When Trials HD released on XBLA two years ago, I hadn’t heard of it, and wasn’t excited for it. It was only when I had a throwaway 1000 Microsoft points hard won on the now extinct Xbox LIVE game show, 1 vs. 100 that I decided to take a punt on it. As game purchase decisions go, it was probably the best I’d ever made.
So, what is Trials HD? It’s probably best described as a time/score attack game, where you have to get your rider and his motorcycle through an obstacle course as fast, and as safely as possible. It’s not particularly original – ExciteBike was the first on the NES, and there are a whole host of flash games based off the idea, and Trials HD itself is not the first in the Trials franchise – but Trials HD took the concept further than ever before, putting it in a graphically impressive 3D environment, bolstered by equally impressive physics.
The simple concept is backed up by intuitive controls. The right trigger is the throttle, the left one doubles as brake and reverse, and the left stick allows you to lean forward and back. The physics on the bike feel fantastic, as the suspension jolts and bounces along, and these simple but beautifully honed mechanics make Trials what it is. It’s relieving to find a game which comes up with a simple complex, and simply sees where they lead the game.
All of that would mean nothing though if the tracks didn’t meet an equally impressive standard – but they do. The 35 tracks in the original game, 23 in the first DLC pack and 40 in the second, give both huge variety and a massive amount of challenge. They are split into 5 difficulties, going from ‘Beginner’ tracks which are incredibly easy to ‘Extreme’ tracks which for many are nigh on impossible. The objective is unwavering: complete the track with as few faults as possible, and, less importantly, as fast as possible. Each track has 4 medals to unlock – from Bronze which is awarded on completion, through Silver, Gold, and Platinum which each have a target time and target number of faults to beat. Even on the easiest tracks, the platinum medals pose a challenge requiring you to truly understand its perfect flow.
The obstacles you will come up against, though made with simple objects, are almost infinitely variable. Ramps and jumps are common, as well as the ever dangerous red barrels, boxes of dynamite, and bombs. See-saws and balance beams, spinning tyres, rocks, rails, and swinging hammers keep things unique, and no one level feels quite like the next. The quality of the bike physics applies equally to the track, and though some levels are fairly static, many are explosions galore, and a handful are very dynamic with lots of moving parts. To start with, you’re dealing with small jumps and ramps, but soon you’re bunny hopping over gaps or up onto higher platforms, climbing sheer cliffs, and bouncing between suspended obstacles.
So what makes me love it? The fact that its unafraid to be difficult, unafraid to pose a challenge, unafraid to make a game where not everyone will experience every track, and because of that it has depth, which means that I can play it for hundreds and hundreds of hours (fortunately Trials HD doesn’t feature a total-time-spent stat) and still feel that there is more to be achieved. It’s a game with a vicious difficulty curve, it doesn’t hold your hand and it doesn’t have an easy-switch. This is increasingly rare in modern games as developers seem to be jumping over themselves to be the most accessible and games are often criticised for being too hard, but all too often the accessibility is achieved by sacrificing depth, and this game refuses to do that. Completing the difficult tracks is a case of practice and perseverance, but that’s where the entertainment comes from with Trials HD.
For me, it was the Hard tracks which first posed real problems, in fact on one of the early tracks I failed to complete the level in the allotted 500-fault, 30-minute limit the first time. The difficulty was a horrible obstacle where you had to jump onto a cage-iron sphere, and then roll it across towards the next ball, before jumping onto that and then onto the other side. This duly took me forever, but instead of being annoyed and frustrated at the game I just become more dogged in my determination to beat the level.
Watching my rider fall again and again into the pit of fire below the cage spheres created a burning desire to conquer Trials HD. That early hard track wasn’t the last for me to fail on utterly, and once I got to the Extreme tracks it became a regular event, so difficult were some of the obstacles, so precise their demands. But whilst the game was extremely difficult, I was also encouraged by how much, and how quickly I was improving. Practice makes perfect, but I don’t know if I’ve ever played a game it was more obvious in. It’s startling how quickly you improve on Trials – it’s not a game I ever felt I hit my limit with nor one where I felt truly stuck. Even so, completing all the tracks was difficult, and I hit the 500-fault limit many more times.
That could have been where I finished with Trials HD, but the satisfaction gained from finally completing the last track was massive, and I wanted more. Much helped by the competition between me and a friend, and cleverly implemented leaderboards which give you a realtime indication of how far/behind your friends you are, I worked towards faultlessly completing every track. Initially the faults fell fast, from 50, to 30, to 10, but from there it could a real nightmare. Sometimes just getting from 1 to 0 would take days, but the game was a brilliant way of passing time, and a welcome break from the frustrations of other games (that particular year Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and FIFA 10 were the objects of my irritation). Whilst Trials HD is a very frustrating game, I always felt frustrated with my inability rather than with the game.
Trials kept my attention well past that point. I completed further milestones – gold medalling every track, and then getting platinum on most of them too. I had set myself a goal to conquer Trials HD. On some level, I feel that I have. But the reality is, having piled hundreds of hours into it, and having not beaten every track with a platinum medal, it was Trials HD that conquered me.
It’s not the greatest game ever made, it may not be my favourite game, but for a £10 downloadable game it is certainly the game which has surprised me the most. Now, with a sequel comprising both multiplayer and centralised track sharing (Trials HD features an editor but no easy way to share), I am praying that they don’t skip on the difficulty, and perhaps more than anything that Trials kicks my arse all over again.