Trials Evolution is platforming hidden in racing, with included masters program in level design
Racing games that include dirt bikes or motorcycles often make the mistake of having the player control the driver and the vehicle as if they were one thing. The Trials series, which began on the PC and continued on the Xbox Live Arcade, breaks that idea and makes it very clear that you’re in control of the driver. The bike under the driver is a completely discrete object with weight, power, and danger attached to everything it does. The game allows you to speed up, slow down, and lean left and right to race across ingenious obstacle courses that will test both your nerves and your understanding of physics.
Trials Evolution is not a game about racing, and it’s not a game about tricks. It’s a platformer, through and through. It’s Mario on a motorcycle, and the levels are all designed to kill you in fun and interesting ways. The controls have been tightened and honed to the point of insanity; Trials Evolution feels good to play, even when you’re being thrown into a wall and watching your own virtual neck snap back in wince-inducing animations.
Your primary challenge is finding the best way to land every jump, and feeling the sense of weight as you lean forward into inclines or back to place your rear tire on the ground as you fall to gain traction and speed. Going as fast as possible is rarely a winning strategy; in many courses there are obstacles above you that will snap your neck or tear you off your bike. It’s not about the highest speed, it’s about finding the appropriate speed.
This is a game that forces you to understand what’s under you, what’s above you, and then try to figure out how to safely avoid everything that isn’t solid ground. It’s not easy, but the learning curve has been improved from Trials HD, and novice players will have no problems learning how to handle their bikes and enjoying the early sections of the game. By the time you’re asked to do the truly amazing things, you’ll have learned all the skills you need to do so.
Trials HD might have stranded players with its punishing difficulty and often dismal warehouse aesthetic, but Evolution offers more content to ease the way into the harder levels, and you’ll also be exploring open, sunny locations. The varied backdrops are a very welcome addition to the game, and the levels include a high degree of interactivity. You’ll see explosions, multiple paths, shifting ramps, and all sorts of surprises. You’ll crash often, and the resulting animations always look painful, but it’s rare that you’ll blame the game instead of your own skills. There will still be industrial areas to explore, but the variety makes the game feel much larger than the previous Trials titles.
The included level editor gives insight into how the game’s levels were designed, and you can experiment with the “Lite” or “Pro” flavors of map creation if you want to make your own challenges to share online. You can also open example tracks to figure out how they work. This is the sort of thing that acts like a director’s commentary for players interested in how their favorite games are made, and there is no quicker way to gain respect for good level design than by trying to craft your own. These are the tools the developers used to craft the campaign levels, and in the Pro editor you have access to all the scripting tools as well. The game comes with examples that show you how to create first-person levels or games where you control a rolling ball in a maze. The editing tools are powerful, and with the scripting examples you can get started creating your own completely new games. It’s an oddly powerful addition to a game that was already worth the money, but I’m certainly not going to complain about its inclusion.
I broke all my bones, but it felt like a kiss
If you get bored with making your own levels or checking out what other people have made and uploaded, you can play the wonderful multiplayer modes that work both locally and online. If that’s not enough, there are a series of skill challenges to master, although those are a little more hit or miss than the rest of the game. There is a monstrous amount of things to do here, and the amount of content in the game is only going to grow.
If you play a level that has been beaten by someone on your buddy list, you race a white circle on the screen that shows their progress, and gives you hints about what routes they took through the more extensive levels. This is a fun trick that turns every round into a race, and adds another layer of competitive spirit to your playing time. This is what separates great game design from good game design: The ability to layer multiple hooks over the main mechanic to keep the player engaged.
The price of failure is low, and you’re always learning. If you master a course you can begin to climb up the leaderboards. If you get frustrated with one mode, you can move on to the next. Games lose players when they hit a wall and walk away in frustration, or they begin to feel that another round isn’t worth their time.
The best thing I can say about Trials Evolution is that I never reached that point. I stopped playing because I spent an entire day in thrall and finally had to write about it, and make the kids dinner. After this post goes up, I’m going right back to my Xbox to continue playing. It’s that good.