After carving a niche out for itself in the online Flash game realm, the Trials series hits consoles with an HD-optimized XBLA release. Trials HD can best be described as a modern-day Excitebike, only without opponents, but with tons of track hazards, excellent graphics, an incredible physics model, a bunch of awesome mini-games, an in-depth level creator, and a steep learning curve at times.
Just like the ‘80s classic, your goal is to get to the end of a track in the fastest possible time. With the inclusion of online leaderboards, this seemingly simple pursuit can be itself addictive. If someone is ahead of you by just a second or so, it’s easy to lose a few hours of your day trying to beat them. And it’s incredibly rewarding to do so - not just for the bragging rights, but due to the skills learned as a result. The tracks themselves are quite intricate and even on the early stages, features things like explosions and parts falling out from underneath you that can slow you down easily - beating a time usually means also being able to figure out a way past those obstacles that you didn’t see before, which is always rewarding.
Aside from those kinds of touches to the levels, what helps Trials HD stand out more than anything else are its incredibly realistic driving physics and ultra-responsive controls. Bike movement is incredibly touchy, and that has some good and bad points to it. The upside is that it gives you an unparalleled level of control over your movement and allows you to do flips with ease and enables players to do very precise movements across small places, but the downside to it is that one minor mistake can often lead to disaster. If you’re able to pick up the intricacies of the controls fairly quickly, you won’t have too much to worry about, but if not, you’ll be in trouble.
The intense difficulty is the closest thing to a fatal flaw Trials HD has because it can easily lead to players just not wanting to play anymore. Three of the five sets of levels aren’t maddening, but the last two sets will take you to the limit of your sanity, and the jump in difficulty from the third to the fourth set is so great that it seems unfair. Just getting to a new checkpoint in each stage will seem like a major accomplishment - and that‘s with them being thrown around liberally. The last two sets of stages are brutal - filled with glass panes, exploding barrels, and inclines that seem impossible for anyone without superpowers to scale.
Things can definitely get frustrating in a hurry, which is why I’m glad the developers included the option to jump off of the bike at any time and hurl yourself through the air - after failing to get to a new checkpoint a few dozen times, jumping off and into said glass panes and exploding barrels with a character that is thrown around like a rag doll does wonders for reducing the frustration and adds some comedy to the game. Fortunately, the hardest parts of the game can just be avoided if you choose - leaving three sets of levels that won’t frustrate you too much, a bunch of mini-games, and an addictive bronze/silver/gold medal structure like the PGRs that make the game hard to put down.
Visually, Trials HD looks excellent. While it isn’t the best-looking game on the 360, it is one of those games where I really can’t imagine it looking much better than it already does. Everything looks solid, and the HD revamp has turned a usually bland-looking flash game into a marvelous-looking console experience with intricately detailed environments. The only things that I would change about the visuals would be making the bikes and riders more detailed - and adding some visual customization to the former while increasing what can be changed in the latter. The existing driver attire editing tools are too limited and only allow for broad outfit changes covering half of the outfit at a time - I would much rather be able to change it bit-by-bit to further tailor the game to my liking.
Fortunately, the level creation tool goes far beyond the limited driver editing one and enables you to make pretty much any kind of level you can imagine. If you want something mostly simple but with a few obstacles thrown in, like boxes of TNT placed between two ramps spread far apart - like something out of an Evel Knievel TV special, you can do it, or you can torment either yourself or Xbox Live friends with stages filled with glass, TNT, or large, seemingly-impossible inclines. There are tons of options available here, and due to it, it’s a shame that the tool is held back by the requirement of only being able to share levels with friends - after getting used to LittleBigPlanet’s open-world level sharing tool, it seems archaic by comparison and will greatly limit how many user-created levels people are able to enjoy over the game‘s lifespan. Despite that, I think there’s still a lot of replay value in the game as a whole - it’s just limited here more than it really should be.
Aurally, Trials HD delivers a mostly pleasing experience. The hard rock soundtrack certainly fits the fast and bone-shattering action, but it’s not very memorable outside of a few songs (including the title screen song, which is awesome). The sound effects fare much better - especially the voice work when going over large chasms where your biker screams for joy that he’s making the jump…and then either stops yelling due to making it or cringes loudly due to the sickening THUD his body made as it landed on the track, went through a series of glass panes, or hit a few inconveniently-placed explosive barrels.
The variety of track surfaces and their sound effects is impressive - you’ll never hear the same effect used from one surface to another. So if you’re racing (or landing) on wood, it’ll sound much different than if you’re on concrete, sheet metal, or large beams - it‘s a small touch that some games overlook, but I‘m glad this one didn‘t as it adds a little something to the experience.
While it’s not perfect, and the sharp increase in difficulty at the end isn’t for everyone, Trials HD is an incredible experience overall. The addictive nature of its gameplay and the constant motivation to improve provided by the online leaderboards ensures that this will be a game in constant rotation for quite some time - and it’s great for either quick plays or extended play sessions as well. RedLynx did a fantastic job with the XBLA release for the series and seemed to finally unlock a lot of the potential it showed before as a Flash game.