Version tested: PC
Playing this, I found myself thinking about comrade Dan Whitehead's tongue-in-cheek flame-bait intro to his review of the 360 Universe at War: Earth Assault. For those not into link-clicking, he was saying that whether you prefer a first-person shooter on the PC or console is a matter of preference rather than intrinsic superiority, leaving real-time strategy as "the last bastion of PC snobbery". Which isn't true, however you cut it. There's MMOs too, proper grown-up wargames and what remains of the real simulators. And as if PC owners need anything to feel snobbish about. It's all part of the fun of that big beige box.
But playing Trials 2 made me wonder whether the tide's reversing in another area. In the same way that PC owners used to be snobbish about consoles' attempts at FPS, consoles have sighed about arcade games. And...well, if I want actual arcade games, the PC's where I go to scratch that itch. And that's proper arcade games. Not bloated epics or ninth-version-in-series franchise servicing, but ones where people take an idea and fire it as hard as they can at the target. Perversely, they're ideal PC fodder. They're possible with small teams - even a couple of people. There's no corporation in the way to make you dance through hoops - the Xbox Live Arcade is very nice, but it's just a provincial arcade compared to the PC's Disneyland of distractions. From the insane freeware shooter scene to Audiosurf outselling Call of Duty on Steam for all of February, it's all kicking off.
Which is my long way of saying that this is another awesome arcade game, and if you've got any love for a pleasure that's pure, infuriating and brilliant, it deserves your attention.
It's one of our oldest templates remixed for the Internet age. It follows the Kikstart/Stunt Biker template, where you make your way across a side-scrolling obstacle course. There are four controls - lean forward, lean back, accelerate and brake. By manipulating these, you have to do things like climb ramps, mount tyres and career wildly down a wooden Rollercoaster course at a significant proportion of the speed of light.
If you had to make that game with modern technology, what would you add? Well, you would increase the physics massively, creating a much more authentic experience - as authentic as a clearly artificial game concept can be, anyway. Probably a better way of describing it would be "more interesting". Oh, and the physics clearly has to go to work on the ragdolls, meaning that when you misjudge a gap and slightly over-accelerate there's a winceworthy collision as your rider's face hits the obstacle, while your bike happily trundles on. The first fifteen minutes of play in Trials 2, the beneficiary of these what-ifs, will be pretty much constant laughter at the ludicrousness of the collisions. In the hours that follow, there'll still be moments that force a gasp or a yelp.
And I do mean hours. Hell, I mean hours on a single jump, occasionally, when it really gets beneath your skin. It's compulsive. It's so compulsive because it strips the game completely to the bone. I said there were four controls, but there are really six. The other two are a key that jumps you back to the checkpoint, and another which restarts the course. When you're in a tricky area, or just experimenting, you'll find that a stab at those keys falls into the rhythm of play. This sort of game always has a tendency to be a particularly harsh memory and skill test, with your attempt rendered a failure - as in, it'll mean you can't beat your high score - with a single mis-step. What Trials 2 does is render that as painlessly as possible - the restart is literally instantaneous, without even a small gap to take you out of the game. Remember Stuntman: Ignition and its ilk? The problem there, in a game designed around a very similar idea, is that the game's momentum breaks every time you fail and reload. Here, there's no such problem. That the courses tend to be well-judged in terms of length is another obvious boon - from start to finish is about a minute at most, meaning that chasing a perfect no-fault run is entirely possible. And, with the inevitable failures, it eats your day up, twenty seconds at a time.
So - it's a collection of courses which you try in turn, chasing high scores. This is perhaps of a limited appeal. But, sensibly, it uses the web and has a top-score table for each course that automatically uploads when you play. This is, of course, a common enough trick now - but the specifics make it more interesting. For a start, for anyone in the chart, you can download their latest replay in a second. This is equally as useful for laughing at a mate's repeated attempt to jump a gap as it is to gawp at the insane freaks of nature at the top of the table. You can also, with a click, play a Ghost mode against anyone too - including yourself.
This absolutely fundamentally changes the game. On some of the harder tricks, you can simply not have a clue how you're meant to do it. By watching replays - which, helpfully, show the buttons they're pressing at any moment - you can pick up hints. But more importantly, you can pick up hints from anyone in the table. Even if you know how to do it, it's unlikely you're going to be able to pull off the somersaulting feats of the top ten. However, people nearer you, using a simpler approach to the track, are goldmines of information. The transparency of the ghost mode means that it's both competitive (I can beat these guys) and collaborative (ah - that's how he did it). Since you're able to form teams, you can create tight peer groups to examine rather than look at the entire list. Oh - and there's assorted achievements to unlock. The first one will be breaking all the bones in your character.
So it sounds like a wundergame, but there are a few problems. Firstly, while there's a team function to keep track of people, the size is limited. And there's no separate friend function - so people can only easily compare themselves to people in their own ten-man group. This is a shame, as you're also limited to one team. Just because you're in different teams doesn't mean that you're not friends and don't want to pay attention to their replays. When the game's so comprehensive in many ways, it's an odd oversight.
Then there's the problem of just what it is. It's radically punishing. You will fail and fail a lot, in that old-skool way. Of course "fail" is relative - on the hard courses, even if I'd have hundreds of checkpoint restarts along the way, I'd be impressed that I finished. There's no lives or anything artificial like that - there's just a really tricky thing you have to do with your bike that you can't quite work out. Or - worse - there's something you have worked out, but you can't quite execute. It's frustrating in a way that has me grunting and emitting strangled screams like no other game for years. Even the Easy courses... well, they're not that easy. Part of you wishes that the developer had put some effort into making really simple courses that just are fun for showing off or relaxing. Because, even if you're good, this isn't ever relaxing. Shift your weight wrong at any point, and it's head-over-handlebars time.
There's a few other minor things. This sort of thing calls out for a construction kit, which is on the developer's "maybe" list. It's got what my flatmate describes as "the most videogame music ever" - that is, crunchy-macho-guitar stuff. You so wish it had more of a sense of humour to go alongside the hilarious crashes and broken-bone counts.
So, with your excitement levels reduced a little with a splash of realism, I can go back to talking about the neat stuff that's been crammed in. It's not just plain old obstacle courses: wheelie and flip modes are a little self-explanatory - instead of speed, you're measured on the amount of time you spend with your front wheel raised and the number of the times you spin ludicrously in a full circle. These are on specially designed courses to challenge that skill-set. But, most impressively - if most difficult - there are the Dynamic levels. Here, rather than the courses being made of fixed objects, they're constructed of physics objects. Planks have to be hit to form makeshift bridges, barrels rolled to cross gaps, and so on. It is harder than you could possibly believe, but, simultaneously, just awesome to show off with.
Its sheer brutal nature keeps it away from the nine, but if this isn't in the Eurogamer Top 50 at the end of the year...well, it means that the rest of the Eurogamer guys haven't played the thing. And more fool them. The trial version is available from its website and you can watch some of the videos to get a sense of this glorious, ludicrous nonsense that could only be a videogame. It's part of a glorious, quiet revvvvolution. Fanservice mode on: Motorbikes!
8 / 10