Trials Rising: A serious racing game in arcade clothing

Esports | March 6th, 2019

Beneath its arcade presentation and absurdist level design, the Trials series has always been a deceptively deep experience – and its latest game Rising is no different in this regard.

Most if not all racing video games fall somewhere on the spectrum between pure arcade and pure simulation, with your Mario Karts, Burnouts and Need for Speeds on one end and ultra-hardcore likes of rFactor and iRacing on the other.

The same in theory should be true about the games dedicated for motorcycle racing, but the range on offer there is more one-sided and patchier. There is, of course, no obvious bike analogue to the racing wheel, so the simulation experience is naturally limited, but even aside from that motorcycle racing representation in video games is not exactly overwhelming.

As of late, there’s been the yearly MotoGP games and the occasional sims licensed by other disciplines like MXGP and Isle of Man TT, as well as a couple of lesser-known independent titles. And there’s also the Trials franchise, possibly more mainstream than any of its peers but also one that’s least connected to any form of real-life racing.

A cursory glance at the best Trials games suggests a purely arcade, simplified, maybe even shallow experience – what with its 2D perspective, its completely unrealistic colourful courses and its trademark zany sense of humour.

Beneath all of that, however, are games that take themselves extremely seriously, that not only reward but sometimes demand genuine mastery of their polished and deceptively deep physics model.

All of this applies to Trials Rising, the latest iteration in the series, released just earlier this week. In fact, the dissonance between the mechanics and the presentation reaches an apex in Rising – and while it offers a deeply engrossing experience, it also can make itself a bit of a hard sell to those looking for one.

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Trials Rising screenshot

Photo by: Ubisoft RedLynx

A spiritual successor of sorts to 30-year-old Nintendo classic Excitebike, Trials was a born as a free browser game at the turn of the century but broke out in earnest with 2009’s Trials HD, which became a killer app for Microsoft’s growing Xbox Live service.

Its successor Trials Evolution was bigger and better still, packed with memorable tracks and crucially fostering a community that clearly loved it to bits and prolonged its lifespan by making the most of its built-in in-game editor. Truth be told, if one does indeed qualify Evolution a racing game, there’s probably a case to be made for it being one of the best racing games out there.

But the follow-up, Trials Fusion, did not live up to those lofty standards, retaining the satisfying core mechanics and design but stripping away some of the features that made its predecessor feel complete.

And the five years after it went by without a proper Trials game, with punctuated only by Trials of the Blood Dragon – a tie-in with publisher Ubisoft’s fellow franchise Far Cry that strayed from the formula in several huge ways, the most notable of which being that, unlike the other Trials games, it was completely terrible.

The good news is that Rising is not at all terrible, and can absolutely stand up alongside its predecessors, retaining and refining the key aspects that have made those popular. Yet he difference between 2012’s Evolution and this 2019 game is not exactly night and day, and the jury is still out on whether it can bring the franchise back to its former rude health.

Trials Rising screenshot

Trials Rising screenshot

Photo by: Ubisoft RedLynx

Trials Rising, like its predecessors, is a game of point-to-point stages, littered with ramps, slopes and obstacles, to be traversed by a dirtbike at speed. The 2D format means there’s only room for one bike, so in single-player your main adversaries are always the two-punch combo of the clock and the fault counter.

The former is asking you to gun it, the latter demands you take your time. Should you fall off – and you will – you can always reset to a previous checkpoint on the stage, but for the vast majority of stages in the game a good run is a no-fault run, especially now that each reset carries a five-second time penalty.

On its better tracks, Rising manages to evoke a vibe of a rally superspecial. It not only forces the player to find the right balance of risk/reward and explore the limits of what they can get away with, but also creates a feeling of flow and rhythm to every movement.

This would not be possible without the game’s laudable physics model. One peek at almost any screenshot will tell you that Trials plays fast and loose with real-life physics, as the speeds and the airtime usually tiptoe on the line between ‘Hollywood-esque’ and ‘completely preposterous’. And yet it all feels realistic enough, or at least logical.

This particularly applies to the bike control itself, despite there only being three inputs – throttle, brakes, lean. Both throttle discipline and a good grasp on weight-shifting are a must even for the easier levels, and the physics model is detailed enough to make these simple-seeming mechanics quite complex.

And that’s before you get to the harder stages, which demand a mastery of very specific techniques. In previous Trials games, this made progress quite daunting as the flowing rollercoaster-like runs slowly but surely turned into series of methodical jump puzzles.

Trials Rising screenshot

Ubisoft RedLynx

Trials Rising screenshot

Ubisoft RedLynx

Trials Rising screenshot

Ubisoft RedLynx

The same is true of Rising, but the game makes an effort to smoothen the transition, introducing a series of tutorials under the ‘Trials University’ tab. For this, developer RedLynx has enlisted the help of prominent Trials community member known as ‘Professor FatShady’, who lends his voice to tutorials and offers point-by-point breakdowns of techniques while you tackle a course specifically designed to let you practice them.

This is a wonderful addition, and it’s the kind of thing that makes it occasionally tempting to describe Trials as a borderline simulator. That, of course, it is not, because of all the stuff mentioned before but also because it doesn’t simulate any real-life discipline.

Occasionally the game will echo motocross, especially in its side-by-side stadium races, but ultimately it’s clearly pretty far from MXGP. The obvious inspiration instead is the sport of motorcycle trials, which the developers clearly have a fondness for, but the speeds and airtime achieved on the regular in Rising means its average stage bears little resemblance to the courses tackled by a Dougie Lampkin or a Toni Bou.

Dougie Lampkin

Dougie Lampkin

Photo by: Dave Dyer

This is by no means a flaw, and in fact allows RedLynx to get very creative with its track designs. And Rising features some of the franchise’s very best courses – one set on a moving train, another built around Stonehenge and a particularly memorable stage packed inside of a flying cargo plane.

Yet some of the designs can be faulted for lacking necessary restraint. Occasionally the camera perspective will shift suddenly, or the road ahead will be altered before your eyes by some Rube Goldberg contraption, or you will be stopped dead in your tracks, forced to wait until the path ahead is open, all of the momentum in the level shattered.

Rising occasionally gives off the impression that it’d rather the player didn’t touch the gamepad at all but rather sat back and watched the pretty rollercoaster ride. Much more irritating is that, first time through a stage, those perspective shifts or momentum-breakers are likely to catch you out and cause a fault – and sometimes they’ll become the hardest obstacle standing between you and a perfect run.

Trials Rising screenshot

Trials Rising screenshot

Photo by: Ubisoft RedLynx

The dissonance between Rising’s rewarding gameplay and its quirky presentation is highlighted off-track, which is also where most of the game’s problems lie. The main progression menu in single-player is a world map that’s needlessly difficult to navigate, making Rising look like a free-to-play mobile game rather than the well-crafted and highly-polished racer it is.

The progression itself is strange too. The harder levels take much more work to unlock than in previous Trials games, as Rising introduces a levelling system that rewards replaying tracks and trying out the various challenges attached to them. This is absolutely fine at first, and these challenges – do a certain number of front flips, wheelie for a certain distance – are usually fun enough. But the difficulty curve when it comes to this side content is completely busted, and at a certain point the game just grinds to a halt and refuses to let you try out the harder tracks until you’ve replayed a bunch of previous stages with special conditions. The levelling should’ve been limited to customisation – which is neat, although held back by the fact the game is obviously nudging the player to spend real money on certain items.

You can also level up through playing online multiplayer races, which make a welcome appearance after predecessor Fusion took several months post-launch to add them. Rising’s multiplayer is, however, is a somewhat barebones state as of now, limited to three-race mini-series on random tracks, with the option to set up your own custom matches not yet patched in.

Trials Rising screenshot

Trials Rising screenshot

Photo by: Ubisoft RedLynx

But it’s the multplayer that hints at Rising’s wider potential, because despite the lack of on-track contact real-time competition against others can be absolutely thrilling, and requires a dynamic approach depending on track position. Those up front can play the course in a methodical, single-player-like fashion, but those behind can afford to take much bigger risks with jumps, landings and wheel placement.

It’s the kind of thing that would be interesting to watch even as a bystander, suggesting that with some more polish and perhaps a slightly more restrained course design Trials could one day position itself as a genuine esport discipline.

Rising is not there yet. At launch it is a fun and creative but flawed arcade game with a lot of issues that need addressing.

It will definitely become an improved experience with time, especially as the community gets a full grasp on the returning in-game editor. But what’s already there hints that just a few tweaks and features, to streamline the experience and bolster in-game competition, could turn Rising into a deeper, more accomplished racing title than pretty much any other game on the current two-wheel market.

Trials Rising screenshot

Ubisoft RedLynx

Trials Rising screenshot

Ubisoft RedLynx

Trials Rising screenshot

Ubisoft RedLynx

Trials Rising screenshot

Ubisoft RedLynx

Trials Rising screenshot

Ubisoft RedLynx

Trials Rising screenshot

Ubisoft RedLynx

Trials Rising screenshot

Ubisoft RedLynx

Trials Rising screenshot

Ubisoft RedLynx

Trials Rising screenshot

Ubisoft RedLynx

Trials Rising screenshot

Ubisoft RedLynx

Trials Rising screenshot

Ubisoft RedLynx

Trials Rising screenshot

Ubisoft RedLynx

Trials Rising screenshot

Ubisoft RedLynx

Source: Motorsport.com