When I first started playing Trials HD, I was immediately taken back to my high school years. It was reminiscent of my 10th grade programming class, in which I did poorly because I suck at math and logical thinking. Instead of getting frustrated with subroutines, I usually joined the rest of the class in playing Elasto Mania whenever the teacher wasn't watching. It was a really simple 2-D Flash-based game where players maneuvered a motorcycle through dangerous environments, all while leaning the bike either forward or backward to maintain balance and avoid crashing.
This is exactly how Trials HD plays, and despite bearing similarities to a game I played when Blink 182 was cool, it manages to bring the concept into modern gaming with such tactful and challenging design that it's one of the best games on the Xbox Live Arcade. Of course, this game is in 3-D, but it's still set on a 2-D plane. Just like Elasto Mania, players must balance their dirt bikes as they ride a variety of ramps and other obstacles while trying to make it to the end of the track.
What makes Trials HD so enjoyable, and at the same time torturous, is its extremely sophisticated physics. Hitting the throttle too hard will spin the bike out of control, while leaning too far forward will send the rider tumbling over the handlebars. The bike handles so realistically that it almost feels better than most full retail racing sims. The wheels roll, bounce and stick to the ground in an incredibly lifelike fashion, while leaning and throttling the right way will allow the bike to build more momentum when launching a jump. It just plain works, and that's probably the simplest but highest praise one could give to any physics engine. It even had me leaning my entire body left to right during the most intense moments, which is a response that I rarely get in games anymore.
All levels are set within dank warehouses containing systems of ramps. Things start off pretty simple with smooth jumps, but the game quickly ratchets up the difficulty by bringing in a series of platforming and physics puzzles. Ramps eventually start to look like roller coasters, and players will also have to maintain their balance on more unconventional terrain, like seesawing steel girders or speeding mine carts. If that weren't enough, Trials HD also throws in crude obstacles like tractor tires, jagged wooden planks, and explosives that detonate on contact. Eventually, the tracks get so steep and hazardous that the game starts too feel like climbing Mount Everest with a dirt bike.
It can be a lot of work to get through just one of the game's 35 tracks, and even if you do, that's just the beginning. Players are scored on each track and awarded a gold, silver or bronze medal, which can be used to unlock more bikes and tracks. Getting gold usually means completing a track without any crashes, which is something most players won't be able to do in their first few attempts.
Trials HD may not be for everyone, especially those who are easily frustrated. The difficulty level rises very quickly, and the unforgiving bike physics will surely have some people throwing their controllers. However, the experience will satisfy gamers determined to master the precise handling needed to take the bike from point A to B in a timely, wipeout-free manner. Sure, you can pass a track and move on, but the real reward lies in the repetition of tracks in order to get that one perfect run. It may take a lot of work, but in the end, Trials HD is a perfectionist's dream — and also their nightmare.
Although the difficulty level may be harsh, it's certainly not a fault of the game. Trials HD never feels like it's being unfair, thanks to frequent checkpoints and a system that allows the player to restart at any time with the press of a button. It keeps the pace of the game moving fast, even through the process of retrying a level over and over. If one is ever really stuck, a visit to the leaderboards can help, where all of the top replays for a track are available for viewing. They can be very helpful, thanks to the diagram showing in real time which thumbstick or trigger movements a player made and explaining just how he or she pulled off the high score.
Since Trials HD is all about high scores, the game allows this competition to be shared among friends during gameplay. On any given track, a meter will measure your current progress against the player on your friends list who has the best run. It's much like competing against someone's ghost in other racing games, but it would have been nice to let the feature work with players outside of one's friends list. If no one I know is playing Trials HD, then this feature is pretty useless.
After the standard tracks are done, there's a series of tournaments that score players on the completion of multiple tracks in a row. Sadly, all of the levels are recycled from the rest of the game so it doesn't feel very fresh. The skill games, however, do make for a nice change from the regular stressful tracks and are great for a quick fix. There's plenty of truly bizarre contests, like launching the rider off the bike to see how far his body tumbles, carefully towing a trailer filled with bombs and flying through rings of fire that fuel a jet engine hooked up to the bike. It's basically a collection of creative ways to torture the tiny little motorcycle man.
One of Trials HD's greatest strengths and biggest disappointments is the level editor. The system grants the user access to every object in the game and, most importantly, lets them imbue items with the game's superb physics. This is where the most creativity can be put into Trials HD's custom tracks, as players can string together objects to pull off physics stunts that are only limited by their imagination. Skill games can also be customized, which is great because their inherently bizarre nature can only be augmented by the user. The level editor feels professional and on par with the tools the designers probably used to develop the game, but sadly, none of it matters.
For some insane reason, Trials HD only allows custom tracks to be shared between people on the same friends list. Not only is this a poor decision in the event that someone doesn't have friends who are designing tracks, but it's a slap in the face to the potential that the online community is absolutely brimming with. If anyone wants to see how tragic this is, just do a search on YouTube to see the talent that's being stifled. Trials HD's robust level editor and free-form physics system could make it on par with Little Big Planet in terms of a user-created experience, but the exclusion of level sharing puts a damper on any possibility for a community and puts a limit on the game's lasting appeal.
Over the years, Xbox Live Arcade games have "grown up" in terms of visuals, and Trials HD helps push the standard even further. The details and lighting throughout the tracks all make for a substantial underground dirt biking atmosphere that evokes the smell of gasoline and sawdust. While it is on a 2-D plane, the camera sits slightly to the side of the rider when going down steep hills, giving a sense of vertigo and adding to the realistic feel of riding the bike. Also, when these vertiginous moments occur, the rider will holler out some ridiculous whoops, which add to the game's very tongue-in-cheek presentation. There's also quite a good lineup of rocking tracks that fit right into the game's hardcore themes.
Trials HD is one of those rare occurrences where the real-life activity might actually be easier than its video game imitator. Yes, it's difficult and will turn off some folks, but the relentless gameplay is still rock solid and intensely rewarding when things eventually go your way. It manages to balance a perfect mix of racing, puzzles and platforming, all in one challenging package. If it weren't for the lack of true level sharing, this would be a near-perfect game. Just as Elasto Mania was there to distract me as a teenager, Trials HD will ensure that I'm less productive in my adulthood.
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