Too Much Flash, Not Enough Substance
I've been putting this review off for about a week now, not because I think it's going to be a difficult review to write, but because it's probably going to be a pretty easy one... In a sad way.
The original Trials (Trials HD) was awesome, difficult but awesome. The game was the most popular game on XBLA by a pretty wide margin, beating out games like Castle Crashers, Geometry Wars and Limbo. The game seemed to resonate with, shall we say, more mainstream audiences for a reason that's actually not very apparent. The game can get brutally hard as you get towards the game's higher levels, probably even approaching the difficulty of a Super Meat Boy. Typically, super hard games have an instant barrier-to-entry for the majority of gamers, but that didn't seem to be a problem for Trials HD, largely, I imagine, due to the game's simplicity of control. The player is riding a dirt bike, and can accelerate and lean back and forward. That's it. Essentially all there were, was 4 buttons, and the ability to warp to the last checkpoint instantly with the push of a button. Simplicity of gameplay and slow ramp up in difficulty made it more accessible than it had any right to be, which made it appealing to the masses.
The sequel, Trials Evolution, keeps alot of Trials HD's charm, but still tries to change it up. The simple accelerate and lean controls are kept intact, and restarting back at a checkpoint after a wipeout is just as quick and easy as it was before. The first major difference you notice within your first 5 minutes with the game, despite the shitty menus, is the new friend list integration. By default, if you ride a track anyone on your friends list has ridden, you get to pit your time alongside their whilst you ride. Your friends names hover over the track, following the route they took when they got their best time on the level. It's a pretty cool idea, and is executed very, very well. After each race you see the times of all your friends and you're instantly added to that friends-only leaderboard, usually last. This friends list integration really took me by surprise, and made playing the game feel harmlessly competitive. That can be the danger with games like this, sure it's a challenge but what's the fucking point? Well when your mate's Gamertag streaks past you just 3 metres from the finish line, the urge to smash them in the next course is pretty damn strong.
I mentioned the menus briefly, a moment ago, but they really do suck ass. Now I know, menus may not be high on everybody's list of priorities, but they're the kind of thing you don't really notice until they're done badly. When you go into the single player menu you're treated to some shoddily strewn sticker-looking icons, with no discernible rhyme or reason to them. I just kept pressing A on the menu to get to the next track, though there was basically no indication if what to expect next. I only found out hours later that one of these stickers lets you access the bonus games, like skiing and a game when your bike explodes and you try to fly your body as far as you can. It would have been nice if I knew these were there sooner, but they're so terrible anyway that it wouldn't be a great loss if you never even noticed they were there. Another mode on this menu lets you play all the tracks in a set at once, though why this is appealing to anyone is beyond me. Like the previous Trials, you earn medals by how well you do on tracks, and eventually by getting more medals you'll unlock the next set of tracks. As far as carrots on sticks go it's fine, but come on, hardly groundbreaking.
The real bit that matters in a game like this (this game especially) is the level design. The game falls flat here. In the original Trials the mantra was difficulty through simplicity, you'd be confronted by just a box and you'd have to figure out how to get over the fucker with nothing but a bit of revving and leaning backwards or forwards. The challenge with trials was seeing the obstacle, sizing it up, and using your own homemade momentum to get past the obstacle, you always had a clear view of what was coming up and you always saw the way past even if you couldn't quite finesse your bike enough to get it done. In Trials Evolution there's precious little of that. They've definitely gone for style over substance and it's glaring. On one of the earlier tracks you're on you reach a section of the track that looks like it meets a dead end, you're mid-air by the time you realise it and you're kind of thinking to yourself "How the hell am I gonna get out of this?"... and then the camera spins and it turns out the track has a turn in it. Your rider stays perpendicular to the camera but the actual course you're on has like a 90-degree turn in it, so you have no idea what's going on, then moments later you smack into a wall only for the floor to start moving upwards underneath your unconscious body. Turns out, you're supposed to come to a stop on this particular bit of track while it lifts you onto another piece of track above you and out of sight, and the worst part is, the lift kind of flings you but the physics are all wrong, so about 3 quarters of the way up your wheels are no longer touching the floor, and the only way you know this is by trial and error: "Oh, the floor lifts here, guess I'll brake at this bit next time. Oh, the lift throws me at the top, guess next time I'll start moving forwards before it reaches the point it flings me, even though it's blocking my view of my biker so I can't ACTUALLY SEE if my wheels are touching or not". In a game like this you never, ever want to feel as though you're being subjected to randomness, but the feeling is constant.
The above example isn't the only either, there is one virtually every other level! From the entire level's gravity being messed up just for that one course, to having a track at night so you actually can't see where you're going at all, to having your bike propelled through the air with no control by water jets (seriously, who thought this would be a good idea?!?), to a level taking the piss out of Limbo which irritated me, to your bike actually passing through a cube of water, magically suspended in mid-air for no apparent reason, other than that it fucks with your jump. Skill is not king here, randomness is. The courses are designed to be a treat for the eyes of an onlooker, and not to be played on, atleast that's the way I felt for literally my entire time with the single player. There were moments where I would come across an obstacle and drive at it without leaning 3 or 4 times, each time getting a different outcome, sometimes I got over, sometimes I backflipped backwards off it, sometimes my front wheel just hit it and my bike stopped moving, it feels loose and pointless, and this is definitely due to the level design. I can see the conversation now: "Why make the bike handle in any consistent way over there smaller obstacle when we've got a level that spins round retardedly like a deleted scene from Inception!!! Fuck yeah!" I feel bad saying it, but it's one of the laziest sequels I've played in terms of improving over the original. Dumbing down the skill factor and making the levels behave with little-to-no consistency is surely a step backwards in anyone's eyes.
Thankfully the game does have a saving grace in it's multiplayer. Aside from the intuitive friends leaderboard stuff the game also has a full blown multiplayer mode which sees you race against opponents in real time, unable to crash into them or influence their run. It's sort of like a simultaneous time attack mode, except that seeing a guy wipe his face out into a metal girder is certainly distracting enough to make you fuck up yourself. If you do wipe in multiplayer it gets held against you at the end of a race, so getting to the end fastest may not always be the best way to win. The mode is really actually quite fun, and also simplifies it's tracks, they feel much more like a Trials HD map and they're so much better for it. As far as other features go, the game also contains a supposedly mammoth map maker, letting people make their own tracks sure, but also crazy things like top-down shooters, first person shooters or even an Angry Birds clone. While it's an interesting feature it only kept me entertained for 10 minutes at the most, though I will say, user-made maps download in no more than a few seconds and load up just as quickly. It's a very smooth process, just one I didn't end up very interested in.
Trials Evolution is then, for this gamer, a disappointment of tremendous proportions. Lacking the precision control of a Super Meat Boy, but trying to be just as hard, it frustrates in a bad way instead of a good one. The game seems more interested in taking you on a rollercoaster ride than letting you show off skills, and while the social integration is nice, I'm hardly going to go back to my mate and say "Ha! I beat your time on level 3, track 8! Suck it!", there's no fun to be had there because there's not a single level I touched that I would ever want to go and take another stab at. In it's defence, Trials Evolution's friend list integration sets the bar for all future XBLA games to (hopefully) copy, it's elegant and doesn't interfere with the gameplay at all, and the game's multiplayer is solid and enjoyable, but hardly has any rewards, other than winning, making it a tough prospect over other games where earning experience points actually matters (CoD, Battlefield etc.). Other than that though, Trials Evolution just doesn't cut it.
Not only is it worse than the original, it's not even in the same league, it's the high school sweetheart you remember so fondly, but whom you saw stood on a street corner 3 years later, with her hair falling out, offering blowjobs so she can buy her various anti-STD prescriptions. It's whored itself out, and is worse the wear for it. A damn shame.