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Trials Evolution Review

Trials Evolution: part physics puzzle, part platformer, part racer, all thrills and excitement

When I was a lad, there was a popular TV show called Kick Start in which teenagers on lightweight motorbikes sedately attempted to balance themselves on narrow beams, or haul their bike over burnt-out cars without falling off. That’s the sort of thing I was expecting when I downloaded Trials Evolution from XBLA. It is categorically not what I got.

What I got was the lunatic bastard lovechild of a threesome between a physics puzzler, a platform game and a motorbike racer in which you guide a hapless avatar through a series of improbable courses featuring high bridges and steep cliffs, while falling off as little as possible. You have only to worry about your speed and balancing your rider backwards and forwards: the game takes care of steering for you, making it incredibly easy to pick up and play. And given the ridiculous physics model the game employs, which can see you jumping enormous chasms before making a perfect landing on a girder the width of a drinking straw, it offers a quite amazingly intuitive learning curve to complement those simple controls.

And a good job too because in most other respects the game is chronically unforgiving. The difficulty curve is pretty smooth but reaches the same unbelievable heights as some of the jumps in the later stages of the game. Not that you should worry about this if you don’t like tough games, as it has a medal system and to get the basic bronze level you can take as many tries at a track as you like and most are liberally peppered with restart points. Even the least able players should be able to unlock pretty much everything in the game just by accumulating bronzes. If you want challenge, gun for silvers. If you’re a masochist, shaking desperately with the need for a truly punishing session of self-brutalisation then gold is probably your thing.

But you could find all this out from any review of trials evolution. Most of them seem to miss the point about the game, which is simply this: what makes the game special is not the intuitive, quick-fix game play. Nor is it the nicely graded but ultimately jaw-shattering difficulty. Nor is it the clever genre-busting design. No. What makes this games special is the incredible, visceral thrill you’ll get by shimmying a feeble little dirt bike up to the edge of a cliff, pausing briefly to admire the view across the distant plains beyond before hitting the accelerator and plummeting several hundred feet at sickening speed, rolling perfectly down then up a ramp, tilting the balance to spin the bike as you leap before the back tyre grips dirt again and you tear off, spraying mud, across the uneven surface toward the next set of insurmountable obstacles.

The Castle level in Trials Evolution, one of several downright bizarre settings the game has to offer

The designers knew this. You can see it in every inch of every level design with their jaw-dropping backgrounds, insane obstacles and choice of settings which includes war zones, high-rise building sites and non-euclidean nightmare dimensions. You can see it in the way the game scripts explosions, geysers, even artillery in unlikely places, some miraculously missing you by inches, others an integral part of the game play as they boost your jumps and turns. You can see it in the massive slopes down which you career on a tiny bike at unforgiving speeds. It’s a game that made me beam with sheer joy at the impossible thrills on offer, even as it bludgeoned me repeatedly with the blunt instrument of its difficulty. The game even kills your tiny avatar in a different way at the end of each short course, just to make sure there’s no letup in the entertainment on offer.

The trouble with a lot of XBLA downloadable games is that whilst many are very good and very daring, they’re also very short. Comes with the territory of small developer teams, I guess. This is not, however, a criticism you can level at Trials Evolution. The basic single-player game will probably clock in at the five hours or so that’s fairly typical for an XBLA title but once you’re done with it, it’s not the end of the game. For starters there are multi-player modes that allow you to race in real-time against other players on the same console or Xbox live, using ghosts to track the progress of each player to make sure there’s no wheel-bumping to add further problems to the already tough courses on offer. And if that’s not sufficient there’s a track editor for you to design your own courses and, perhaps more importantly for those of us without time to burn, the ability to download other people’s courses. I’m pretty confident that this setup will allow the game to keep on throwing down its challenges for you for as long as you’re happy to accept them.

Trials Evolution is perhaps the most perfect example of bite-sized entertainment I have ever seen, something that offers an equal amount of pleasure for five minutes or five hours as the mood seizes you. But, don’t be mistaken, bite-sized entertainment is precisely what this is. There’s no story or career mode to engage you or, for that matter, to distract you from the core experience the game offers. You’ll accumulate money you can use to buy pointless cosmetic upgrades but after briefly noodling with your riders’ appearance you’ll cease to care. And there is the inescapable whiff of offering empty rewards to encourage equally empty box-checking replays in the medal and achievements system. That’s the flaw: the game would perhaps have benefited a little for a better and more engaging overarching framework to the design. But what it’s designed to do, it does extremely well indeed.

Four stupid things I learned from owning an Xbox 360

My Xbox 360 hasn't done this to me so far, but here's some things it has done ...

Over the weekend, I became the proud owner of an aged but functional Xbox 360 Arcade with an attached 20GB hard drive. It didn’t come with any games though, and it being a bank holiday weekend here in the UK all the used games shops were closed, so I had to resort to XBLA to get my first taste of gaming goodness. Going to hit the charity shops with a vengeance this lunchtime though. But here’s a short list of unexpected things that I discovered as a used console owner.

1. GamerTag profiles are stupid

Being enthusiastic, I made the gross error of setting up my XBLA account *before* I set up the console. It then took me half an hour to actually sign on to Xbox live, because every time I tried to enter my email and password, the machine told me those details were already matched to an existing GamerTag. I tried changing my profile name, deleting the old profiles on the machine, searching the online help and menus, each and every time having to tediously re-enter my long email address and password without a keyboard all to no avail until I discovered, quite by chance, that if you already have a profile you have to download it first. Am I the only person who found this “feature” to be idiotically well-hidden?

2. Microsoft Points are stupid

As I said I had to get my first games from XBLA. There were three that interested me: Braid, Limbo and Trials Evolution which would come to a grand total of 3200 “points” if I wanted them all. Can I buy 3200 point? Not if I want to get a discount on RRP and buy them in blocks from cards, no. This is so screamingly, obviously a ploy to force people to overspend and then use the excess to engage with other parts of the Microsoft shop to buy mp3’s and such that I’m amazed there hasn’t been more of an outcry about it. I think it’s absolutely disgusting and I’ll be doing my damnedest to try and make up round numbers from promotions and freebies where I can find them. Although I note that the Bing Rewards scheme is arbitrarily only available in the US and therefore closed to me, so way to go to alienate a substantial chunk of your user base, Microsoft. Also, I found it extraordinary that the critically acclaimed Braid, an XBLA game from 2008 will cost me approximately £8 in points, whereas the copy of the critically acclaimed Fallout 3 from 2008 that I secured on Ebay cost me £4 including P&P. No bloody wonder manufacturers are keen to squash the second hand games market: this isn’t just about stopping used sales, it’s about encouraging downloads and locking down the means of distribution at which point you have an effective monopoly and can charge what the hell you like.

3. My TV is stupid

I still have an old cathode ray set. I have never seen the point of HDTV: I have friends that have it, and I’ve seen it demoed in shops and it really hasn’t looked all that much better than SDTV to me, especially when you factor in that the vast majority of broadcasts in the UK are still in SD and that they look marginally inferior when viewed on an HD set due to having to be processed through scaling software. As far as consoles go I stupidly thought the same would apply, especially since I’ve seen adverts for games on the TV that looked okay. But the minute I loaded up a game to play, I could see what the problem was: horrible fuzzy edges everywhere. I’m perplexed as to why I perceive this problem so much more in computer graphics than actual TV transmissions but for now I’m just encouraging my kids to throw heavy objects at the screen in the hope the insurance will cover a new one.

4. Consoles are stupidly effective money sinks

I picked this console up because it was a bargain. And then promptly spent £30 on XBLA points and used games from Ebay, and that barely scratches the surface of what I want to play. Now I’m thinking I need a new memory stick and a bigger hard drive. And I’m tempted to buy The Witcher 2 even though it’s new and can only be had for near full price because it sounds awesome. My six-year old daughter would absolutely love Kinect. Oh, and Brandon told me about this handy-sounding recharge kit for the controllers. And at some point someone is going to challenge me to some online gaming and then I’ll need to upgrade to Gold. So I’ve gone from from trying to economise to spending tons of money, all because I managed to pick up a bargain. How the hell does that work?

So that’s my weekend in a nutshell. The first game I spent those points on is Trials Evolution – might post a review next week as it hasn’t had much coverage round here, and it’s totally not what I was expecting when I downloaded it.

Hybrid’s Many Questions

Last night I fired up the beta for Hybrid, the upcoming multiplayer only XBLA shooter from 5th Cell. You may recognize that name from Scribblenauts and Scribblenauts 2: Revenge of the Scribbler (not its real name) as well as the Drawn to Life series and Lock’s Quest. “Wait a minute”, you may be asking, “what do these games have to do with a multiplayer only cover shooter set in a persistent online world?” Beats me. Did I mention there are jetpacks? Not Tribes-style jetpacks, but jetpacks nonetheless.

I know you have questions. Trust me, I do too, many of which came about as I stared at deployment screen after deployment screen. Yes, I am terrible at Hybrid. No, this is not a surprise.

The game kicks off with a little speech about how at some point in the future we found something called dark matter. Really, Hybrid? That’s all you got? Dark matter? I know that there was a sentence on the screen about how the tutorial speech wasn’t finalized, but you can’t come up with something better than dark matter? Dark matter was first theorized in the ’30s so at the very least, don’t say that you discovered dark matter, say that you confirmed the existence of dark matter or you synthesized dark matter or better yet, come up with something original like Unobtainium. Ok, that’s not original either, but you get the idea.

In the process of finding dark matter, Australia was obliterated. The world then—wait a minute. Australia was obliterated? Like, gone gone? Is there a giant hole where Australia once was? If so, did the ocean rush in to fill that hole? If so, what did that do to the rest of the world? Speaking of world effects, what would the destruction of an entire continent do to global weather patterns, much less to the global economy? And why Austrailia? Why not North America, or South America. What does 5th Cell have against Australia? What are you not telling us 5th Cell?

The tutorial then goes on to say that the world was split into two factions, the blue guys and the red guys, who are exactly like the blue guys but more sinister. I don’t know what that means. Both are working to collect enough samples of dark matter to reverse the incident. What does that mean? Does that mean that Australia comes back? If so, how does one restore a continent to sinister ends? Killer koalas? Giant, rampaging kangaroos?

The tutorial finishes up by stating that you and the other guys are both trying to get 110 samples of dark matter. That’s a very concrete number. First side to get to 110 samples wins, but they don’t explain why. Is there a machine that both sides have that’s just sitting there, waiting to go, until someone pours 110 samples of dark matter into it? Why 110? And if you got to 109 samples and the other guys got to 110, wouldn’t it be worth trying your machine and not just going “Oh well. They got more samples. Last one out, turn off the lights.”

After the setting is established you’re dumped into the tutorial. Hybrid is a cover shooter that allows you to move from cover to cover via your jetpack. In fact, there’s no running or walking or any ambulatory motion of any kind. You select a piece of cover, hit the A button and jetpack there. You can strafe in the air as well as shoot and use a burst of speed. You can also change to a new piece of cover mid-flight by selecting it and pressing A, similar to how Batman can change direction with the line launcher. If you get to your new piece of cover and find that you’ve made a tactical error, you can hit B and immediately fly backwards to your old cover.

Like every multiplayer shooter, you level up your character and get shiny new abilities as a result. Also like other shooters, you get goodies for kill streaks in the form of drones. Kill one guy and get a drone. Kill three guys and get a better drone. Kill five guys and get a super-ninja drone. I’m not sure killing one person constitutes a streak but for incompetent players like me, it’s nice that I get to get in on the kill streak action too. Drones stick by your side and shoot whatever you’re shooting except for the ninja who heads to your enemy like a homing missile.

I went with team deathmatch and was dropped in a somewhat small map with cover both on the ceiling and on the floor. The jetpacks allow for ceiling based cover but it didn’t make a lot of sense for said cover to be there. I was fighting a battle someplace in South America but was I in a warehouse, a dark matter processing facility, a Brazilian Walmart? Why were there platforms in the air with barriers? It wasn’t a blown up ceiling situation. These were clearly floating ceilings with barriers for cover. Also, if both sides are desperate for dark matter, why are they agreeing to arbitrary “first group to 25 kills” rules like some sort of throwback to the 1700’s when civilized men fought only between 11AM and 3PM and not on Tuesday or if it was raining?

Remember in Battlestar Galactica when Galactica et al realized that they could kill skinjobs all the live-long day, but until they knocked out the Cylons’ ability to resurrect, it was a losing battle? Wouldn’t the smarter thing to do in Hybrid be to say “Screw this battle stuff, we’re winning the war” and try and take out whatever technology is allowing the other side to spawn in indefinitely until they reach some arbitrary kill count? A control point type of match makes sense in the context of this game, team deathmatch does not. While we’re on it, wouldn’t it be awesome if, as you progressed through the levels in Hybrid you could unlock a special Commando level that then allowed you to go on super difficult matches against the best players with the reward being some sort of game changing event that affects the entire world? Like, maybe you go on a mission where you knock out a respawn facility and if successful, for an hour everyone who plays in battles in Asia plays against enemies that can’t respawn or has limited respawns? And if you lose your special mission match, maybe you can’t take on special missions or defend against the other side’s special missions for something like an hour. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

While playing I kept asking myself why I couldn’t see my enemies, who the hell was making that giant blue globe that kept damaging me and why I suck at shooters so much. Then I began wondering if I could drop out or if that would be a dick move, leaving my teammates to go out it with 1/3 fewer players. Then I wondered if, given how many times I was getting killed, I would actually be doing them a favor by not giving the enemy so many free kills. Finally I stopped wondering things because the match was mercifully over. Then I asked myself why I wasn’t playing Witcher 2. Then I played Witcher 2.

I’m not saying Hybrid is a bad game, although I am completely unqualified to make that distinction based on how awful I am at shooters. I can say that the setting needs a little work as the framework it provides only makes things stand out as being “game-y”. Maybe most people don’t worry about these things because they’re too busy being awesome and they don’t have as much time staring at the deployment screen and wondering why 5th Cell hates Australia.

Think of the wallabies, 5th Cell. Think of the wallabies.

Nexuiz in Review

Review, Nexuiz for Xbox 360

The rebels were decked out in JNCOs, the cool girls were sporting The Rachel, and Fred Durst was doing it for the nookie. Back in the late ’90s, there were no cover systems, no lifesaving perks, and regenerating health meant grabbing a med-kit. When Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament dominated the scene, survival required breakneck speed and serious marksmanship, and maybe a rocket-jump for good measure.

Nexuiz (pronounced “Nexus”) aims to pull the sub-genre off life-support and give it a pulse. With no classes to choose from or ranks to work through, Nexuiz is going back to basics; way back. Without features such as balanced matchmaking, methods to boot idle players, or simple character customization, Nexuiz severely strains the divide between streamlined simplicity and under-development.

Team Deathmatch and Capture-the-flag are the only two modes available. That’s all I need to keep myself entertained, but players quitting and/or staying idle through multiple matches are serious problems, and there is nothing that you can do about it. Also problematic are the immediate respawns of flags in CTF (eg no 20-second cooldown after scoring), making it all too easy for a mildly coordinated team to steamroll the other.

Most of the weapons are of the techy-big-barrel-thingamajig variety. You’ll find the expected shotgun, rocket launcher, sniper rifle, and assault rifle. There are a few mild surprises though, such as a pistol that fires miniature missiles in rapid succession, and the reflective shots of the Crylink. Every weapon has a use, and I can appreciate the subtle strategy added by the alternate firing modes. The shotgun, for example, can fire a wide burst for close-range or a concentrated burst for long-range.

Although the nine maps feel small, they are packed with multiple levels, jump-pads, teleporters, and just enough crannies for more tactical-minded players. But, the maps are far too symmetrical. While this ensures a fair game of capture-the-flag, the symmetry makes for a less intense, and somewhat disorienting, deathmatch experience. Outside of capture-the-flag, what purpose does one half of a map serve when it’s exactly the same as the other half? It’s more space for the sake of space.

Mutators are the driving force of Nexuiz. As much as I enjoy them, they are the blue shells of shooters, and will surely repel many of the more serious-minded players. After picking up a Mutator, you choose from one of three random effects. It could be something as simple as shielding yourself or beefing up a particular gun, or as outlandish as turning the floors into slip-and-slides. You can spend points to increase the likelihood of getting a particular Mutator, but like it or not, you will get burned at some point.

Call me a traitor, but Nexuiz reaffirms how much I enjoy gaining ranks and unlocking new equipment. A good kill-to-death ratio doesn’t hold the same weight that it once did, especially now that I’m older and have more responsibilities, and less spare time to defend my online reputation. By no means do I consider unlockable content to be a prerequisite or a gauge of quality, but it is a major factor to consider. After all, I felt the nostalgic touch, the desire to recapture the days of hijacking the school’s computer lab for secret deathmatches, but the memories were better left untouched.

Despite all this talk of the old-school, the more I play Nexuiz, the more I realize that it really isn’t that far removed from the multiplayer in games such as Crysis 2, Halo: Reach, and numerous other games of varying quality. Has the genre really changed ‘that’ drastically that we need a homage? Where do we draw the official line between the old-school and new-school? After all, Halo launched in 2001, only two years after Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament. At least with the Halo series I get numerous modes to help keep the experience fresher for the long run.

Nostalgia is fine, but there are methods of merging classic gameplay with modern features. Nexuiz doesn’t so much as try, and, had it not been announced as a throwback, I doubt that we would be having a discussion about the old days. More likely, Nexiuz would only be seen as a competent FPS lacking the remarkable traits needed to stand out from the masses of generic sci-fi-themed shooters.

Shoot Many Robots in Review

The action is equal parts run-and-gun side scroller and any given co-op horde mode. The art style is Borderlands by way of Team Fortress in a cel-shaded illustration style. The transactions are micro and the humor is gratingly juvenile. The game is Shoot Many Robots, a new downloadable from Demiurge and published by UbiSoft.

It made an immediate bad impression on me with comic elements focused mostly on testicles, drinking beer, and “redneck” stereotypes. Had I known that I could pay real money to “nut up” to an “awkwardly large sack” of the game’s currency, I might have passed on the review code. That said, I also might have passed on it if I had known that it’s yet another game in a negative trend that encourages players to continue spending money on the title through an in-game store to unlock new weapons and equipment rather than earning these through gameplay.

Not that the gameplay is any great shakes to begin with, and actually spending enough time with the game to earn enough “nuts” to buy your way into the game’s plentiful wardrobe options and armory would be quite an endurance test. Essentially, it’s a Contra-style game with four-player co-op and as the title suggests, many robots at which to shoot. There are lots of levels and they’re all star-ranked to encourage you to play through multiple times to grind out your nuts (yep), level up, and unlock the more difficult areas. Most are straight-up fights with tons of robots attacking Walter P. Tugnuts (see?) and his cronies but there are also survival levels that test your ability to withstand the robotic onslaught. One touch that I did really like is that if you survive the wave-based areas, you can keep going into bonus rounds.

The problem is that even if you manage to hold your own by machine gunning, freezing, frying, or exploding the many robots, none of the weapons or funny hats that you can buy alleviate the sheer boredom and repetition of it all. This is a single-minded, completely undynamic game despite light RPG elements and although its keen focus isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s a bad thing when you’re an hour deep into it and you realize that you’re a couple of minutes away from going insane if you have to hear the incessant sound of your bullets plinking against robot hulls any longer.

So you’ll run, jump, and occasionally hold down the trigger to plant your feet and train your fire in any direction. Sometimes you’ll stand in one spot and literally just hold the fire button down, watching the conga line of robots dispense damage numbers before expiring. Keep shooting, and a combo meter multiplies the nuts you can earn. Sometimes, a stronger robot will come out and you’ll have to change position since there’s no way to avoid getting hit reliably. Or maybe you’ll use those fancy pants you bought to slide through the onrushing horde, drinking a beer to replenish your health.

Or, maybe you’ll just get bored and doze off, as I did several times during my review period. There was segment in particular where I would nod off and wonder why I kept returning to this one checkpoint. No amount of “quirky” humor, under-delivered promises of over-the-top mayhem, or been-there-done-that gameplay can make up for a game that is simply so uninspired, unoriginal, and flat out dull.

Shoot Many Robots is exactly the kind of mediocre, ne’er-do-well game that could not exist outside of the low-cost, downloadable marketplace. With similar and superlative genre examples like Outland, Vampire Smile, and Hard Corps: Uprising available through the same outlets- not to mention still-in-circulation classics like Gunstar Heroes- I can’t think of a single element upon which this game can make a case for itself.

It’s not a badly made game by any means, though. It’s completely serviceable for what it is and it’s competently produced but that’s about as far as this wagon will roll. I don’t doubt that some players will get some mileage out of its four-player co-op mode either online or on the couch. But here’s a shocker- almost any game is good and fun to play if you’re doing so with your buddies. And this is a review of Shoot Many Robots, not fun with friends.

No High Scores All-or-Nothing Metascore (on a scale of 0 or 100): 0