If last summer’s Xbox Live Arcade releases taught us anything, it was that Microsoft’s Summer of Arcade definitely lived up to its title, and that downloadable games have the potential to be surprise hits. With Summer of Arcade 2009 in full swing, several big-name games have already hit the Xbox Live Arcade, giving gamers some much needed fun during a drought of retail releases. The latest Arcade game, Trials HD, quickly went from being a curious, seemingly simple motorcycle game to a complete obsession. It took me by surprise, but Trials just might be the most addictive and challenging downloadable release of the summer.
The basic concept of Trials HD is deceivingly straightforward. As an unnamed motorcycle rider, you must traverse obstacle courses of increasing difficulty, competing against the clock to win medals for your times. After a level or two, however, it becomes apparent that there is so much more to the game than just speeding towards a finish line. The ramps, explosives, tires, rocks, and other impediments become quite challenging to overcome only a few levels in, and you will soon find that there is a good amount of strategy involved if you want to get through each level in one piece—and in one try. The challenge is further increased by the physics engine, which makes it hard to keep your wheels on the ground after flying through the air.
There are five difficulty levels in Trials: Beginner, Easy, Medium, Hard, and Extreme. Don’t be fooled by the words “Beginner” and “Easy”, though, because the game’s steep learning curve makes Easy look like Medium in any other game. Medium then becomes Hard, Hard becomes Damn Near Impossible, and Extreme should really be called Good Luck Getting a Medal or Even Finishing an Event. It is a tough, tough game with more than just racing elements; knowing when to hit the gas, when to hit the brake, when to lean, and when to just let it ride is a huge part of the game’s strategy. This makes it feel more like a physics-based platform-puzzler with racing attributes than a straight-up racing game. Additionally, bonus challenges allow you to do things like ride through rings of fire with a jetpack on your bike, or bail and throw yourself down a flight of stairs to see how many bones you can break. These events are definitely entertaining, and a good way to add variety to the gameplay.
Though using them can be a challenge, the controls themselves are very simple. The right trigger causes the bike to accelerate, while the left trigger brakes. The left thumbstick is used for leaning (or throwing the rider’s lifeless corpse through a level in some cases), and when appropriate (or not), the Y button can be used to bail out. As you unlock more vehicles, you will quickly find that different bikes require slightly tweaked controls. While you might drive smoothly and quickly up a certain ramp on one motorcycle, you may have to lean forward a bit on another. Acquiring new bikes will also encourage you to go back and get better scores on earlier levels, because you will quickly become obsessed with surpassing the scores of everyone on your friends list.
Online leaderboards add a huge amount of replay value to Trials HD. If you spent a good chunk of last summer competing against the high scores your friends racked up in Geometry Wars 2, prepare to dedicate even more time to completing tracks in one try while staying within a winning time limit. Since almost everyone at Gamervision picked up Trials on the day it came out, there has been an ongoing leaderboard battle for not only the regular courses, but skill events as well. Maybe I shouldn’t be so determined to have better times than my friends on as many courses as possible, but it really adds a competitive element to the game that would otherwise be missing due to the lack of multiplayer of any sort.
As you may have determined from the title, Trials HD is a step up from its flash game predecessors. The actual tracks are 2D, with the player staying in the same dimension for the duration of the game, but the environments are in 3D, and look fantastic. Different textures and materials are easily distinguishable, and everything looks very clean and polished—despite the fact that the levels appear to be in abandoned warehouses with broken-down structures. The character model for the rider is pretty minimal, making him look more like a rag doll than anything else, though you do have the option to customize both the character and the bikes. While the soundtrack is pretty sparse, the occasional shouts the rider will let out as he makes a particularly impressive jump (or plunges to his death) give Trials more of a personality.
As if the campaign and extra challenges weren’t enough, Trials HD also includes a level editor that allows you to create your own insane tracks. It is somewhat reminiscent of the level creator in LittleBigPlanet, though not as deep (but considerably easier to use). You can upload your own levels and share them with friends, as well as playing tracks that your friends have created, but unfortunately, user-created levels cannot be played by the community at large. Only those on your Xbox Live friends list can play your tracks, and vice versa. This is the biggest detriment to Trials HD; if it had a community sharing option, like LittleBigPlanet, there would be no reason to ever stop playing.
Trials HD manages to seamlessly combine elements from racing, puzzle, and platform games to make one of the most surprising gaming experiences of the summer. It’s everything you would want in a downloadable title: fun, challenge, replayability, and though it’s at the high end of the XBLA pricing spectrum at $15, it still feels like a great deal. Between the main campaign, tournaments, and skill challenges, it will be a while before you run out of things to do, and even then, there’s always the level editor. In some ways it feels very much like a successor to ExciteBike, which is a high compliment. The steep learning curve will turn away some gamers, and most of the Hard and Extreme boards are insanely frustrating, but there’s also something to be said about the feeling of satisfaction when acquiring a gold medal on a tough course, or beating out a friend’s time by thousandths of a second. The Summer of Arcade may be nearing its end, but it got out one last surprise hit. I may not have been expecting Trials HD to be one of my favorite games of the season, but that didn’t stop it from becoming an instant addiction.