While you could argue that the number of quality console-exclusive games on PS3 has outnumbered those on Xbox 360 in recent years, there’s a certain bike game that has left PS3 owners understandably envious. I’m talking of course about Trials Evolution, RedLynx’s ridiculously addictive XBLA success story that is played adoringly by millions over on the neighbouring console camp.
It’s therefore staggering that, with RedLynx previously bound to Microsoft’s exclusivity, no developer thought to cash-in on Trials’ gargantuan success and fill the void with a PlayStation equivalent – until now.
Enter Urban Trial Freestyle by Polish developer Tate Interactive, a downloadable PSN game that unashamedly mimics Trials’ winning formula of navigating your bike through increasingly difficult stages whilst avoiding obstacles and landing jumps. It’s a delicate balance of managing the power with the trigger and balancing your weight by leaning forwards or arching back with the analogue stick.
Of course, like Trials there’s a certain degree of trial and error as you inevitably mistime a jump and send your rider plummeting to their death – the instant restart button, which plonks you back to the last nearest checkpoint, soon becomes your best friend.
For PlayStation owners, then, this is about as close as you’re likely to get to a console experience akin to the Xbox-exclusive Trials for the time being. But before you call the plagiarism police, it’s worth noting that its similarities are unavoidable when Urban Trial Freestyle is competing in a genre that Trials popularised but technically didn’t pioneer – it’s like saying Forza Motorsport is mirroring Gran Turismo because both aspire to be realistic driving simulators.
There are a few notable differences that set Urban Trial Freestyle apart from its obvious competitor, however. First and foremost, Urban Trial Freestyle casts you as an outlaw trespassing a decaying city, a sprawling urban metropolis that shows far more signs of life than the barren environments of Trials.
Indeed, there’s a terrific amount of incidental detail packed into every level as you disturb the hustle of bustle with your high-octane bike stunts. Hapless bystanders scramble out of your way when you mount the pavement or barge through a busy office block Lethal Weapon 4-style, disgruntled police officers taunt you as you tear past the middle of a shootout, and the fact that the city is in the midst of a natural disaster means you’ll see a variety of dynamic set-pieces erupt, from roads collapsing in front of you to helicopters spiralling out of control into nearby buildings and exploding.
It looks rather splendid, too. For a budget downloadable game by an independent studio, Urban Trial Freestyle graphics are very crisp indeed, sporting the sort of detail and advanced lighting and water effects you’d expect to see from bigger budget releases.
Unfortunately however, by making the backgrounds so busy Urban Trial Freestyle doesn’t play as smoothly as it could and should do. As a result, the frame rate falls short of 60 frames per second, and while some games can get away with it, it’s problematic for a game that requires precision.
This has an adverse effect on the physics, which are adequate but unrefined. They do marginally improve once you equip your bike with new engines and chassis, which can be bought by collecting money bags dotted around the levels, but after religiously playing Trials it’s hard not to notice the lack of fluidity.
Sacrificing some of the inconsequential background eye candy in favor of a smoother experience would therefore have been a better trade-off. Having said that, I do feel that the PS3’s spongy triggers are partly to blame, since they don’t offer the same precision for throttle control as the Xbox 360 controller.
Strip away the spectacle of the environments, and the level designs aren’t as intricate, imaginative or challenging as those found in Trials – it’s very much a case of style over substance, since the background activity doesn’t directly affect the gameplay. There are some highlights, such as one level set in a theme park, but you rarely feel as if the bike is getting a very thorough workout, with many levels allowing you to sail through with little steering adjustment on your part thanks to the forgiving physics.
Consequently, Urban Trial Freestyle is an easy ride for the most part, and while this does eradicate the teeth-grinding frustration of painstakingly repeating the same sections over and over that the genre is renowned for, there’s ultimately no sense of achievement when you complete a level.
As a result, the sudden difficulty spikes that occur in some levels feel somewhat jarring. Frustratingly, Urban Trial Freestyle’s most difficult sections spawn from elements beyond your control, such as boulders being flung at you, cardboard boxes tripping you up or revolving platforms hurling you haphazardly. Success is therefore often determined not by your dexterous skill on the bike, but by memorising the sectors designed to catch you out, which is indicative of Urban Trial Freestyle’s lazy level design.
Structurally, Urban Trial Freestyle tries to distinguish itself by dividing its 40 levels into Time Trials and Stunt levels. Time Trials, predictably, task you with completing each level as quickly as possible, but the Stunt levels at least attempt to invigorate the genre.
While riding through a level, you’ll be asked to perform a stunt at designated intervals, such as performing a successful flip, maintain a top speed or land a massive jump, which are then scored individually and tallied up to give a final score.
Sadly, Tate Interactive’s attempt to vary the gameplay fall flat. Since the stunts pan out in short, predetermined sections rather than giving you free reign to perform your own stunts to maximise your score, the Stunt levels fail to offer a radically different experience to the Time Trials.
This is only exasperated by the pitiful number of levels on offer. There may technically be 40 levels to complete, but every level is repeated as a seperate Time Trial or Stunt event, so there are really only 20 aesthetically-different stages. Repetition is therefore glaringingly apparent, particularly as the same stages are often shuffled together when you scroll through the different events. Levels are also unlocked by achieving stars rated by your performance, so you will sometimes need to repeat the levels yet again to improve your rating and progress, just to add to the repetition. Thankfully, you don’t always need to earn 5 stars to unlock every level, so there isn’t too much grinding required.
A small handful of novelty challenges have also been included, but there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before. There’s an obligatory long-jump test where you must hurl your rider as far as possible, along with a survival challenge where you have to complete the level whilst preserving petrol. Been there, done that.
By contrast, the final gravity-defying challenge, in which you can control the orientation of the environment by tilting the six axis controller, manages to inject some innovation into the proceedings – it’s a tremendous shame that such moments are so fleeting in the main campaign. You aren’t awarded any stars for completing challenges to contribute to your overall progress though, rendering them as nothing more than throwaway distractions.
While Trials Evolution had near-endless replay value thanks to its in-depth level editor that has continually captivated the community, Urban Trial Freestyle unfortunately doesn’t have such a facility, apparently due to the complexity of the backgrounds and the environmental detail. On the other hand, the 3DS version, due out later this year, will contain a simplified level editor – including a basic editor in the console game that allowed you send challenges to your friends would have greatly improved Urban Trial Freestyle’s longevity, particularly when the single player levels are in staggeringly short supply.
Worse still, online multiplayer is conspicuously absent. Instead, Tate Interactive opted to utilise online functionality with a traditional ghost rider representing the fastest player that appears alongside you during Time Trials, while high scores are displayed at each interval during the Stunt sections with the best player’s avatar slapped on for bragging rights. It’s a novel touch not too dissimilar to Need for Speed: Most Wanted‘s billboard photos that effectively encourages you to improve your score when you know you could become a smug fixture of the level.
Urban Trial Freestyle is also available for the handheld PlayStation Vita, and from a play-through of the demo it seems like a faithful port. Understandably, the graphical detail has been decreased, and the chaotic backgrounds have been noticeably toned down, as has the length of the levels. Like Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Urban Trial Freestyle’s structure seems well-suited for a handheld, with its short levels and addictive high score-based gameplay ideal for dipping in and out at your leisure. Unfortunately, like too many Vita games at the moment, Cross-Play isn’t supported, meaning you’ll have to shell out for both versions. There’s also the issue that the Vita doesn’t have analogue triggers, which could make balancing the throttle tricky in later levels.
It’s hard not to deride Urban Trial Freestyle as an inferior Trials imitator, and it’s unfortunate that such comparisons are so unavoidable. Taken on its own merit, Urban Trial Freestyle is an average alternative for deprived PS3 owners that frequently stumbles in its attempt to stand on its own two wheels, and its subpar physics, uninspiring level design and limited longevity ultimately make it misfire.
If anything, the success of Urban Trial Freestyle (it was the most downloaded PSN game on Vita and the third most downloaded game on PS3 of the month upon release) proves that there is indeed high demand for an official Trials game on PlayStation. Now that RedLynx has been bought out by Ubisoft and therefore free from Microsoft’s exclusivity shackles, it’s surely only a matter of time before PlayStation owners are treated to an authentic Trials experience they’ve clearly been clamouring for.