Time for Trials
Before plunking down 15 hard-earned dollars on Trials HD, what you should know is that it is, as its name suggests, a time-trials game. Is it fun for you to run the same 30-second race for half an hour, restarting constantly until you get the perfect take? Did you find the TrackMania PC game so addictive you couldn’t believe it was free? Does your patience know no bounds? If you answered no to these questions, you can probably stop reading here and forget about it.
If you answered yes, you should also know that the gameplay in Trials HD is two-dimensional. You can’t steer left and right; you can only accelerate, brake, lean forward and back, and bail out. Anyone looking for a thorough simulation of piloting a high-powered bike should look elsewhere.
That said, what Trials HD does, it does very, very well. Your goal is simple: keep the bike moving as fast as you can without tipping it over. Thanks to the superb physics engine and ingenious level design, however, achieving this goal requires a ton of subtlety and precision. Since each attempt takes so little time, we found ourselves constantly compelled to try just once more.
The physics are nothing short of astounding. The bike’s movements always look and feel right, even if they’ve been deliberately exaggerated a little bit. Those who haven’t handled a motorbike before will quickly catch on to all the little tricks needed to make the bike’s engine, its wheels, and the ground work together harmoniously. For example, if you’re balancing on your back wheel and accelerate too hard, the whole bike shoots out from under you. If you lean forward too far during a jump and end up riding on your front wheel, breaking only makes things worse, pitching the whole apparatus forward. Before long, it’s second nature to lean forward and back as needed to make your bike hit the next ramp at the right angle. When you crash, ragdoll physics (with a little blood and a comic book-style “CRASH!” text thrown in) take over, so get ready for some awkward and painful-looking positions.
It’s good that the physics are so predictable and fair, because the tracks provided require absolute precision. There are five skill levels, and even the “Beginner” tracks will take a few tries for newbies to master. Many of the jumps are designed to throw off your momentum, and getting one even slightly wrong can put you in a bad position (too fast, too slow, wrong angle) for the next one.
Some jumps lean you so far forward or back that, rather than lean in the opposite direction to counteract your rotation, it’s best to rotate even faster, flipping your bike a full 360 degrees in the air. Sometimes you have to drive through Sonic the Hedgehog-style loops, or even let your bike roll down a ramp backward. As the levels get more and more demanding, it becomes more important to memorize the best way to handle each jump. Even when you’ve figured out how to navigate everything, hitting every jump just right in a single take can entail lots of work.
Therefore, before taking a gold medal (or even a silver; you get the bronze just for finishing), you’ll be crashing a lot. This will infuriate those with short fuses (guilty), but the game makes restarting as painless as possible. A simple push of the “back” button puts you back at the track’s beginning with no load screen. The B button restarts you at your most recent checkpoint, though it penalizes you with a “fault” (meaning you can’t get the gold). If you’re not obsessive about earning gold medals all the time, it’s possible to progress through the first few skill levels at a reasonably swift pace.
The game’s main mode is a series of 35 single tracks, and by earning medals in one skill level, you work toward unlocking the next. You also unlock faster bikes and new events in the other modes. The records are posted to online leaderboards.
Next up is tournament mode, in which you have to score well on multiple tracks in a row. These eight challenges take the game’s normal repetitiveness to a whole new level, because when you crash, you can lose entire tracks’ worth of progress. We found this to be a bit more trouble than it was worth, though it certainly provided an extra challenge.
Most interestingly, there’s “Skill Games” mode, in which you participate in 12 over-the-top stunts. These include riding inside (and later, on top of) a huge hamster ball-like contraption, bailing out of the bike and skiing through the air, dragging a wagon of bombs behind you without making them blow up, and climbing up a ridiculously steep ramp. The absurd nature of these challenges can make them feel a bit silly, but they provide a great break from the (sometimes gratuitously) difficult other modes.
For those willing to invest some time putting together their own tracks, there’s a level editor. According to the developers, it’s the same editor they used to program the included tracks, and you can share your creations with your friends online. We found the editor reasonably easy (if not very exciting) to use, and it adds a potentially infinite amount of replay value to the game. It would be nice for the developers to put together a collection of the best user-created tracks, though, so people besides the creators’ friends could see them.
On a technical level, Trials HD didn’t make a whole lot of demands on the developers; at heart it is, after all, two-dimensional. Nonetheless, the team went out of its way to polish the game’s presentation to a shine. The tracks are depicted in three dimensions, with oodles of detail and some realistic lighting effects, and even some nice explosions. The controls are incredibly precise (which is good given the extremely low margin of error). The sound isn’t the best, especially the bad voice acting and cheesy music of the intro screen, but the engine roar is quite satisfying. Most important, nothing about the way Trials HD is put together feels rushed, and that’s a clear sign that everyone involved in making the game cared.
Again, this title appeals to a fairly narrow subset of gamers. By the very nature of its genre, it can be maddeningly frustrating and repetitive, and this tendency increases markedly as you unlock harder courses. For these select few gamers, however, this is a must-buy, because it’s not often that a top-notch time-trial game comes around. We suspect that a lot of Xbox 360 owners will be spending a lot of time perfecting tracks, winning tournaments, and designing courses over the next few months.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.3 Graphics
They’re presented in 3-D, with details and lighting effects. Excellent for a LIVE Arcade title. 4.6 Control
This game demands real precision, and the controls make that possible. 2.8 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The intro screen has some cheesy music and terrible voice acting, but most important, the engine-revving sounds good. 4.6 Play Value
Lots of people will find this frustrating, but such is the nature of the time-trials genre. There are lots of tracks, tournaments, and skill games, and you can make your own levels and share them with your friends when you get bored. 4.4 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.