How do you make a sequel to Trials Evolution? The most recent 2D trials biking game from RedLynx, Evolution had everything: spectacular level design, crowd-pleasing acrobatics, tight technical riding and endless user-generated content. It took Trials HD to what felt like its logical extreme: a potent blend of accessibility and hardcore challenge, with all the modern technical accoutrements. Trials Fusion makes a few changes to that formula in search of another hit, but it does so very cautiously.
The basics obviously remain intact. You still take control of a trials biker and ride over impossible courses filled with huge pitfalls and obstacles, trying your best not to spill yourself from the saddle in violent and comical ways, using a flawless instant-restart button to have a thousand variations on 'one more go' whenever you do. The controls are as sharp as they have ever been and have you back in the zone in seconds.
Fusion's biggest change is probably the setting: after the back country locations of Evolution, RedLynx catapults you into a space-age future of gun-metal greys, dropships and neon. The artists haven't thrown the old world out completely, though, preferring to layer new elements over the usual ancient ruins, forests, deserts and ice floes to form a pleasant blend of old and new, as though you're watching The Jetsons visit Shadow of the Colossus.
That probably sounds quite dramatic, and fans of the game's Create mode, which returns with a tweaked version of Evolution's powerful level editor, will find plenty of new track pieces to use as a result of this change of setting. But for the majority of players this brave new world will feel like a cosmetic update more than anything. Trials Evolution wasn't broken and Fusion is determined not to break it.
The Career mode has been gently refined, but remains largely familiar. Evolution's designers realised that spectacular jumps and the thrill of carrying momentum into a perfect landing were things about Trials that everyone could enjoy and master, so it made those the focus of the majority of the last game's courses, disentangling the fiercely difficult technical riding that defined the original games and concentrating it into unlockable Extreme tracks instead. Fusion takes the same approach.
The result is another round of fantastic tracks, even if they're all variations on a well-known theme. Perfecting them is often a case of working out where your landings will give you most thrust and how to chain it together across successive jumps. You learn to read the landscape ahead of you and which bits can be bypassed or ignored, sometimes counter-intuitively. It looks and feels spectacular, and if you get stuck you can always download replay data from global leaderboards for inspiration, while on-screen icons representing your friends' position after the same amount of time keep you straining to outdo them.
The new Extreme tracks also seem to earn that name - although despite joining the series with Trials 2: Second Edition and getting to know it intimately across HD and Evolution, I am still only what you might call a talented intermediate player, so I haven't finished all of them, and if you're a hardcore rider who wants to know if they offer a new challenge, I can't help you. (Then again, I'm pretty good at most games, so this does at least suggest RedLynx made a sensible decision taking them out of the limelight.)
Changes to Career really come in nips and tucks, then, instead of massive overhauls. There's a new quad-bike that you can use on a particular sequence of tracks - a heavy beast with four-wheel drive, characteristics that force you to approach each course with a slightly different mindset. Skill Games, often rather throwaway in previous instalments, are an unqualified hit this time, polished to an addictive sheen and inserted into each tier as a welcome diversion, like a modern take on pummelling the car in Street Fighter 2 - except now you can do it whenever you like and there are high-score leaderboards.
My favourite additions, though, are the level-specific challenges. Now when you get bored of hunting down that elusive platinum medal time, you can consult the pause menu for the impetus to try something else. Some challenges are obvious, like performing a certain number of flips without faulting, while others are more inventive or cryptic, forcing you to probe and experiment with each track to divine their meaning. The traditional Trials endgame can become a little repetitive after a while, so this extra outlet is a welcome distraction from the grind.
Less successful is a new trick system. The idea is that you can hold the right analogue stick in various directions to unseat your rider and hold perilous poses, snapping yourself back into the saddle just in time to land, but the controls feel rough around the edges and the tracks are often just monotonous sequences of huge jumps. The fact that it's optional on most tracks in the game suggests the developers know it isn't quite there yet too.
Beyond Career, there are local multiplayer options and online tournaments. Local multiplayer takes much the same form as ever, putting up to four of you on-screen in narrow adjacent lanes, awarding points and punishing faults as you ride towards the finish line. Playing on PS4, control doesn't feel quite as immediate as it does in single-player, but it's still solid fun. Unfortunately online tournaments won't be added to the game until after release in a free update, but one thing we do know about them is that progress will feed into your overall character level.
That will also be true for any tracks you download from Track Central, Trials' one-stop shop for user-generated content. While much of Fusion feels like a conservative update, it's in Track Central where RedLynx senses the game's long-term future, citing Minecraft as an influence and offering more tools than ever for cutting into the massive pile of user-made tracks that will follow the game's launch. The developer also plans to support Fusion with a lengthy roadmap of content packs that will bolster the toolset of the many amateur level designers who throw themselves into Create mode.
Given the series' large following, it's inevitable that there will be a lot of great tracks released over time, but with only a few hundred to play at the moment - mostly created by testers and consisting of nothing more than start and end gates - it's impossible to judge how well it will work. Strong curation will be a must, but on the plus side Trials is RedLynx's main focus and the studio has taken on new staff to build up this side of the game, so it feels like a fairly safe bet, albeit one that will probably pay off a little further down the line rather than a few hours after you download the game.
The long-term potential is there, then. It's just a shame that the game itself feels a little compromised by this emphasis on laying the groundwork for future activity. Trials Fusion is still a supremely enjoyable game, but it takes very few risks in its desire to stand the test of time, preferring to adopt the neutrality of a platform holder and stick to things that worked well in Evolution - a game with which you sometimes feel it should swap monikers.
Perhaps that was always likely to happen after a game as complete as Trials Evolution, and I have still spent a dozen hours enjoying everything Fusion has to offer and can't imagine anyone finding much fault with any of it. All the same, I hope that whenever RedLynx returns to the drawing board in future, it does so with more of a daredevil heart. We've had enough evolution - what Trials needs next is revolution.