brief and tepid first-party offerings.
Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX 2 loses points for its camera and sometimes frustrating design, but it's too fun to ignore. If you're suffering from Tony Hawk fatigue, or just prefer BMX to skateboards, then give Dave Mirra a try. It's the best BMX game on the Cube.