The Trials series is arguably one of the signature franchises of the downloadable era. 2009’s Trials HD arrived just as the Xbox Live Marketplace was reaching its full potential, its motocross-trials-by-way-of-ragdoll-hilarity gameplay making the previously PC-only franchise an instant mainstream hit. While 2D-centric motocross games were nothing new, Trials being part of a long lineage dating back to the Kikstart games of the 8-bit era, its drum-tight controls, challenging physics and addictive nature perfectly capitalized on the resurgence of the leaderboard sparked by the new online console spaces. Trials HD sparked rivalries, broke hearts, engendered some of the finest smack-talk of the generation and then went and did it all over again with 2012’s Trials Evolution. Trials Fusion marks the series’ debut on the new-gen consoles, and as expected it brings an extra coat of graphical spangle and a few extra (literal) tricks, while being careful to not reinvent the wheelie.
The Trials games are all about the eternal struggle between man and physics, as expressed through dirt bikes. By managing throttle and shifting the weight of your rider, you have to negotiate a series of increasingly devious courses on a 2D plane. This two-pronged control system can allow advanced players to pull off surprisingly sophisticated manoeuvres, though your most immediate goals are to a) stay on the bike, and b) get to the end in the fastest time possible. On completion you’re rated based on completion time and the number of times you’re restarted a section of the track, usually following one of the many, many spills you’ll suffer while trying to pull off goal a). These frequent crashes – and the subsequent brutal/hilarious ragdoll animations that follow – soon become a very familiar sight, with some of the more advanced tracks requiring upwards of fifty tries before you finally nail them.
This might sound like brain-numbing repetition to the uninitiated, but it in fact achieves the exact opposite, turning the courses into physics-based puzzles that become utterly hypnotic – helped immeasurably by the ‘instant restart’ mechanic which lets your reset and fling yourself back into the frame without even thinking about it. Progression means unlocking new and more powerful bikes (Including a Quad, a first for the series) with going back and finding new optimal paths through past courses, inching ever closer to your friends’ best times, a constant source of replay value. At the very least, it’s fun to see what new forms of man/bike pretzels you can invent through wiping out in the most spectacular way possible.
Trials Fusion generally sticks to the formula, though it does add an extra wrinkle to proceedings with the debut of the Tricks system, wherein you perform Tony Hawk-esque acrobatic tricks for points while catching air. It’s a fun twist on the formula, with the right stick mapped to give you control of your rider’s feet and torso to perform tricks while still requiring delicate balance control with the left stick. Unfortunately these controls still need some tuning, with slow animations and too many tricks mapped to the same stick occasionally giving the tricks a fiddly feel, making the pulling off some manoeuvres hard to place on the thumbstick. Although the tricks are only use, or at least scored, in specific events they’re also available on the standard time trial courses, which some players have been able to negotiate jumps quicker and get higher on the leaderboard. Whether this constitutes ‘cheating’ is currently up for debate, but it’s hoped that if Ubisoft do determine that the tricks are breaking the time trials they will deal with it with patches.
The game also strikes out from the rest of the series with a kind-of new vaguely futuristic setting. If this doesn’t sound very interesting that’s because it basically… Well, isn’t, mainly consisting of the same old dirt-style tracks peppered with bits of futuristic-looking architecture, and more confined levels that basically take the test-chamber conceit of the Portal games and translate it into platform-based obstacle courses. In fact, the game attempts to borrow a lot from the Portal playbook, including a senile female AI who narrates the action like GLaDOS’s unfunny auntie, and whose dialogue is annoyingly scripted to particular sections of the levels – meaning that you’ll likely hear her say the same things over and over again with each restart, that is until you turn off the dialogue in the menus (An option that thankfully exists).
Ironically, the game’s future focus arguably diminishes the game’s visual impact, with its nature-set environments looking far more vibrant and detailed with the new-gen hardware than the bland and clinical sci-fi areas. One level in particular, a side-viewed trial level set in complete silhouette against the sunset, serves as both a great showcase of new-gen prettiness and a surprisingly affecting tribute to the genre’s side-scrolling roots. Ultimately, however, the game doesn’t need graphical muscle: it’s Trials, and while RedLynx try and inject some spectacle with spaceships flying here and there and all manner of stuff exploding and collapsing in the background, these bits of flair are little more than distractions from the tightly tuned biking action. Unfortunately, the pop-in of textures on restarts has carried over from Evolution: hardly a game-breaking fault, but a shame to see linger with the new hardware.
At the end of the day, Trials Fusion is a good game that’s also something of a conundrum. It comes with slightly less content than Evolution, something which will be alleviated by community-made tracks and the upcoming series of DLC but doesn’t alleviate its relative slightness on launch (Naturally, you can buy a $20 Season Pass or get the $40 retail version, which comes with the pass bundled in). The game is also currently without online multiplayer; RedLynx has promised that an online Tournament mode will soon be patched in, but for now our showdowns will have to be confined to on the couch and leaderboards – a shame, again given Fusion‘s price.
Certainly, newcomers who have Steam and/or last-gen consoles may be advised to opt for the more content-rich and significantly cheaper Evolution, but Trials fans who want the latest version on their new machines will find plenty to enjoy here. Iteration rather than revolution, Fusion sustains RedLynx’s impressive run with this franchise albeit with a bit less meat on its bones than last time. The question for now is whether you are fine with buying a strong game now, or whether you want to wait for it to potentially become an exceptional one over time. Trials fans will be rewarded for going all-in, but neophytes may want to weigh up the pros and cons before deciding.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars