With its wailing dirt bikes, neck-snapping crashes, and Dukes Of Hazzard-like presentation, Trials Evolution has all the trappings of your standard-issue redneck motocross game. But underneath that shopworn exterior, as anyone who played 2009’s Trials HD already knows, is something more complex and sophisticated. Evolution, like its predecessor, isn’t really a racing game at all. Instead, it’s a digit-straining, physics-based puzzle game that’s frustrating enough to bait even the most sedate player into a controller-throwing frenzy.
Your goal in Evolution is simple: to reach the finish line as quickly as possible. Traversing the game’s 60 levels requires a delicate combination of gas and brake—right trigger and left trigger, respectively. As the stages grow increasingly Byzantine, the careful management of your rider’s weight becomes paramount. Steep incline up ahead? Goose the gas and shift your weight forward. Steep decline? Feather-touch the brake and shift your weight to the rear of the bike. If you mishandle the throttle or shift the rider’s weight off balance, the result will almost always be an over-the-handlebars crash.
Those crashes, which are more comic than cringe-inducing, are commonplace in Evolution. After you’ve eaten dirt, you have two options: Teleport back to the most recent checkpoint or return to the beginning of the track. Using a checkpoint means sacrificing valuable seconds, which will also likely cost you a medal (gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded based on your race time). Meanwhile, a return to the starting blocks may mean losing your progress up to that point, but it also wipes the slate clean, giving you a chance to avoid your mistake the second time around. This turns every wipeout into an intriguing fork-in-the-road dilemma, one that may leave your thumb hovering over the controller, tense with indecision.
The previous game took place in a hermetically-sealed warehouse that always made it seem as if you were participating in the world’s loneliest X-Games event. The bulk of Evolution’s tracks are set in the great outdoors. Barreling through a pine-tree forest at dusk or seeing your bike’s tires skim through the swirling eddies of a creek bed makes for a more vital experience than the crates and girders of Trials HD. Evolution’s tracks are also rife with inventive touches like roller coaster-caliber drops and working machinery like automated elevators. There’s even the occasional bit of supernatural whimsy. During a race on a track named “Titan’s Graveyard,” a massive stone hand slowly emerges from a murky lake to menace you.
A big part of the pleasure in Trials HD was the realization that the game wasn’t what it initially seemed to be. Playing it for the first time was like sitting next to a bucktoothed, overalls-wearing cousin at a family reunion and slowly discovering that he’s a Rhodes Scholar. Games rarely offer that kind of bait-and-switch surprise. In the sequel, there’s obviously no need for us to once again reconcile the game’s incongruities. So the novelty and surprise that were so seductive in the previous game are missing in Evolution.
That leaves a single burning question: When will Evolution go from being challenging and engaging to downright impossible? Trials HD was a notoriously difficult game, a game that seemed less interested in being liked or enjoyed in a traditional sense and more interested in being demanding and obtuse. And though the edges have been sanded off the sequel thanks to a somewhat gentler learning curve, Evolution, in the end, is another nasty piece of work. There’s a difference between penalizing players and punishing players, and Evolution skews towards the latter. Indeed, there’s an Old Testament logic woven into the DNA of Evolution, a logic that says that the only path to salvation is to suffer the game’s silly cruelties until—hallelujah—you’re rewarded with the soul-cleansing, borderline miraculous “One Perfect Run.” After a breezy, thoroughly pleasant opening hour—after which the “challenging and engaging” bits expire—Evolution turns into the gaming equivalent of donning a hair shirt.