When Trials HD debuted on the Xbox 360 almost three years ago, console players were treated to an exciting pairing of acrobatic dirt-biking and addictive high-score battles. Now Trials Evolution has arrived with a boatload of new tracks, snappier visuals, better track creation and sharing tools, and the chance to actually race against your fellow bikers. Though the core appeal still rests on the two-pronged suspension of excellent driving physics and heated leaderboard competition, the rest of the chassis has evolved nicely to deliver a great game worthy of the Trials name.
While Trials Evolution can deliver some fiendishly difficult challenges, it's actually a very easy game to pick up and enjoy. You control a rider on his motorcycle, and all you can really do is rev the throttle, hit the brakes, and lean your rider forward or back. From the foundation of these simple and finely tuned controls, Trials Evolution leads you up a gentle slope of easy tracks. Cruising along straightaways and flying off of ramps, you quickly grasp the basics of the physics system, and it's not long before you have a comfortable grip on the handlebars.
Once you've gotten your wheels dirty, the road starts to get steeper, bumpier, and more explosive. As you work your way up in the world, intermittent license tests teach you some of the tricks of the trade, like popping your front tire up or climbing a steep incline, eventually illuminating some of the trickier tactics that Trials HD simply left you to work out on your own or glean from leaderboard replays. Mastering these techniques takes practice, but failure in Trials Evolution is rarely frustrating. You can restart instantly from the previous checkpoint or the beginning of the race with the press of a button. Better yet, your rider flails around like a rag doll when thrown from his bike, and seeing him bashed, slammed, and blown sky high is cathartic and hilarious.
The visual appeal of Trials Evolution extends far beyond the calamity suffered by your rider, thanks to the immensely varied and appealing environments. A jaunt through the countryside on a sunny day makes a great contrast to a tour of a ruined castle by moonlight, and a sunset ride around a mountain retreat provides a peaceful counterpoint to a gritty journey through a heavy industrial complex. Beyond these straightforward beauties, you traverse an airborne archipelago, storm a beachhead in wartime, pick your way through an eerie homage to Limbo, and even contend with shifting gravity as the world rotates around you. There's some wonderful creativity on display, and the new perspective shifts and curving tracks help make Evolution's environments even more playful and challenging.
It's a lot of fun to take in the sights, but the magic of Trials lies in the racing. The simplistic controls belie a wealth of complexity, and as you take on tougher and tougher tracks, you find more challenges and more thrills. Big jumps and loop-the-loops provide a heady rush, but the sweetest satisfaction comes from nailing the transitions between elements, surmounting tricky obstacles, and flying through the course faster and faster each time you play it. Success earns you medals and money, allowing you to unlock new outfits and more advanced tracks. Though mastering difficult tracks and improving your personal times are satisfying endeavors, some of the best thrills come from beating your friends.
The leaderboards are still a powerful motivation for improvement, but Trials Evolution introduces a new visual element that brings your friends' performances to the forefront. Floating dots and gamertags hover alongside you, tracing the path of your friends' best times. These visual aids can spur you onward like the proverbial carrot on a stick, or they can distract you like a swarm of angry flies cluttering up the screen. Thankfully, the menu options let you choose to see a bunch of names, just the next person ahead of you, only your selected rival, or none at all. (You may also want to opt out of the soundtrack, which features a number of abrasive songs that can disrupt your racing flow.)
If you prefer more direct competition, Trials Evolution offers both local and online competitive play in two flavors. Local play is limited to Supercross races in which up to four players race special tracks side by side at the same time. These can be hectic fun, though the crowded screen and smaller racers do take some getting used to. Online multiplayer offers Supercross as well, but also features Trials mode, in which you race proper tracks simultaneously with up to four other people. Actively racing against ghostly opponents offers purer Trials competition, but the online matchmaking is flawed, and it can take some time to actually get into a match.
The other big online aspect of Trials Evolution is Track Central, a hub where you can view, share, and download user-created tracks. This is one area of vast improvement, because you can now view shared tracks from the entire Trials community. Maybe you want to see what people have tagged "technical," "explosions," or "something wild," or perhaps you just want to stick with the highest-rated or developer-approved tracks. This system is a boon to racers and creators alike, since now all your hard work can be shared beyond your friends list. The lite and pro editor tools provide great ways to simply stamp out a quick track, create an involved landscape, or even venture wildly off the beaten path and experiment with different genres entirely (a 2D scrolling shooter, a foosball table, and an Angry Birds clone have already appeared).
This all adds up to a lot of Trials awesomeness for 1,200 Microsoft points. Though on a core level Trials Evolution is very similar to its predecessor, it does everything bigger and better. The triumph of conquering a tough track, the thrill of tallying a speedy time, and the creative adventure of making your own track and playing the crazy creations of others all conspire to make this one super sequel.