Getting Knocked About by Trials Evolution

Whatever you do, don’t fall off.

This is the axiom that lies at the heart of Trials Evolution. Ultimately it’s an easy concept to understand: get from one end of the track to the other whilst straddling your fuel-injected bronco, and try not to be a mangled blend of broken bones and exhaust fumes by the time you get there; finish lines have a strict dress code, and showing up drenched in blood is quite the social faux pas.

The key ingredient of this simple recipe is wrapped up within the games physics engine. Speaking in Game Developer Magazine on the successes and failures of Trials HD, the developers, Redlynx, said that:

‘At the heart of Trials there are simple controls layered within a very realistic physics model. All the animation you see in the game is based on physics engine simulation: Rider on bike, rider tumbling down, bike movement and collision response, moving objects, flying explosion debris, structures falling down, and so forth’.

With the physics engine playing such an integral role in the Trials Evolution experience, it’s no wonder that it’s presented so spectacularly. It feels immediately natural to fling yourself off ramps and navigate perilous obstacles, leaning your rider back and forth with the precision of an artisan watchmaker. When you inevitably introduce your rider’s teeth to some weather-beaten concrete the mistake is yours. It may seem deceptively easy but in reality it can be punishingly difficult. Your immediate goal is to get from point A to point B: no princesses to save, no evil empires to thwart and no multi-consequence dialogue choices to ponder. It may sound basic, but what lies between points A and B will have you bent over your controller in fits of agony. When you couple a simple concept with a challenging solution it’ll soon be your vocation to best it.

“If there’s one gulf that Trails Evolution excels at clearing it’s the perilous chasm between frustrating and challenging”

One trait that Trials HD quickly became renowned for was an unforgiving approach to difficulty. Trials Evolution certainly lives up to its forbear in that respect, but unlike what came before it, it maintains a level of accessibility for those new to the series.  The early stages consist of easy jumps and obstacles that even the layman should have no difficulty in sailing through on their first try, building up their level of confidence and allowing them to get to grips with the simple controls; which are easy to learn but impossible to master. This is supplemented by regular ‘license tests’, which give a detailed run-through of all the new elements to be introduced in the next batch of tracks. Once you’ve proven your worth and earned your next license you’re rewarded with a new bike, that’ll be trickier to handle, but far more suited for use in the tougher courses.

The more gradual approach to difficulty was something its predecessor really suffered from lacking. Inevitably there would come a point in Trials HD where you’d – often literally – hit a wall and be unable to advance any further. With the latest Trials incarnation, however, the progression feels a lot more fluid. You’re never left wondering how to conquer an obstacle as you’ll have encountered something similar in the licence test. It’s more a case of discovering just the right amount of acceleration, or the perfect angle to stick that landing, granted this can be a time-consuming process, but thankfully, direct tutorials are not the only avenue of guidance available to you.

The true genius of Trials comes with the inclusion of your Xbox Live friends’ ‘ghosts’, which appear as small dots alongside your rider as he’s hurled through saw-mills, power plants and even the odd nuclear explosion. Whilst primarily serving as an added incentive to push you through the tracks at an ever increasing pace, the ghosts also act as a means of improving your Trials skill, helping you to overcome some of the trickier obstacles the game presents you with. Take, for example, a particularly difficult assortment of tires that run through the track like a rubbery alpine-range. Whilst on your own it may feel like a personal Everest, a quick study of the speed and momentum of your online friends can reduce the task to be little more than a molehill. The modest table exhibiting everyone’s times quickly becomes an electronic battlefield where some hard-fought skirmishes will be waged in the name of bragging rights. It’ll draw you in and keep you revving through the dirt until your name stands above all others. 

“The more gradual approach to difficulty was something its predecessor really suffered from lacking”

If there’s one gulf that Trials Evolution excels at clearing it’s the perilous chasm between frustrating and challenging. Whereas some notoriously difficult games will relish in snuffing out your virtual existence for laughs, effectively erasing a good portion of progress, Trials Evolution feels more like a constant stream of trial and error, with very little punishment when encountering the ‘error’. Thanks to an instant respawn and some very forgiving checkpoints, the experience rarely grows tiresome, and if anything, you’ll end up more committed to overcoming whatever it was that rocketed your avatar into the depths of the cosmos.

A leading problem facing great games is that when they slip-up on even the smallest of factors the mistake is infinitely more recognisable; they leap out at you when compared to the finer qualities the game exhibits. For Mass Effect 3 it was the lacklustre conclusion, for Skyward Sword it was the surgery-like Wii-mote precision required to defeat some of the bosses, and for Trials Evolution it’s the repetitive and substandard soundtrack. Music is a powerful tool in video games, and as Peter Hasseltröm detailed in a previous article, a poor soundtrack can ruin even the best of experiences.  Granted, music tastes are a subjective quality, but throughout Trials Evolution, the over the top guitar riffs and incoherent hollering distracted me from the few good tracks that were swimming around in the muck.

“You’ll discover a wealth of options with which to tinker and tune your purpose-built tracks” 

When you grow tired of contesting your friends’ times and clambering up the leaderboard of the conventional tracks you’ll inevitably be drawn in by the bizarre allure of Trials Evolution’s skill games. Ranging from the Marble Madness style ‘S.P.H.E.R.E’ to a modern twist on the Greek legend of Icarus, the skill games offer a nice break from the intensity of the standard game. What they seem focused on delivering is a showcase of exactly what can be achieved in the map editor if you set your mind to it, with homages to many titles proving to highlight just how far one can verge from the games standard formula. The problem, however, is that many of these homages feel like a poor adaptation of the original source material; if I wanted to play ‘Splosion Man, I’d just play ‘Splosion Man, not Trials’ clunky tribute. The true originality is to be found in the downloadable courses that have been meticulously crafted in the games extensive track-editor, which can provide an unlimited source of new tracks and trials to invest some time in. The track-editor itself comes in two forms: ‘lite’ and ‘pro’. Yet, even on the simpler setting I found it devilishly tricky to throw together even a rudimentary course to test my metal on. The investment it takes to rival the offerings of the download section might discourage a great deal of Trials Evolution’s audience, but if that sort of thing appeals to you, then you’ll discover a wealth of options with which to tinker and tune your purpose-built tracks.

What Redlynx has delivered with Trials Evolution is both a fitting tribute to its forefathers and one of the best arcade games made available on the Xbox Live Arcade all year. It sets the bar on the genre so high that even the fastest of bikes will have difficulty in clearing it. It may be driven by a single basic mechanic, but it’s utilised so effectively that it’s hard to tire of blasting over jumps and obliterating your friends’ best efforts. It’ll challenge you to the point of unfettered rage, but in the end, such anger will manifest itself as a determination to conquer what had beaten you; to rise from the depths and soar like an exhaust-boosted eagle. It ascends to colossal heights and sails clean over its competition, landing with the admiration and sales such a well-made game deserves.