Version tested: Xbox 360
There are two types of videogame: those in which you develop an avatar's skills, and those in which an avatar develops yours.
Story games – the Zeldas, Final Fantasies and Metroids – generally fall into the former camp. As you lead these characters on a journey, so they grow and develop, slowly becoming more fully realised versions of themselves. Mile by mile, Link gains the ability to use a boomerang, a crossbow, hover boots and so on, while Cloud guzzles down experience points that allow him to summon ever more stentorian spells.
When you reach the end of these characters' journeys and put down the controller as the credits roll, you will have levelled your avatar to its final form, the Polaroid likeness finally easing into its full clarity and colour. The character will have learned lessons and gained new abilities and, just maybe, in the pre-determined journey you prodded them along, you might have caught some truth about your own story reflected in theirs. But you probably won't be a changed person for it.
Conversely, the player that emerges after 25 hours spent with Trials HD will be different to the one who went in. Here is a game uninterested in its character's journey from newcomer to expert, but entirely obsessed with its player's journey from incompetence to proficiency. As such, the game follows the great tradition of games such as Tetris, Breakout, Peggle, Super Meat Boy: all experiences that level the player, not the avatar.
Link, Cloud and Samus are given bigger, better weapons and tools with which to touch their worlds, but the effort lies in acquiring those tools, not necessarily mastering them. Conversely, in Trials HD and its ilk, you have just one tool – in this case a man and his motorbike – and the journey is all about learning how to use it.
Before we get too excited, in the case of Trials HD, the skill you learn has almost no practical application in the real world. After all, where else is is it a useful skill to be able to balance a 30-pixel-high motocyclist's centre of gravity with precision in order to bounce across giant inflatable balls? An Evel Knievel-themed ball pool party organized by The Borrowers?
Fun is not always conflated with usefulness, though, and as you journey through Trials HD, the progression in your own abilities is tangible. A level that seemed impossible four hours ago, requiring scores of attempts and instant restarts to learn, suddenly seems unfeasibly straightforward, and you wonder what all the fuss was about. Games like this are microcosms of education, allowing us to grow from infancy to maturity in a matter of hours. Therein lies their great appeal; their big thrill.
Trails HD's Big Thrills add-on understands all of this. RedLynx knows that the players sitting down with the game in December 2010 are very different to the those that sat down with it in December 2009. They are veteran experts who boast the precision muscle memory necessary to suspend an Xbox controller's analogue trigger at half-throttle while simultaneously gently rocking the rider back and forth. In short, the developer has levelled its audience, and this pack reflects that. The 40 levels in this DLC pack – which includes 10 competition-winning, user-generated tracks – have been designed for the capable.
There's just one new track in the Beginner category, Ode to Joy, a zoomed-out race through a dusky warehouse, full of wide-angle ramps that build speed easily and invite mistakes because of it. The Easy category scores eight new tracks, from Daredevil, a joyous pastiche of Joe Danger-esque jumps through fire rings and scrambles over abandoned cars and rusty cargo crates, to Bouncy Castle, which requires you to lean forward and duck under low set barriers in order to avoid breaking your rider's neck.
Medium mode has 13 new tracks, while Hard gains 15 tracks and Expert, for those players with prescient twitch abilities, gains three new entries to sit alongside the vanilla game's four. The new tracks are also bundled into six new tournaments, in which you play through a series of courses, your time aggregating across each until you reach its conclusion.
This is, of course, largely more of the same. There are few, if any, new assets on display here, courses instead constructed from the building blocks found throughout the game and its previous add-on. Nonetheless, each track is beautifully designed, and has clearly been playtested to death. For experts, the thrill will be in repeating tracks while clawing your way up leaderboards; for everyone else, it'll be a case of dashing from each safe-haven checkpoint to the next, hoping that you can make it to the finish line to secure a bronze medal for your efforts.
40 tracks for 400 Microsoft Points works out at a delicious £0.09 per level, and for players who have exhausted Trials HD's content to date, the add-on offers brilliant value for money – especially as its popularity has already ensured that the leaderboards are jammed with keen competition.
Indeed, Trials HD's efficient ghost data representation of your rival friends' performances as you race through a stage remains as compelling as ever, as you keep one eye on your own rider and the other on the meter showing where your closest competitor is. It's one of contemporary gaming's most enthralling readouts, and its appeal hasn't diminished at all in the past 18 months.
Once again, then, RedLynx is to be praised for its purist approach to game design, one that plays to the unique strengths of the medium. If you've worked hard to learn your Trials HD skills, Big Thrills offers a new set of challenges on which to refresh your muscle memory and develop your abilities yet further. Meanwhile, it serves as a sharp reminder that, regardless of how pointless the skills are that some videogames imprint upon our minds and hands, some of life's biggest thrills are to be found in their mastery.
8 / 10