True to its name, Trials Evolution is the biggest, baddest version yet of RedLynx's brutally tough physics-based motorbike racing-platforming thing. The heart and soul of Trials hasn't changed one bit; it's still all about forcing you through the most complicated obstacle courses you could conceivably navigate on two wheels. Considering all I really wanted after playing Trials HD was more Trials, that's a great thing. And this time, the trimmings around that core conceit are so robust and the sheer content so plentiful that it's hard to imagine Trials getting much better than this for 15 bucks.
I won't deny frequently wanting to throw the controller at the TV while playing Trials Evolution. Come to think of it, this wouldn't be a Trials game if I didn't feel that way, but it's not like the game goes out of its way to maliciously abuse you. It's harsh but fair. After all, the gameplay in Trials hinges on a grounded, plausible physics model where even the slightest throttling or braking or leaning has great significance to the way your bike handles, and there's always a way to get over the most absurdly angled ramp or crazy-looking jump, even if you haven't figured it out yet. As frustrating as some of the later courses can be, there's always room for you to improve with a little more practice and a little more finesse. Blaming Trials for being too hard is like getting mad at gravity when you fall down.
The good news for casual Trials fans or newcomers is that Evolution offers a gentler learning curve than Trials HD did, which wasted no time getting stupid hard and not offering you much else to do if you weren't interested in going really in-depth with the gameplay. There's a huge list of courses in Evolution and they're broken up sensibly, with a more gradual ramp in difficulty that's punctuated by occasional license tests which actually offer some good tutorials on how to do things like drive up an almost sheer incline. Make no mistake, there's still a point where the late-game courses get so technical that they're no longer intuitive and you have to inch your way through them slowly, failing a bunch of obstacles over and over until you master them. But by the time you get that far, there's a better chance you'll have at least some idea of how to tackle those crazy ramps and jumps without pulling out all your hair.
Other than a user-made track feature that was hamstrung by limited sorting features, the main course progression and a few wacky minigames were pretty much all there was to occupy you in Trials HD. So it's great that RedLynx has fleshed out the peripheral features so thoroughly in Evolution. The big story here is multiplayer. There's a rollicking four-player mode, ideal for talking trash, that works locally or online, where you compete through a series of rapid-fire tracks and earn points based on your time and number of faults. You can also compete through a more serious, by-the-numbers race where you only see ghost-style representations of the other players moving through the course at the same time. The game lets you rack up a bunch of money playing the single-player tracks and then buy a bunch of cosmetic gear for your rider so you can look unique when you compete, and I really appreciate that there's a straight-up color wheel that lets you colorize your outfit any way you want. More games should have that.
The short list of minigames from Trials HD has morphed into a veritable circus of skill games that have you largely leaving the bikes behind so you can ski on dirt or try to fly across a long jump field by flapping a pair of makeshift wings made out of boards. Even the ones that stick to the motorbikes are pretty ridiculous; one of them suggests that your brakes are broken and challenges you to get as far as you can with the bike's throttle pushed all the way down. The skill games are a great change of pace from the more seriously technical main levels. And since every level in the game is hooked directly into leaderboards and ghost data for your friends, it's a cinch to start competing with each other for better times, even indirectly.
Evolution's expanded user-generated content features may well be its most valuable feature, after some time passes and more great levels get made. The game makes the simple but extremely necessary improvement over Trials HD of letting you view user courses made by everyone, not just people on your friends list, and there's a wide variety of ways to search for and sort new levels, with some curated by the developer and others categorized by type and rating. There's--count 'em!--two level editors in here, one that makes it pretty easy for almost anyone to make simple courses that hew close to Trials' obstacle-course format. Then there's the "pro" editor, which lets you dig so deep into the engine and game mechanics that it's capable making things like a first-person shooter and an overhead-scrolling Raiden clone (which already exist). How is it possible this game quietly shipped with LittleBigPlanet in it? It's nuts.
This game also goes way, way over the top with the visuals in a way that Trials HD could only dream of. That game took place entirely in a pretty bland industrial warehouse sort of environment. By contrast, Evolution seems to have lost its damn mind. There's one course that takes place in a warzone, with planes dropping bombs all around you as you go, and another that seems to be set in Stonehenge under a blood-red sky. The pitch-perfect tribute to Limbo stands out as another memorable course, and most of the levels end with some kind of ridiculous animation that sends your rider flying into the moon or headfirst into a toilet. Something always seems to be blowing up nearby because, why not? There's a ton of variety in the art design and a general irreverence that pervades the entire game, down to the hilarious rapping about riding motorbikes that you hear when you boot the game up. It's hard not to feel some affection for a game that gets so randomly silly.
It's also hard to stop playing Trials Evolution for very long. The action is as tight and demanding as it ever was, and this time around it's such a fully featured and attractive package that you shouldn't miss it if you have any interest in this style of game at all. It's one of the best games to hit a downloadable service in a good long while.