Often when discussing the usual free-to-play mechanisms like energy timers and dual currencies, the argument becomes a matter of degrees; how obtrusive these obstacles are, and how easy it is to play the game despite them. In Trials’ case, we have a game that is simply such a poor fit for these mechanics that their presence at all is troubling. It’s a waste of potential for one of mobile gaming’s most hotly awaited properties.
Trials 2 and its Xbox counterpart Trials HD marked a true sleeper hit. The unassuming sequel to a simple 2D Flash game, it went on to sell over a million copies within a year on the Xbox 360 alone. The key to its addictiveness was simple; the same formula pioneered by Trackmania and championed by Super Meat Boy: simply controls and extreme difficulty with short, brutally punishing stages that you’ll play over and over again. It’s the kind of game you can play for 5 minutes and find yourself wasting hours on, and it seems like the perfect candidate for the mobile space.
So perfect, in fact, that the Play Store has been flooded with countless clones for years. Some of these have been pretty competent, but none of them quite had the polish of the real deal. Ubisoft is now putting their considerable muscle behind the once-indie franchise, with a new console release Trials Fusion, and a brand new made-for-mobile entry, Trials Frontier.
The fundamentals haven’t changed much. Ubisoft has adopted a simple-but-effective touch control scheme. There are no control options, no controller support, no accelerometer scheme, just two buttons for tilting forward and back and two for accelerating and braking. This is, at its core, more of a platform game than a racer, and success is about landing your bike right, with the rear wheel down, so that you can get enough torque to accelerate, without letting the bike fly out from under you. The tracks are outlandish, full of ramps, loops, and hazards that will often result in your character landing on his head or being tossed through the air like a ragdoll.
Although the basic gameplay remains intact, Frontier is a decidedly new take on the series. Unlike past entries, which were little more than a never ending series of increasingly difficult and wacky tracks, this one attempts to have a story and some light RPG elements to lend some sense of progression for the casual crowd. Set in a sort of alternate reality Old West, it adopts a more cartoony style that seems like a good fit for the game’s slapstick deaths and wrecks. It also means adopting a wide range of mission-based objectives, rather than simply playing for best times. This can mean anything from performing stunts, to more mundane tasks that feel disconnected from the main game, like earning items off the random loot wheel after a level. All this padding seems to come at the expense of actual level count, which, while still ample, is significantly less than past games. You’ll end up replaying a lot of the same stages over and over for a variety of reasons beyond beating your best score.
Of course, a lot of this added meat is a premise to introduce the usual pay gimmicks we see in most free-to-play games. Playing a level depletes a “fuel” reserve, which refills itself at a rate of about one level’s worth per 10 minutes. Over time, your maximum capacity will increase, but you’ll never escape this limitation outright, forcing you to put down the game and wait, or pony up for a refuel. Luckily, there is no penalty for restarting a level, but if you happen to cross the finish line with a passing time, but want to replay for a better score, you’re going to have to spend more fuel; a serious flaw for a game about perfectionism.
Like usual, there’s a two-currency system, one easily earned and the other rarer. The game is actually fairly liberal with both currencies; you’ll have enough to play and progress without the need to pay, but you won’t be able to pay off those pesky timers. Upgrades, too, activate after ever-increasing countdowns, but you don’t need to wait them out in order to play, at least.
Frontier’s pay hooks are not especially greedy, but they’re fundamentally ill-conceived for a game of this sort. Trials is a game about perfectionism, and overcoming the seemingly impossible with practice and skill. By adding RPG-like elements that allow you to upgrade your way to victory, Ubisoft is robbing players of both the challenge and the rewarding sense of victory that makes this series so addictive. Furthermore, in a game about perfecting your run and shaving fractions of a second off your time, penalizing players for replaying stages is a seriously poor decision.
While Trials Frontier is still an enjoyable game that has occasional flashes of its predecessor’s brilliance, it’s a cautionary tale to developers that not every kind of game can work with the same schemes. There are other ways to monetize a free game, and those choices have to go hand-in-hand with the game’s design. Trials is a game of hardcore perfectionism, and hammering it into a light RPG framework is about the worst thing that could have been done to it, short of adding trading cards.
Is it Hardcore?
While not especially punishing, the free-to-play hooks undermine the hardcore perfectionism that made this series so addicting. An enjoyable game for the casual player, but disappointing for series fans.