The Trials series isn’t really suited to sequels. DLC, sure, and perhaps the occasional reboot to freshen up those visuals, but RedLynx pulled off such a perfect landing with Trials HD back in 2009 that each attempt to better it is increasingly dangerous, and Fusion comes perilously close to losing its balance.
Tampering with the core bike riding in any new iteration is out of the question, which leaves RedLynx with two options: release more of the same, or release more of the same with new things bolted on. Evolution leant towards the former, sharpening up HD’s clunky level editor, polishing the visuals, and introducing more varied environments and local multiplayer. Fusion also adds lacquer, but is a good deal braver, experimenting with four-wheel-drive quad bikes and a physics-based trick system. The result, sadly, is that it feels fractured.
Thankfully, the Trials game at the centre of all this innovation is as good, and as viciously challenging, as it’s ever been. Fusion’s tracks are some of RedLynx’s best yet, and series fans will feel at home instantly as they shift their rider’s weight to keep that back wheel planted. Newcomers are well looked after, too, and each tier of the career mode opens with a clear and concise tutorial that talks riders through the basics as well as more advanced techniques. There should be no excuse for not knowing how to bunnyhop this time around.
It’s also the best-looking Trials yet. While the series’ aesthetic has previously been somewhat utilitarian, Fusion’s futuristic setting proves its most successful and consistent look to date. Tracks blend dazzling metallic architecture with the organic mud, dirt and rock structures of Evolution. The huge draw distances and increased geometry appear to be weighing heavily on the engine, though, and there’s an alarming amount of texture pop-in when you begin a race, or restart it after making some progress, as well as some migraine-inducing polygon strobing in places. Your bike selection will have been made long before the model loads in on the menu, too, which is a shame given that your rides – as well as your rider – are fully customisable, with body kits, wheels and new outfits to purchase with your race earnings. Xbox One owners will once again have to settle for a much lower resolution than those playing on PS4, but at least that trade-off ensures that Fusion is in no danger of becoming the first console Trials game to dip below 60fps.
Fusion’s headline addition is its new FMX trick system, which is introduced early on in special events that take place on purpose-built tracks. Rather than rely on button presses or combinations, RedLynx has opted for an organic control scheme that loosely resembles Skate’s Flick-It system. Your rider’s pose is controlled with the right stick, so you push left to do a Superman, for example, or trace an arc from left to right to lie flat in front of the handlebars for a dead body. The longer you hold each trick, the more points you accrue, and these scores can be further increased by adding front- or backflips into the mix, or even simply performing wheelies and endos between jumps.
It’s pleasing enough at first, but while the FMX controls are intuitive, they’re rarely precise. Inputs are relative to the bike’s orientation – pulling the stick down when the bike is level makes your rider stand proudly on top of his ride, but do so with the bike pointing up and he’ll hang down from the handlebars. Given Trials’ trademark inertia, orienting your bike correctly is fiddly and it’s easy to fluff the move you were going for and do something else entirely. That’s especially problematic if it happens to be a repeat of an earlier trick (which harms your score), or you fail to achieve anything more than briefly writhing limbs. It’s telling that the score thresholds for gold and platinum medals for FMX events are the lowest in the game.
Another new addition is the all-terrain vehicle (ATV), a lumpen, brutish machine that eschews the bikes’ nimble grace for powerful four-wheel drive. Quads feel perfectly suited to the Trials beginner, providing a low-risk option for hill climbs and landing jumps, but they turn up halfway through the campaign. They’re neither as responsive nor as satisfying as even the least powerful trials bike, and feel extrinsic to the package. The tracks given over to the quads can’t be attempted with a bike, either, and Trials purists may find themselves resenting the resources that were dedicated to ATVs rather than additional bike courses.
Local multiplayer is under-resourced, too. With only ten race tracks, repetition soon leads to fatigue, and while Evolution’s equivalent felt comparable to the main game, the pace of Fusion’s multiplayer is inexplicably hobbled to the point that your bike handles like it’s moving through syrup. Those choosing an ATV will find themselves at an advantage as well, with ramps easily demolished and landings almost impossible to get wrong when four wheels are delivering power. It all feels like it was included out of a sense of obligation rather than any real desire to raise a smile, let alone the pulse.
Head-to-head online multiplayer and live ghost racing aren’t available at launch, but will be added in a free update down the line, along with what RedLynx promises is a completely new type of multiplayer for the series. A yet-to-be-activated Tournaments tab on the menu screen promises bespoke online events and leagues. Post-release DLC is also promised – we’re still holding out hope for a local turn-based Skill Games league – but whatever content RedLynx adds to the game in the weeks and months following release is certain to be dwarfed by the contributions of its fanbase. Over 700,000 tracks and minigames were made using Evolution’s editor, after all.
Fusion’s creative toolset has been improved with an easy-to-use radial menu for the most commonly picked options, through which you can access over 5,000 objects with which to build your devious Extreme track or Flappy Bird clone. It is, however, a little slow, at least on consoles: to move the camera, you must first guide a languid crosshair to the edge of the screen, and the process of adjusting your elevation is similarly inelegant. While the Trials series arguably only really came alive when it made the leap to consoles and fine analogue controls, a toolset as powerful as this is best suited to a PC mouse and keyboard.
RedLynx has fleshed out its sci-fi world with a story of sorts, delivered by two AIs with differing opinions of humans – one is in awe of you, the other calls you a “meat sack”. Their remarks initially provoke a laugh and, along with the ridiculous demise of your rider at the end of every course, quickly assuage fears that the new setting would bring about the demise of the series’ self-deprecating humour. But when, on your fifth checkpoint restart, you realise that nobody thought to limit these soundbites to a single play each time you visit a stage, you’ll also quickly visit the menu to mute them.
You’ll want to restart tracks often as you strive to achieve platinum medals across the board, beat friends’ times and complete the set of three challenges on each course, the latter of which provide a welcome change of pace. Some are tests of skill, such as putting in a faultless run without releasing the accelerator, while others are more exploratory, perhaps asking you to locate and crush all of the flowers in a stage. Others still ask for a more technical run, one early example transforming the nature of a reasonably fast track by asking you not to touch any of the yellow objects that run its length. Challenges are smart additions, building on the creativity that RedLynx exhibited in designing the Achievements found in its previous games, and managing to broaden out Trials’ remit without disrupting its core.
Other refinements show that RedLynx has been receptive to criticisms levelled at Evolution. While water spouts do make a return, there’s no equivalent of the controversial Sewage Plant here, which forced riders to negotiate a row of control-sapping plumes. Luck, on the whole, has been wrung from the equation more thoroughly than ever before, and when it does come into play – in an addictive skill game that requires you to ride over a series of randomly selected lengths of floating obstacles, for example – it never feels cheap.
Fusion’s name is a misnomer, then. While it attempts to blend FMX, quad bikes and more familiar Trials action, the new elements sit uneasily with the old. Trials has always been about precision and skill, traits that are blunted or obfuscated by four-wheel drive and fussy inputs. And the spotty polish suggests that, even with Ubisoft’s help, a simultaneous multiformat launch was too great a reach. But when Fusion gets things right, it does so in a way that only a Trials game can, dissolving the connection between player and bike so directly as to suggest no distinction at all. And when you land a difficult jump perfectly or finish a tough track with only 200, rather than 300, faults, it’s clear that despite the occasional wobble, Trials’ inimitable magic remains absolutely intact.