Trials Evolution’s opening menu screen shows a gang of motocross bros striding towards the camera with Reservoir Dogs-style panache. Hands are balled into fists, as if they’re spoiling for a fight. Or perhaps they spend so much time revving throttles, their fingers have begun to instinctively curl up just so. The whole scene looks oddly familiar. Photoshop futuristic weaponry into those hands, dim the lights and you’ve effectively recreated Halo: Reach’s box art.
The stoic rider leading the charge doesn’t have an official name, but he’s the closest thing the Trials franchise has to a mascot. With his face enigmatically concealed behind a visor, you can almost imagine him being a Spartan in casual dress. One of the background dudes has a skeleton maw printed on the bandana cloaking his mouth, like Emile-A239’s skull-decorated helmet. The two images even share a backdrop of mountain peaks, conveying both grandeur and struggle.
The fundamental difference between these two images is that one of them is hand-over-its-heart earnest, and the other is busy setting up newcomers for one of the most delightful punchlines gaming has to offer. Reach herniates a spinal disc from standing at such rigid attention, pouring on its tale of military heroism and sacrifice like a jet of maple syrup from a fire hose. But those flexing Trials badasses? They’re about to get so thoroughly crushed, burned, mangled, broken, pummelled and exploded that all the Mjolnir-powered armour in the universe couldn’t save them.
Trials Evolution builds on the sadistic charms of its predecessor, Trials HD – one of XBLA’s all-time top-sellers – in precisely the same way Dark Souls built on the template of Demon’s Souls: preserve the beating heart of the gameplay experience and channel your energy into developing a more robust world in which that interaction can play out. In FromSoftware’s case, that core was a patient, deliberate combat rhythm. For Trials, it’s all about the wild-stallion-breaking task of subduing that bike, which bucks and heaves beneath novice thumbs, only to gradually steady and do its master’s bidding as your skills improve.
The Trials bike physics model is a many-faceted, exquisitely polished diamond, but in the case of Trials HD, RedLynx was forced to mount it in a Burger King paper crown. Circumventing the limitations of HD’s graphics engine meant staging the game’s outlandish obstacle courses in dingy warehouse interiors. Such depressing environs were hardly inviting, even if it was fun to imagine them as the brooding sibling of Aperture Science’s gleaming test chambers, both constructed by a diabolical architect intent on blurring the line between testing and torture. Evolution transplants HD’s diamond to a lavish crown capable of showcasing its brilliance.
In moving Evolution outside of the warehouse and into a spacious natural world (with 500m draw distances), RedLynx addresses one of the primary criticisms levelled at HD, which concerned the game’s precipitous difficulty curve. Many players simply hit a wall midway through the game and were unable to progress any further. They’d come up against a ramp that seemed as sheer as a cliff face, and would hurl the controller away after attempting to scale it a couple of dozen times, only to slide back down on each attempt.
Evolution doesn’t assuage these gripes by softening the difficulty, but uses creative measures to dab salve on the psychic wound that will inevitably form once you smash into its more ornery challenges. Scenic vistas lighten your mood and eliminate the claustrophobia that made HD’s atmosphere feel so stiflingly bleak at times. When you’re attempting to clear a particular checkpoint on an advanced level for the 114th time, a gulp of fresh air – even the virtual ?sort – can mean the difference between giving up and steeling your nerves for one more try.
By sprinkling the gulfs between platforms with crates of dynamite and nuclear warheads, HD sought to defuse the sting of failure with slapstick laughs. It was difficult to hold a grudge against the game while watching a crate of explosives send your ragdoll rider spin cartwheels through the air like a clown being shot from a circus cannon.
Evolution takes this kind of slapstick absurdity and pushes the faders all the way up. Miss a jump and you’ll trigger a land mine, or perhaps a bundle of C-4 explosive duct-taped to the side of a crate. The word ‘Crash’ flashes over your rider in cartoonish yellow text, like the ‘Kapow! or ‘Wham!’ accompanying a Batman right hook. After crossing a track’s finish line, Evolution regularly treats you to a short vignette in which your rider is savaged in hilariously macabre fashion. After the first track, a few squirrel toys rain down on his head, followed by a piano, followed by a massive freight train car. In one harbourside track, a submarine periscope peeks out of the water, spots your rider, then releases several depth charges that blast him into the sky.
Though the variety of environmental death-dealing in Evolution may come as a surprise, the frequency of dying shouldn’t. Any sufficiently complex system is going to be difficult to master, and Trials is simply the most sophisticated and demanding platformer in existence, making even Mario games seem fluffy as marshmallows by comparison.
Because Evolution involves a motorcycle and finish times, it’s easy to file it under ‘racing game’, but don’t be fooled – this is a platformer at heart. We’ve come to equate the genre with the physical act of a character running and jumping, but RedLynx’s motorcycle just interacts with ramps and platforms in a more engaging manner. When you’re landing on feet, you either stick the jump or you don’t, but a rear-drive motorcycle requires careful attention to balance and pitch.
Evolution’s tracks burst at the seams with references to other games and broader touchstones of popular geek culture. Trials Of Limbo sees the silhouette of your rider biking through Playdead’s dreamy monochromatic landscape. Titan Graveyard pays homage to Team Ico, featuring massive stone hands jutting from the ground, windmills, and hanging cages like the one that held Ico’s Yorda hostage. Lab Rat references Portal. Dark City Run is modelled after Sin City’s noir-ish tricolour palette.
The only aspect of Evolution that doesn’t improve ?on its sublime predecessor is its generally lacklustre skill games. Freestyler finds your rider trading his bike for skis and slaloming along a dirt track, accruing points for distance and additional bonuses for performing flips. It feels like a rehash of Flip Hunter from HD, only far more rigid and stiff without the springy bike physics in play. S.P.H.E.R.E. shows you can make a Marble Madness-type game in Evolution’s editor, only one that’s not as fun as the original. Exploding Man shows you can pay homage to ’Splosion Man, but again, it’s a pale imitation of the original. By using the skill games as a showcase for what it’s possible to make, as opposed to what’s most fun, the game momentarily loses sight of its first responsibility to players.
Beyond the singleplayer campaign, Evolution unleashes the deepest online experience in XBLA history. In addition to side-by-side Supercross (local or online with up to four players), playing over Xbox Live lets you go head to head on standard tracks against a friend in a private match, or against a stranger via matchmaking. Instead of the scrolling triangular marker from HD, Evolution drops a ghost – represented by a yellow dot – in the field of play that swoops along the track to represent either your live opponent or a legacy ghost you’ve selected from the overall leaderboard to test your skills against. It’s a seismic improvement over the linear scrolling markers of HD, adding a far more dynamic awareness of your rival’s progression.
But Evolution isn’t solely concerned with cremating the competition, and the muscular Track Editor lets you create as well. Just pick any point on its vast open map, drop a starting and finishing marker, and begin placing obstacles. It’s the same editor the designers at RedLynx used to make the game, which seems hard to believe until you realise you can load up the actual in-game levels to admire their painstaking handiwork, or even take them apart to see how they tick.
Despite the ease with which you can pull a rudimentary track together, with the bar being set so high, it’s easy to grow impatient with your inferior skills. Fortunately, there are people in the community who know what they’re doing and the Track Central will provide a steady stream of new, free content for the insatiable Trials fan. The ambitious, exacting craftsmanship of Evolution goes a long way to ensuring that every person who gives the game a proper chance will be seduced into becoming precisely such a fan.
Who knows, maybe those dudes on the Evolution menu screen are simply the avatars of a handful of RedLynx developers. They’re not itching to punch anything, just hoping for a congratulatory fist bump. Well, gentlemen, here you go.