Version tested: Wii
You imagine that when RedLynx first came up with the idea for MotoHeroz, a bouncy buggy-juggling racer with cartoon visuals, the Wii seemed like the perfect platform. Accelerate into 2011 and it looks like a bad move: not just for the RedLynx accountants but for the game's players, too. MotoHeroz is good, but there are gaps here that look very deliberate.
You drive as Gene McQuick, a Joe Danger without the charm, in a four-wheel buggy with two-wheel drive. The handling is a gentler, though instantly familiar, variant on the physics model from RedLynx's motocross fan favourite, Trials. The major changes are that it's impossible to crash (the buggy can land on its roof, but a quick shake of the Wii remote rights it again and sets you off) and reversing is almost as quick as moving forwards, allowing many of MotoHeroz' levels to be built around speedy transitions between the two.
The level design is where MotoHeroz excels, a precision-engineered mix of huge ramps, loops, cogs and precipitous drops that form both slow-burning platform challenges and breakneck races. Your first attempt at many of the later worlds simply involves working out what to do before restarting and going for a 'proper' run, with the obstacles and their uses constantly changing.
This mix of platforming and racing works well with MotoHeroz' power-ups, which are more liberally distributed as the single-player rolls on. Springs boing you over other racers or obstacles, ghosts let you drive right through opponents, jetpacks fly you over massive gaps and gorgeously gooey sticky wheels are used to drive vertically, if you can keep balance. The most fun is the parachute, which pulls you out of screaming dives and leaves the buggy swinging like a pendulum, from which you can launch back onto solid ground with a correctly timed release.
The parachute swing is one of several minor parts of MotoHeroz' physics where the effects are exaggerated. Hit the release just right and your buggy launches like it's been fired from a cannon. There are a few ramps and loops where this 'boost' also seems to be silently applied, but it's a localised phenomenon that works well in these situations and is entirely in keeping with a more rough-and-tumble approach to racing.
The 'Story Adventure' has more than 100 levels to conquer, though if that sounds like a lot, it's best to know you'll beat the whole thing in an afternoon and acquire almost all of the other buggies, too. Most stages are solo races where all you have to do is beat a relatively sluggish ghost, though on every stage there are coins and 'ancestors' to be collected as well as a gold medal time. There are difficulty spikes, to be sure, which often seem to come in the levels where McQuick's equally imaginative rival Spider McRally is chasing you.
Ancestors form a family tree kind of arrangement on the main menu where, when the blue blobs in stages are collected, various Heroz (urgh, that horrible 'z') can be viewed. A line of text and a picture may not seem like much reward, but hey ho. These characters are shared with RedLynx's iOS game 1000 Heroz, a cute but hit-and-miss running game, which also shares several music tracks with MotoHeroz. Everyone's tightening their belts these days.
The main attraction here is local multiplayer for 1-4 players which, thanks to the buggies being able to bump into one another, is a lot of messy fun. If MotoHeroz is a precision game in single-player, here it's much more about being a clumsy bully. The sheer quantity of power-ups on the track means straight-up racing goes out of the window in favour of smacking your mates around and hoping to peel away near the finish.
The best thing about multiplayer is the alternate routes in each map - when you're left behind and there's a scrap going on up ahead, boosting onto a higher platform often takes you straight into the lead - and right at the end of levels, the hanging 'goal' marker can often be the cue for a four-way ruck and increasingly clumsy-desperate attempts to have your buggy brush it first. There aren't many great 2D, side-on racing games in multiplayer, and MotoHeroz fits into that category - but in a limited manner.
The thing is, it's local only. You can get away with basic online integration on the Wii because that's where the bar has been set, so RedLynx has. On XBLA or PSN this would be called out for the lack of true online multiplayer in an instant, and rightly so: it's great when you have three mates round, but the rest of the time feels like it's missing a limb.
What online there is comes in the form of leaderboards and daily challenges, a structure that lends itself to the kind of players who enjoy playing a level over and over in order to get the best time. Some of these limit you to one attempt but allow infinite practice rounds beforehand. If you like chasing leaderboards then fair enough, and this does the job; the constantly shifting times and daily challenges are considerable boons for such players. But I prefer my racing games to offer online racing.
It's impossible to play a RedLynx game and not have Trials HD in the back of your mind, and the comparison here brings into sharp focus just how little replay value there is outside of those leaderboards and the single-player campaign's gold medals and ancestors. Where are the extra modes that really squeeze the juice from its great handling? Trials HD's skill games were as much a part of that game's excellence as the Expert levels: creative and constantly surprising challenges like keeping your bike upright in a ball-cage or flying through rings of fire with an endless jet boost.
Is it fair to criticise MotoHeroz for what it lacks? I think so, because 'bonus' modes are anything but fripperies in a game like this. They're a huge part of your motivation for mastering its handling model. Long after the single-player levels are exhausted, they retain their appeal. Trials HD had 24 skill games: MotoHeroz doesn't have a single one. When the game already boasts a load of power-ups that seem to beg for their own showcase it seems baffling.
There's an interesting corollary to this. MotoHeroz comes frontloaded with the option to download a 'party pack', which I tried to buy but is currently unavailable. Now we come back to WiiWare. It's no secret that download sales on Nintendo's platform simply can't compete with XBLA or PSN: is it possible that RedLynx has so little faith in the platform they've split off these key aspects of MotoHeroz in an effort to maximise revenue from a small but committed audience? It's entirely possible that, when available, this add-on will offer the extra modes and replay value the game sorely needs.
It's tempting to overvalue MotoHeroz because it's the best thing on WiiWare in some time, but that's a bit like saying I'm the most handsome writer on Eurogamer. Is it a premium download or a partial game for a premium price? It looks an awful lot like the latter.
Buy MotoHeroz, by all means - it's cheerful and fun while it lasts, with some levels that compare with the developer's very finest work. But in the context of what else is out there, and more importantly by RedLynx's own very high standards, this is, at best, above average.
6 / 10