Trials HD might be the first racing game where you only ever drive straight ahead. The most recent in a long line of motorcross titles from Finnish developer RedLynx (including a couple of early Flash versions), it's also one of those 2.5-D games that seem to be all the rage these days: While the courses are all lovingly rendered in three dimensions, you're stuck in a single plane of movement. But don't make the mistake of dismissing Trials as just another Excitebike clone - what Trials lacks in depth it more than makes up for in balance.
Not balance like in an MMOG or a class-based FPS - balanced like a tightrope walker. In Trials, the way you situate yourself on your bike is just as important as how hard you're hitting the gas. Fall backward before a jump, and you'll fly upward rather than toward the landing ramp. Lean too far forward on a downward slope, and you end up flipping over your handlebars. Much of Trials' challenge comes from simply trying to keep both wheels on the ground and your rider centered over the bike, a lofty feat that can soften the bumps and lower your overall times.
There are really only four controls in Trials, but the way in which they interact gives the impression of limitless possibilities. You accelerate with the right trigger and brake with the left trigger while leaning forward and backward with the left thumbstick. Complicating matters, however, your speed controls are tied to individual wheels - when you lay on the gas, only the rear wheel accelerates, and when you brake your front wheel takes most of the force. It seems like a subtle difference until you realize that landing with the wrong wheel causes a good number of your crashes.
Trials' gameplay isn't limited to momentum and weight distribution, however. It also embraces the more frivolous side of videogame physics: the ragdoll effect. Good spills in Trials can be more fun to watch than a perfect run, which eases the pain of repeatedly knocking your head against a particularly difficult section of course. Even better, the developers had the good sense to place completely superfluous explosives all over the game's 50-plus stages, making a burst of pyrotechnics rarely more than a crash away.
But while the mechanics are sound and the crashes entertaining, Trials difficulty curve will likely outpace many players' attention spans. The game's final levels are nearly impossible to complete, let alone under a set time limit. And while completionists will find it rewarding to go for the gold on every course, constantly restarting after a single mistake costs you the gold gets old pretty quickly. On the other hand, Trials continues the trend of games like Geometry Wars 2 by prominently displaying your Xbox Live friends' scores alongside your own, encouraging friendly rivalries between players.
Trials includes a fairly robust level editor, but unfortunately, the game doesn't allow you to share tracks with anyone but those on your Xbox Live friends list. That's a shame, because having access to a constantly refreshing library of tracks would do a lot to extend the game's shelf life. Instead, I'll have to settle for eking out silver medals on the game's "hard" difficulty tracks - and making sure my name remains at the top of my friends' leaderboards. Don't get any big ideas, CaptainCrunch.
Bottom Line: There might not be much replay value in Trials after you hit a brick wall at the higher difficulty levels, but it's original and polished enough to warrant a look.
Recommendation: Try the Trials trial before you decide to lay down cash on the full version. If the crashes make you giggle rather than throw your controller in disgust, it's probably worth $15.
Jordan Deam is, oddly, more interested in riding a dirt bike after playing Trials, despite having a cargo container dropped on his head.