The Good: Mud-in-the-treads adrenaline-fueled ATV racing with forgiving physics models. The Bad: You end up racing on the same set of perhaps a dozen tracks over and over again, with only small changes in the route. The Ugly: There are maybe only four songs in the whole game that play during the races on a rotation, and you get to the point at which you want to scream.
So I was over at a friend’s house last week. He’s one of those guys with a darkened soundproofed room running a 100” HD projection rig and Dolby 5.1 Surround sound for his videogaming. And as he flops into a big black leather Laz-E-Boy and grabs his keyboard, he wants to show me some new racing game that he’s got. It’s here that I should inform you that I’m not, on the whole, what you would call a big fan of racing games. I don’t find joy in spending hours adjusting spoiler plane angles and engine stroke depths, and I tend not to rerun the same race over and over enjoying the fine differences between the different runs. I did like the sort of arcade-ish thrill of pinballing down the road in NFS, especially NFS Most Wanted, which had an almost RPG-like element to it as you improved your car and bought new ones. All of this is a preface to my review of Pure, and down-in-the-mud ATV racing game that works pretty hard to capture the sort of suicidal thrill of driving an ATV off a 200-foot cliff and doing madcopter nic nacs all the way to the ground, and for the most part succeeds.
At the start of Pure you’ve got nothing – no bike, and no standing in the biking world. The first thing you have to do is build yourself an ATV. Building an ATV is accomplished easily at the garage, where you pick a frame and then add everything else onto it, and I do mean everything, right down to the hand grips on the handlebars. There are many, many parts to choose from, and I suspect they emulate actual parts from real manufacturers, though I’m not the guy to ask about that, and you can paint them practically any color you can imagine. Out of curiosity, just to see if gets dirty as I drive it around, I painted every component of my bike white. Incidentally, it doesn’t get dirty, and I’m driving a bike as glowingly white as the smile in a toothpaste advertisement. You don’t really need to know anything about the parts of a bike to successfully build one. Each component you add causes the bike’s capabilities to change in real time, as shown on five sliding bar graphs in the lower right hand corner – top speed, acceleration, handling, braking, and tricks. It effectively allows a moron like myself to design a bike for my playing style.
Then you get to take that bike out on the track. Multiplayer mode allows you to play against up to 15 other players online or on LAN. The single player game can either be approached as a single race event, or a career-style mode in which you try your skill in the world league. You begin a the lowest tier of racing, and as you win races at that tier you unlock higher tier races as well as better components that you can add to your bike. There are three types of races: racing, sprint, and freestyle. A race consists of three laps on a relatively long track. A sprint is five laps on a short track. Freestyle is three laps on a long track, but the objective is not to complete the race first, but to complete the highest scoring stunts and tricks before you run out of fuel, cooler stunts earning you the most fuel to continue doing stunts, so it’s sort of self-fulfilling in that way.
Those three types of races don’t really demand the same requirements out of your bike, right? One wants high acceleration, while another wants high trick capability (which seems to mostly equate to having ridiculously springy shock absorbers). You can unlock more slots in your garage to store more ATVs as you win races, though initially you only have one slot. It costs you nothing to go into the garage to alter your bike between races, but it does become sort of cumbersome to have to keep doing so depending on the type of race you are running. Given the lack of cost and the additional ATV slots later it is kind of surprising that they make you go through the inconvenience early on, but there you go. Later on, as I had many slots in my garage, I still only found myself keeping two bikes – a fast one and a tricky one. I just kind of get the feeling that, as good as the bike construction interface is, that they didn’t really think through the whole ATV slots thing very much.
The tracks are highly detailed, with buildings and rocks and trees and they take place in locations around the globe, though in no places that are immediately recognizable. You don’t see the Eiffel Tower in the background or anything. The jumps range in height from tiny bumps to insanely suicidal plunges that feel like they’re about 200 feet high, a bomb trajectory whistle actually accompanying you on the way down. The tracks are somewhat linear, though there are several similar paths that you can take at any given moment, and every so often there are shortcuts, though they are not labeled. It takes several runs on any given track to know where the jumps are and what specifically the best route is for your driving style, which makes it very difficult, though not impossible, to win a race the first time through, especially in the higher tiers. Before the race you are given a sort of movie showing pieces of the track, but I would have greatly preferred some sort of topographical still picture over the fancy schmancy movie to let me know what the layout of the track is. You splash through water and spray through mud puddles, though you stay clean throughout. Engines rev and bikes crash into each other with a satisfying crunch (though they are never damaged). The music portion of the soundtrack has maybe four songs, and I think I learned to really dislike at least two of them greatly.
The game supports all kinds of controllers, but the guy I was playing with is a keyboard purist. Using keyboard commands, the W and S keys are accelerate and break, while the left and right arrows allow you to turn. Using the up and down arrows you can crouch down on the bike and then spring up to try and get a little more air on the jumps. When in the air, holding down the 1, 2, or 3 key while hitting some combination of arrows performs a trick. The 1 key gives you the easiest trick, the 3 the most difficult. You have to perform some low level tricks to unlock the more difficult ones. The more difficult tricks take longer, and if you hit the ground during a trick you fall off the bike, but the longer you hold the trick the higher your trick score, the more gas it puts in your tank (on Freestyle tracks), and the more Nitro boost you are given. In straight races, there is little advantage to doing tricks, especially if you fall off your bike doing them. While in the air your bike is decelerating due to drag, so stiffening up your shocks, minimizing your tricks, and spending as little time airborne as possible is a good way to win. The Freestyle races are of course all about the tricks, and the physics engine is very forgiving in terms of what you can get away with and still land without crashing.
I found Pure addictive (music notwithstanding). The racing and trickery is challenging enough to make it interesting without making you feel like the races are unwinnable. The computer drives a good race for the most part, and provides hours and hours of increasingly difficult tier levels. Pure is essentially NFS for the ATV crowd, which I think is a pretty good thing.