Trials Evolution was a bold, copiously confident sequel to one of the toughest, most unique indie games around. It handled the series' core concern of controlling the physics of a dirt bike by wrangling one through increasingly demanding, well, trials of your skill in new and interesting ways, and it was one of the best games of last year when it released on the Xbox. Trials Evolution Gold is a decked-out PC release of that same game, and it also includes the content found in the original Trials HD release, to boot. Although its transition back to its home platform is less than smooth, most of its hiccups can be alleviated to the point that RedLynx's tried, true, and madness-inducing racing platformer model still shines.
Technically, Trials is a racing game - you are constantly driving against the clock and trying to beat par times, after all - but the way the action feels and how it's arranged on screen gives off strong shades of two-dimensional platforming. Your bike moves on a track from left to right, and so your responsibilities lie in shifting your rider's weight and controlling the throttle with pin precision, landing properly so that your rear tire is directing power the way you want it to, and learning the particular pros and cons of each unlockable new ride. It all sounds a little tricky in words, but a few hands-on minutes with Trials Evolution is all it takes to drive home the point that this, without question, a terribly difficult game. The game's physics model always feels pretty darn plausible, but the level designs quickly begin to push you to the limits of what's possible within that all-encompassing framework. You'll start by bombing down relatively tame sets of rolling hills before graduating to massive loops, hard landings onto angled surfaces, and explosives everywhere. By the time you've reached the "Hard" set of courses, you'll be scaling near-vertical walls and stepping down tiny, foot-wide platforms that require you to pop a wheelie, shifting your weight on a single wheel down large drops.
There are bronze, silver, and gold medal standards for each course, and earning top honours often means getting through levels with slim to no muck-ups. Things can get harrowing in a hurry, especially since you'll need to achieve a fair amount of silver and gold medals to reach the thresholds and unlock more events, and scraping by on all bronze is simply not an option. This often means attempting tricky sections repeatedly and having to restart the level entirely after too many faults. This kind of hard-going, graduated process is a major key to those pivotal moments of elation these games thrive on, but when the going gets tough, subjecting yourself to the wringer for the dozenth attempt feels something like despair. Cranking out enough medals to progress can be a maddening and occasionally demoralizing ritual that, in fairness, does begin to pay off in short order. Like other great games recognizable by their intimidating challenge, Trials Evolution is the sort of game you build skill at quickly, and each play session can feel like an accomplishment regardless of your actual progress simply because you're always learning something fresh, some new trick to push the controls and your capabilities to the limit. It also doesn't hurt that the courses look awesome, too. The graphical detail isn't upped too much from the Xbox original, but the creativity and enthusiasm for goofiness on display is a treat that also does its part to temper frustration. You'll rip your bike through Stonehenge, atop a splintered skyway, and down into a fiery, industrial hell, just to name a few choice locations. Each location in Crash County feels unique and energetic, and that impressive variety helps keep your mind out of the clouds. Some nice lighting and foliage effects are used sparingly and powerfully to accent the graphics nicely - or, as the case may be, to parody some other popular indies.
Sadly, not all is well in the game's move to the PC, where a seemingly large amount of players have been experiencing all manner of graphical stuttering, flickering, and other more serious (and less widespread) issues since the game's launch. My nVidia card, beyond the game's recommended requirement, did succumb to a large amount of hitch-ups when I first began playing. Enabling VSync and running the game in compatibility mode for Windows XP improved the performance significantly, but the issue isn't exactly fixed, either. In other games, these issues would be annoying but bearable. In a game like Trials, though - where every frame, every minute movement counts - those kinds of stutters can be incredibly vexing. The sheer challenge of the game's navigational gauntlet is enough; these sorts of glitches throw the frustration over the top when they occur. The extra levels are another matter. While I certainly wouldn't knock the inclusion of the Trials HD levels outright, I will say that they didn't add as much to the package as I thought they would. The levels are well designed and challenging to scrape through, but the lone warehouse setting ends up feeling a bit flat compared to the more fantastically rendered and creatively designed counterparts from Evolution. The fact that there are now nearly double the amount of levels for each difficulty also creates a bit of a flow problem. I felt like obstacle concepts repeated often between the difficulty categories between Crash County and the HD Warehouse, and having to play them both to accrue enough medals can feel a bit like overkill at times. It's tough to argue with a significant boost in content, though, and initiates to the series like myself have a great opportunity to get caught up with this Gold edition.
There's no denying that some issues do drag down the game, but they definitely don't squelch the murderous joy that is hurling your motorized bike over more and more outrageous blockades. Of course, the multiplayer courses and track editor are here, too. RedLynx has crafted a devilishly addictive racing-platformer hybrid that pushes their game design know-how to new limits. If you don't have an Xbox and have been waiting for the chance to play one of the toughest releases of last year, Trials Evolution Gold is a fine way to explore that content and then some. The original release is the more stable, reliable choice, but PC players have a mostly fine edition that should satisfy, with a little tweaking.