Trials Evolution Preview: Inching Towards Perfection

Vive la Evolution.

My head is spinning. RedLynx has built upon Trials Evolution's predecessors so comprehensively that it's now scraping the heavens. Trials has been expanded in every way possible - local multiplayer joins online multiplayer joins an extensive reworking of leaderboards - and it will continue to expand well after it's finally released, its creation mode promising to churn out more and more content until the servers are switched off.

My palms are sweating. Trials has always set the heart racing, stretching your nerves out across a series of impossible inclines and falls, but Evolution adds a new level of suspense. Tracks can be hung in the skies, a generous draw distance letting you see every inch of the drop that awaits those with a clumsy throttle finger.

And I can't stop laughing. Trials always had a keen sense of slapstick, and now it's taken centre stage. It's a novel way of sweetening the thousand failures that underpin any extended game of Trials; fall off your bike, and the ragdoll rider will bounce limply across the scenery.

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Action is locked at 60 frames per second - any lower and the feedback that's integral to the Trials experience would be lost.

Now, at the finish of every race, there's a short, physics-fuelled skit. Pianos will fall from the heavens to crush a freshly fallen rider, multiple panes of glass will be waiting just beyond the finish line or, in one standout moment, the rider will plummet down the side of a dam only to fall headfirst in a toilet that waits below. It's Buster Keaton on a trials bike, and it's comedy that's endlessly inventive.

But I'm getting carried away (spending the day with a game like Trials Evolution can do that to you). Let's first take a couple of steps back. Before Trials, Finnish studio RedLynx was at the forefront of a mobile development scene still in its infancy. It even managed to make the N-Gage sing with Pathway to Glory and then Reset Generation, a charming post-modern puzzler that's long overdue a reboot (something that's sadly out of RedLynx's hands, as Nokia still owns the rights to that particular game).

Trials' magic was first introduced via a simple web-game, its rule-set laid out at the start. You accelerate, you brake and you lean, the three control inputs matched with springy physics and devious design in a blend of punishment and reward that's hopelessly addictive. Its status as a cult classic was cemented with the 2008 PC follow-up, Trials 2: Second Edition.

And then, with the release of Trials HD on Xbox Live Arcade, it became more than a mere cult phenomenon. With around 2 million units sold, it's now one of the great success stories on Microsoft's platform, and a benchmark for what's possible in the console download space.

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A new stats screen lets you contrast and compare exploits with your friends. It's also possible to single one out as a rival should you want a constant comparison point.

Consider that benchmark shifted. Trials Evolution has been in development for around 18 months and its level of ambition is staggering. The fundamentals are unchanged, as they should be - beneath it all, Trials Evolution still offers the same taut arcade experience as its predecessors. The physics have been left untouched, save for some slightly more forgiving suspension that soaks up the more extreme jumps that Evolution throws at you.

But around that core Trials experience, everything's changed, and it's the new editor that's been the catalyst for the transformation. Each and every track offered up by Trials Evolution has been created in the editor, and it's a powerful tool that goes well beyond the confines of the stunt racing that the series is known for.

RedLynx's own efforts give some idea of what's possible. Beach Head is the D-Day landings retold in Trials, your bike racing through shallow puddles, twisted metal and a backdrop that's eating itself in a mess of noisy explosions. Elsewhere, there are rides through blood-red swamps or across complex metal structures suspended in the sky - and in what's sure to be a highlight, thanks to a little tweaking of the camera and the lighting, Trials pays an eerily accurate tribute to a certain monochrome indie hit.

But there's one track above all that shows you where Trials is at right now, and where RedLynx itself is at creatively. It's called Mindbender, and it's as giddy a slice of gaming as you're likely to experience this year.

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The visual diversity helps distinguish Evolution's track list - each one now feels distinct.

A simple race across rooftops and through warehouses is turned on its head every few hundred yards by subtle shifts in the gravity that spin the world around. There's a level of inventiveness here that brings to mind the work of Nintendo's EAD Tokyo studio (makers of Super Mario Galaxy and 3D Land). And that inventiveness doesn't look to let up.

But the magic of a Mario Galaxy doesn't readily open itself up for inspection, and nor does it give you the opportunity to play magician yourself. RedLynx's efforts merely hint at what's possible when the editor is placed in your own hands.

Every track within Trials Evolution is housed within an open world spread out across a 2km-by-4km plot, and in the editor mode, you're free to roam it using a floating first-person camera to pick a sweet spot. It's a picturesque landscape with its own points of interest; there's the evergreen-lined Killer's Creek or the green heights of Red Squirrel Rock, all providing scenery that's a challenge on its own, even before you've started picking out obstacles from Trials Evolution's toybox.

For the Trials hobbyist, the editor is available in a 'lite' edition that removes much of the complexity. Tracks are created by picking start and end points, and what lies between the two is up to you. Obstacles can be picked from a bank of around 1500 objects (Trials HD, by comparison, used around 100), which are then placed through a pleasingly simple drag-and-drop process. Results are instantaneous, and even with only a fraction of the toolset at your disposal, it's possible to make some real tongue-twister tracks.

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Shared tracks come in at around 20KB - so it's possible to acquire a collection without making too much of a dent on your storage space.

For the more dedicated, the potential of the pro editor is dizzying. Again, it's a case of selecting a start and end point, but what happens between opens itself up to much more influence. Terrain can be altered and events can be introduced, while physics, lighting and camera angles can all be shifted.

A series of tutorials guide the way, and RedLynx offers up the scribblings behind its own creations to serve as a starting point or to offer a little explanation for the curious. Delving beneath the hood of one of RedLynx's own levels unveils a bewildering web of logic gates that will be noise to the layman, but that can be extracted to form the building blocks of more elaborate creations.

At present, with the editor only being tinkered with internally, the results are fascinating. As part of the presentation, we're shown a Xevious clone, the rolling green hills of Trials Evolution's playground providing the perfect backdrop for the venerable 2D shooter. Then there's a clone of the work of RedLynx's Helsinki neighbour, Rovio: a baggy reworking of Angry Birds split across multiple levels.

More on Trials Evolution

That's not even the half of it. As I prepare to leave RedLynx's studio, I'm excitably ushered into another office where someone's pushed the editor even further. There's a giant fussball table playable by two players, and a flight sim that throws you into a dogfight in the skies of Trials' sandbox. The possibilities, it seems, truly are endless.

It has all the depth of creativity offered by LittleBigPlanet, but - without wanting to be overly cruel to Media Molecule - here it's attached to a proven arcade experience rather than a spongy platformer. Trials does owe Media Molecule a certain debt, though, and its slick and smart content filtering builds upon the foundations laid out by LittleBigPlanet's user-friendly front-end.

All of this hardly scratches the surface. For a game that's, in essence, about quick-fire thrills, Trials Evolution is an incredibly deep experience: the kind that demands hours of play and, thanks to its powerful creation tools, hours of experimentation and exploration.

Indeed, Evolution seems a modest subtitle. This is Trials reimagined, and it looks as if Xbox Live Arcade is about to witness another small revolution.

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