Version tested: Xbox 360
There's a level, around halfway through Trials HD, where the only route to success involves hopping your little stunt bike between two giant, latticed metal spheres, which roll backward and forward depending on your direction of movement when you're perched on top of them. At first, it's maddening: moving forwards moves you backwards! But after a while you realise that a precise landing allows you to inch backwards at just the right pace to push each sphere forwards without falling off. With the gap reduced, you can hop to safety.
It's a nice idea, nicely done. Trials HD is a motocross game with snazzy 3D visuals but strictly 2D gameplay, and challenges like the metal spheres force you to make the most of the economical controls: accelerator, brake, and the d-pad or stick to adjust your rider's position between pulling back and leaning over the handlebars. You have to manufacture the key flicks, hops and jumps out of nothing but speed and weight distribution. What sticks in the mind about the metal spheres though is that you never see them again in the campaign. Developer RedLynx uses them once, and then ditches them in favour of the next bright idea. It's very Nintendo, that.
In many other respects, Trials belongs to the same category of game as TrackMania. You may only need three controls to move your bike around every level in the game, but the most important buttons are nothing to do with movement: they're the Back button, which resets you to the beginning of the level, and the B button, which drops you to the last checkpoint. The resets are instantaneous, so even if you should land on some explosives, or on your head, and "sustain too much damage to continue" as RedLynx politely describes it, you'll be back to task faster than you can say "temporary blip". As you become obsessed with reducing your level-completion time, and the number of checkpoint-resets to zero, the speed of the reset response gives you no chance to break the cycle of attempts. You just keep playing.
All this was true of the excellent PC version, of course, but the Xbox Live Arcade release narrows the focus. Rather than four game types, the one main solo campaign condenses the lessons of the PC original into more than 50 levels full of clever ideas, spread across a difficulty curve that inclines to match your improving handle on the controls. The discrete "dynamic" levels of the PC game, which introduced rough-and-tumble physics to the environment, are gone, and instead the core levels of the XBLA version have physics-based elements dotted elegantly amongst a majority of static components. The goal remains to get through levels with as few resets and as quickly as possible, but now you earn medals for doing so, and there are also Tournaments, where you have to try and keep the fault numbers and level times down across several stages in sequence. Yikes.
Every level has its own leaderboard, and if you earn a gold medal within a time that puts you in the top 5000 players worldwide, your replay will be made available via the leaderboard. That's the same for everyone else, too. Even if you're 257th on the leaderboard, RedLynx knows that you want to be able to show off your growing mastery to your friends, and, for that matter, that you want to see what sort of tricks your friends are pulling. This was critical to the appeal of the PC version: not only can you observe the best of the best, but you can see the best of your peer group, and riff off one another's discoveries about where it's best to jump, land and flip to establish and preserve momentum. The only slight shame is that you can't download ghosts as well, as you could on the PC. There are fewer Achievements too - a necessity for Xbox Live Arcade games. Offsetting that slightly are on-screen friends scores in regular levels.
There are also additions. Skill Games are unlockable mini-games that separate elements of the main campaign levels, twist them into fun little high-score challenges, and give them their own leaderboards. There's a task where you have to drag a shallow trailer full of bombs as far as you can go across bumpy terrain without causing an explosion. There's another where you have to build up speed and then bail just in time to propel your rider down deepening steps piled with glass, logs and other damaging furniture, the goal being to break as many bones as possible. There are a couple involving the number of flips you can do and the height you can reach in what are effectively pinball machines, complete with flippers. And there are a couple involving my friends the big metal spheres. None is the new Monkey Target of console mini-games, but each has its own charm, there are 16 in total, and if your friends play Trials then you see on-screen indicators for their distances, times and other feats.
There is also an impressively detailed level editor, which allows you to construct your own courses out of all the objects you find in the main game, and then share the levels, albeit only with people on your friends list. We haven't been able to test the sharing element pre-release, but I've built a few things, like a giant wooden penis, obviously. The process was laborious, because making levels is laborious, but it felt like the path of least resistance, and it's surprisingly easy to make something that takes a good bit of effort to overcome, either by applying the lessons of the main game or through innocent quirks of whatever picture you're inevitably trying to draw with the level furniture.
Even without the Skill Games and the level editor, though, Trials HD would still be a roaring success, and it comes back to the tremendous variety in the main campaign. One level may be a lightning sprint over a series of high jumps, where the idea is to thread speeds and ideal landings together to keep up the pace, but the next may deepen the troughs, and introduce high-wire girders that allow you to make forward progress at greater speed providing you can execute the right jumps. The next may go helter-skelter, with a series of loops, or physics tricks, like drawbridges you need to strike to knock them down, but also maintain enough friction to cling to lest you fall backwards to your doom. Having wrung exquisite lighting out of its manly game engine, RedLynx sometimes goes bonkers for fireworks too, most memorably in a level called Unfair Bombardment, where everything is a potential explosion.
Discipline is the key to success, but it's smoothly enabled by the instant restarts and admirable design. Overcoming key challenges - like the contradiction between the need to put the back wheel down to maintain friction on sharp inclines, and the competing need to hold yourself over the handlebars to avoid falling backwards - is an urgent necessity, and would be even without the friends leaderboards and all the rest.
But the fact is Trials HD does have all the rest. It may cost a hearty 1200 Microsoft Points (£10.20 / 14.40), but even playing it from start to end will take hours, and it's a game built for endless replay and community expansion beyond that. It may not have some of the PC features, like ghosts and multiple camera angles, but neither change intrudes on the experience. It may be on a gamepad, which is slightly less exact than the three-fingers-on-the-directional-buttons of the PC version, but Trials pros will be able to emulate the majority of their feats within a few hours of practice. And it seems to me those are the only slight issues. Otherwise it's wonderfully designed, justifies the price, and may end up being the best thing on Xbox Live Arcade all year. If you're in any doubt, there's even a trial version. Thud.
9 / 10