Version tested: PlayStation 3
There's not much point getting too bent out of shape about copycat games. From its earliest days, churning out arcade cabinets, this has always been an iterative medium driven by the steady evolution of core ideas and occasional bursts of genuine innovation. Even so, that doesn't mean that the more blatant magpies don't stand out.
RedLynx certainly didn't create the physics-based motocross genre, but it can take the credit for refining, polishing and nurturing it in the hugely popular Trials series. With the console version of Trials firmly pressed to Microsoft's powdery bosom, Tate Interactive's offering for Sony's consoles may plug a commercial hole - but it doesn't even come close to sniffing the fumes from RedLynx's thundering exhaust.
So much so that it's almost impossible to review Urban Trial Freestyle without constantly comparing it to Trials. It's tiresome, but not unfair, since this is less of an entry in the same genre and more of an outright cover version, right down to the grungy aesthetic and ragdoll mini-games.
Imitation is easier to swallow when something is added, but Urban Trial Freestyle instead subtracts from a successful formula. With just 20 track layouts (each played several times), it not only has less to offer than last year's Trials Evolution, which boasted 50, but is not much more than half the size of the original Trials HD from 2009, which managed 35. Needless to say, this truncated doppelganger certainly doesn't offer any track editor or the robust game creation tools that have served the Trials community so well.
The tracks that are on offer are a drab bunch, saddled with nondescript titles such as Industrial Hell and Losing Control. There are precious few moments of inspiration in the construction of them, with most of the effort seemingly spent on distracting but often meaningless background pyrotechnics. Trucks crash alongside the course, explosions shake the scenery and at one point you dash to the finish line beneath an airliner as it lands. The game spends its best gimmick early as you rattle through an abandoned theme park, crashing in on the ghost train - but none of these impact the gameplay, however.
When these gimmicks do intersect with your run, the result is more likely to be irritation. Boulders knock you off your bike and navigating moving obstacles depends as much on luck as skill. One late stage features a gauntlet of hydraulic platforms that is a chore to navigate, with success or failure dependent on tiny differences in speed and angle that defy repetition.
It doesn't help that the physics is never as reliable as it needs to be. There's a scrappy feel to the handling and, while you can collect cash bags on each run to unlock upgrades for your bike, they don't radically alter the feel of the game when tyre meets tarmac. You're far more likely to notice when the physics trips you up, such as when the game scatters wooden crates in your path, which then get tangled in your wheels or simply stick to your bike like glue.
Imitation is easier to swallow when something is added, but Urban Trial Freestyle instead subtracts from a successful formula
What Urban Trial Freestyle does demonstrate is just how painstakingly designed Trials is. Where the RedLynx games feel like every track was honed and revised to perfection, there's a slapdash quality to the courses on offer here. There are no audacious sequences of stunts and ramps, no breathtaking moments where you feel the elation of being just in control. What thrills the game does offer are only of the most basic kind: the simple pleasures of a big jump or a fleeting moment where it actually feels like the bike is biting into the dirt and powering up a slope. Those are small victories, however, and barely worth celebrating when contemplated alongside an otherwise monotonous procession of mid-range ramps and dips, balance beams and see-saws.
Having fudged the basic requirements, the game's no-frills structure is left looking threadbare rather than streamlined. Unlocking new events is done by earning stars, but despite its rough construction, Urban Trial Freestyle is ridiculously easy. An averagely skilled player will be able to access all five tournament tiers in the space of a few hours, only occasionally having to go back and replay previous events for an additional few stars. It's really only at the end that the difficulty spikes upwards, and then it's largely due to frustrating track design rather than the organic incremental challenges of Trials.
Peripheral amusements are thin on the ground. Completing all the tracks in each tier unlocks a bonus mini-game, but these are derivative stuff - often simply lifting ideas from Trials with worse physics and no embellishment. Fling your rider as far as you can. Travel the furthest using the smallest amount of petrol. It's passably amusing once, but certainly won't keep you coming back.
Nor will the game's half-hearted stabs at social gaming do much to entice players into a long-term commitment. Timed courses will pit you against the ghost of another player, while events in which you must beat specific challenges - jumping highest or furthest, performing flips or landing accurately - use other player scores to gauge your success. It's as rudimentary as online play gets, really, and a feature that quickly fades into the background.
It feels unfair to constantly return to Trials as a point of comparison, but it really shouldn't. RedLynx's game is successful for a reason, and that reason has eluded Tate Interactive. There's no passion or care in Urban Trial Freestyle's construction, no sense of playfulness of fun. It's a game that does the bare minimum required to look like another game, and once the resemblance is close enough, it leaves it at that, with all the rough edges still on display. Just because Trials isn't available on Sony's platforms doesn't mean that this weak echo deserves your time.
4 / 10