For most console gamers, Polish developer Techland is best known for first-person titles. The Call of Juarez series is considered fairly solid, even if the last one was a letdown, while Dead Island's emphasis on melee made it stand out once people focused on the game after the haunting teaser trailer. PC gamers know Techland's work also extends to racing games, with a few Grand Prix and rally titles under their belt. A few years ago, at the end of the extreme four-wheeler gaming craze, they released Nail'd into the console space. While it wasn't enough to make people forget about Pure and the MX vs. ATV series, it hung in there pretty well. The developers are trying once again with Mad Riders, a downloadable game that feels inspired by Nail'd but throws in some changes to make it both better and worse than its predecessor.
As the title would suggest, Mad Riders is an ATV game with an emphasis on arcade-style action. Technical details — such as preloading, ridges, and slowing down when in water or mud — are also absent. This doesn't mean that the technical aspects are gone altogether, as you're able to manipulate your jump height and distance based on your speed and analog stick direction, but the finesse needed to control your vehicles doesn't go beyond that. There's an emphasis on extreme speed and ramps to help you get some big air. The track design certainly emphasizes this, as the courses are comprised of plenty of slight inclines followed by steep slopes and lots of jumps. Sharp turns used for powersliding are also in abundance, and any crashes are met with immediate respawns on the track, supporting the idea that racing shouldn't come with any pauses.
That's the basic formula the developer followed with Nail'd, but they've also thrown in a few more changes for this outing. There's a trick system, and being able to successfully perform tricks gives you some boost power, which can also be obtained by picking up boost tokens along the track. A shortcut system is also in place, but it acts more like Split/Second in that you manually activate a token in proximity of the shortcut in order to use it. While it won't stop other riders from taking advantage of the shortcut once you open it, it will stop them from using it before you do.
The tracks are shorter in length when compared to Nail'd, so each race is more palatable for those who are pressed for time. Then there's the standard leveling system. No matter what mode you're in, any wins you accrue and tricks you successfully pull off are converted into experience points. Reaching each level opens up new things like new vehicles, paint jobs and costumes, so there's some incentive for players to keep plugging away at the game even after they've played through the available tracks.
Mad Riders comes with a pretty basic set of single-player modes. Both the Quick Race and Tournament modes come equipped with 45 different races split among five different disciplines. Race is what you expect it to be, with you going up against nine other opponents in a three-lap event. Arena takes the basic Race concept but opens it up so you can take any route as long as you hit the designated checkpoints in order. Stunt becomes a point-based competition, where the points gained from stunts determine the winner. Ghost has you racing against the ghosts of other riders as you try to make the best lap time possible. Finally, Time Trials has you alone on the track as you race from checkpoint to checkpoint before time runs out.
Each of the modes uncovers a few of the game's issues. Time Trials are awfully strict to the point where if you don't cross the checkpoint at the very last second, you'll fail. That annoyance is only amplified when you hear all of the confirmation sounds from getting through the checkpoint but are still faced with a failure screen. Ghost races are nice until you realize that you can only race against ghost times of the programmers. There's no ability to download ghosts from other players, so there's no ongoing challenge should you beat all of the available times. In Stunt racing, you'll realize that you don't have a plethora of stunts in your arsenal. Backflips and whips are fine, but don't expect anything crazy, like seat grabs, handlebar grabs or the ability to do wheelies.
There are other general issues. The tracks are numerous, but unlike Nail'd, all of the environments are tropical. It feels more restricting since you'll often see the same landmarks on different tracks, showing that they made a little deviation to one track to create something new. The beautiful tracks also don't have the benefits of wild environmental hazards to keep things fresh. You have a train passing by on one course, but you don't have the ability to share the same airspace as hot air balloons, saw blades or trains. The respawn system is what will bother people the most. The quick return to the track is appreciated, but there are times when the respawn system is too sensitive. Some situations, such as slightly grazing the outskirts of one track or failing to reach the right part of a hill, are enough to cause a respawn. Traditional races don't make this seem so bad, but when this happens on Time Trial races, prepare to be ticked off.
Despite the number of gripes, the game remains a relatively fun experience because of the other elements. The speed, in particular, is conveyed rather well, and while it isn't unmanageable, you get the sense that things can get out of control at any moment if you aren't paying attention. The rubberband AI isn't that bad here, and it does a good job of keeping races close. Even though the courses start to feel similar, they're fairly well designed, and the shortcuts are often exciting to traverse. While the overall gameplay could have been tightened up, what's already here is enjoyable.
Like all racing games, multiplayer makes Mad Riders better, and the experience is mostly good. Up to 12 players can participate in an event, and the matches were lag-free during the review period. Aside from going to multiplayer straight from the main menu, the game features drop-in/drop-out multiplayer within the single-player game, so jumping between AI opponents and human opponents is relatively painless once you get past the loading screens. All of the single-player game modes are available in multiplayer, except for Ghost races and Time Trials. In lieu of that, there are Perfectionist races, where you have eight laps to post the best time among your available opponents. The mode isn't bad, but it doesn't make up for the lack of downloadable ghost opponents.
One oddity is the lack of local multiplayer. While you can do system link, there's no option for split-screen play, which has almost become a racing game staple. Nail'd didn't have that feature, either, but it would have been nice to see the developers put that in since they were trying to make a better racing game with this entry. Also, keep in mind that the leveling system for multiplayer is separate from the single-player mode, so you can't take your high-level player from one realm to another.
The sound is both a little better and a little worse than its predecessor. The effects are fine, with engines pumping out some deep bass and imposing roars each time they're revved up. Landings have the right amount of thud, and scrapes against signs and other riders sound as sharp as ever. Voices are new, though not particularly exciting. Hearing the race countdown is nice but not exactly motivational, while you'll feel indifferent to the call-outs for each trick. There's some music variety, with techno/electronic/dubstep getting mixed in with the typical hard rock you've come to expect in extreme sports games. The soundtrack consists of original, instrumental compositions instead of fully licensed material. The move toward original stuff is nice, but it all sounds similar enough that you'll mentally tune it out.
Graphically, the game looks like a carbon copy of Nail'd, mostly due to the fact that it's still running on Chrome Engine 4 instead of 5, which was used in the more recent Dead Island. The use of an old engine doesn't diminish the game's appearance. The character models and bikes animate well and look fine, even if some of the suits and paint jobs have busy color schemes. The environments look pretty detailed and lush, with some impressive vistas at the apex of some of your jumps. The best thing about the graphics, though, is how well it maintains a solid frame rate while still preserving the blistering speed that the game tries so hard to convey. It never reaches the lofty goal of 60fps, but 30fps is more than enough to make this an impressive-looking title.
All in all, Mad Riders ends up being an experience that is both better and worse than Techland's previous efforts at ATV racing. The shorter track length feels better, but the lack of environmental variety gets tiring, especially when you have to race through variations of the same track. The sense of speed and big jumps makes each race exciting, but the missing set pieces make the experience feel slightly watered down. Having a trick system in place is great, but the limited tricks feel like a halfhearted attempt. The presentation is good, as is the online multiplayer, though there's no local multiplayer. Overall, Mad Riders is a good — but not great — racing title, and those looking for a new racing experience will feel that this is $10 well spent, despite the omissions and issues.
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