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PREVIEW

MUD

MUD solidly cakes the Motorcross World Championships in the arcade racing mould.

Slings the two-wheeled sport over a tour of postcard-friendly dirt tracks in prominent locales across the globe. Tears up deformable terrain. Grabs massive air and rarely keeps courses straight or level.

You got your quick races vying for attention alongside an extensive event-driven career divided between riders built from the P.C blueprint and offering unique upgrades for bike (tune-ups) and rider looks (cosmetic but cool). Trick-based arenas with backdrops like aircraft carriers. Multiplayer with eleven other dirt-covered riders eager for the taste of gold and glory. Multiple race divisions. Rocking soundtrack. Massive jumps.

The 25% of development polish left on the title - a quarter that's worked its creator into a lather over Christmas and likely all the way up to release this Spring - can wait.

For now, we ponder the low figures that makes up the two-wheeled title count on PC and console these past few generations. Frame that through the fact that this roaring beast of a racer - so arcade it'd kick you in the crotch, slamd you to the ground and demand a quid for doing so - is developed by Milestone, the Milan-based developer responsible for WRC2 and the SBK series.

Both are stark contrast to the MUD-slinging arcade thrills of Motorcross, and a studio gear change between the two distinct styles of the racing genre is rarely seen. And it seems Milestone favour the approach you'd expect from the former. To walk through the studio's home - two floors nestled in the middle reaches of a high-rise office block in Italy's northern city - is to see an emphasis on meticulous detail.

MUD: FIM Motocross World Championship
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Be it the rectangular room layouts that have the development teams working on each part of the game lined up in a row, so you can see the game's various design states just by walking the length the room. Or the glass cabinets lining the adjoining corridors, within which is every game released by the studio, arranged by date and format. The entire office if a collage of visual time lines.

It's also quiet - even the horde of journalists converse in whispers. Only the roar of engines blasting from speakers during the opening presentation cause voices to raise.

All point to the discipline and attention that's carefully manufactured realism from four and two wheeled racing franchises. It's the contrast between past projects and the current that's so interesting. Respected as the Motorcross profession is, it's as if Milestone has exchanged the prim and proper dedication of a 9 to 5 for a debauched and wild weekend in the country.

What's worth noting is that the changeover isn't without its bruises.

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Openly discussed if not minutely detailed during our day visit is that the first iteration of the title - whatever form that took - wasn't up to scratch. Not only did it not match expectation but didn't embody the spirit of the sport. That Milestone still needed to feel out "the rhythm" of Motorcross. The realisation, to badly manhandle a phrase, that the cuffs didn't match the collar.

So, behind closed doors and some months before our arrival came an extensive retooling. An all new engine and re-firing of the ignition. An amalgamation of studied technique and freer expression. The thought strikes in gripping the pad for the first of many races that Milestone has reapplied itself to study not only the key concepts of what makes Motorcross the thrill it is for those that race it, but the core power the arcade racing genre has over those that want to play it.

Because MUD does feel a throwback - a good one at that - to the feel of those those impressively large motorcycle arcade cabinets of old. Sans the thousand pound bike frame replica.

MUD: FIM Motocross World ChampionshipMUD: FIM Motocross World Championship

You'll have thrown leg over one at some point of your life. The plastic rendition of a motorbike frame wielded to a large monitor, the combination a feat of logistics half engineering wonder, half hopeful prayer by its creators that the whole contraption wouldn't capsize as wannabe riders threw themselves with abandon against the frame's suspensions and screw fittings.

MUD makes you question the ability to keep the bike upright in the mud trails that dart through forests and up steep inclines; as with good arcade racers you spend most of the first race feeling out the physics, weighing up your handling.

Fear of wipe out was always half-present in the mind of us acrade players. Here too in MUD. Be it careening round tight corners to begin, or the build of correlation between throttle and brake that develops second race in, we're instinctively turning our shoulder into the turn, leaning slightly as if physical movement can better avoid track-side barriers than dextrous finger work on the controller.

However, that fear clashed with the immediate sense of freedom, of breathless exuberance at the height of a jump or stunt. MUD keeps the tricks in the race down to a single move: the "scrub", as its coined. A horizontal flick, wheels punching the air in front, one side of bike and rider pointed at the ground. The move's initiated as you gain any air off the terrain. Exit the move and land right, you improve the bike's speed.

We danced with death more intimately than we would protected in a steel cage and four wheels - there are sympathetic groans as we hammer into the turf at the wrong angle, our on-screen avatar pancaked against the dirt.

For all us wannabe riders that were left admiring the two-wheeled wonders from the roadside in real life either due to lack of funds or secret fear, motorcycle racing in videogames offered a chance to combat both: to be caught up in the moment and leave consequence and money behind. True too with with MUD, as we find ourselves focusing on racing lines, of keeping ahead of the herd.

MUD: FIM Motocross World ChampionshipMUD: FIM Motocross World Championship

If we had time to look, there'd be plenty to see in our surroundings. Courses take their cues from arcade heritage: there's tread marks of Midway, Sega, and a host of others noticeable in the design.

Tracks in Germany, Spain, Czech Republic and a host of others: all packed with a tourist book of photographic references track-side that tear along the inside curve between artful rendition and everyday stereotype.

As comedian Dara O'Briain told it, every country was defined by foreigners through two characteristics. The racing genre has its own lexicon for those traits: passed down all the way from Outrun to the current day and power-sliding past narrow-minded viewpoints to provide a highlight reel of the country in question - if you could train your eyes off the track, and that intimate dance with death, for a momentary glance.

It's an enjoyable spin around the world, but we're confined to a small handful of tracks, single races apiece. The other modes of the title - the lion's share, are consigned to the presentation reel and what we can see on monitor screens as we take the studio tour.

MUD: FIM Motocross World Championship

Its hard then to tell how well the various parts come together. It is a sub-genre, as we said, that's relatively light on representatives. Yet that in itself what makes any new competitor such compelling viewing.

Variety - progression upgrades and different modes - are one matter and argument towards longevity. But much more important, and to keep the player compelled, is nailing that thrill and accuracy - be it exaggerated reality or otherwise - of bike-riding.

And it's this that Milestone are concentrating on. Course collages fade into nothingness against the fusion of roaring mud-splattered engines and battling gravity. Of the vibrations between thighs, through hands and up arms, capturing the spirit of the two-wheeled racer. Of the joining of man and machine. We haven't got long to find out if the studio manages to pull off the perfect landing.

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