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Mad Riders [Review] – Backflips on a budget

28 May 2012  by   Peter Parrish
Game Details
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Publisher: Microsoft
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Although it’s not being advertised as a follow-up or a sequel, Mad Riders is pretty much a recalibrated version of Nail’d. If you’re unfamiliar with that game, Nail’d was Techland’s 2010/2011 (depending on the region) quad and dirt-bike racer. It had demented, death-defying courses, a licensed soundtrack and a stupid name. Mad Riders shows immediate signs of improvement by virtue of a better name, but quickly ruins it with an embarrassing tagline (“The maddest ride since your ex!”; a big sigh and an eyeroll for whoever came up with that piece of trash).

Like its older brother, Mad Riders is brash, loud and a little bit hyperactive. Its distinguishing trait is a greater emphasis on ridiculous stunts, which makes sense as you spend at least a quarter of most races in mid-air. Doing absurd forward flips while you’re up there seems like a perfectly natural evolution of Nail’d’s (see how clumsy that name is) rather more passive approach to stunt performance. Pulling off these tricks will (generally) net you some level-boosting experience points and also tends to top up the fuel bar for your rider’s high-velocity ‘boost’ move.

In theory, Mad Riders houses more tracks than Nail’d (a listed 45 versus 14). This doesn’t quite tell the full story. The tracks are constructed from portions of larger courses (with routes opened up or blocked off accordingly), so in practice the game has 45 tracks like you have four or five different ways to drive to the supermarket. It’s technically an altered route each time, but only just. As well as being a bit repetitive (I’ve started to lose count of how many courses feature ‘that bit where I leap off a ramp and land in the tunnel-mouth of a carved stone head’), this will drive people who try to memorise courses absolutely nuts. Thanks to the continual use and re-use of certain areas, it doesn’t take long for an eerie sense of déjà vu to take hold.

The game serves up its tracks across a 40-race single player ‘tournament’ structure, which unfolds five races at a time. Races fall into five distinct categories; a straightforward race against nine other AI opponents; head-to-heads against a lone ‘ghost’ racer; time trials (in the standard arcade form, where hitting checkpoints gets you more time); ‘arena’ contests in which you have to drive across various markers in an open area; and stunt races where the winner is the rider with the most points gathered from tricks. As you progress, eight other ‘Off-Road Elite’ tracks will also become available.

For all the apparent focus on flashy moves, it’s a bit disappointing that you only get to concentrate solely on stunt riding for three of the 48 events. This feeling is compounded by the lack of hair-raising craziness present in the tracks. Nail’d didn’t provide as many courses, but it gave each one a more distinct feel. One minute you’d be dodging saw blades and leaping over cable cars, the next you’d be ducking between oncoming trains; the perfect companion activities for a stunt rider. Here there’s one track which includes a jump over a passing train, but the vast majority meld together in a blur of jungles, overgrown temple ruins and beach scrubland. The event log may tell you you’re in a different part of the world, but the foliage all looks the same from bike-level.

It’s true that pulling stunts mid-race can sometimes provide a useful power-up to your ‘boost’ button, but in the majority of cases there are enough charge tokens (which perform the same function) to pick up without having to distract yourself with flips. That’s really the crux of the problem; in races against the AI, the stunt aspect (by far the most engaging part of this title) feels like a distraction from the (lesser) main event.

A certain amount of ‘rubber-banding’ (where the AI scales to your racing performance) seems to be present too. I began to notice that, no matter how great a time I set on a course, the AI would always be just a second or two behind me. Conversely, if I was having a particularly sloppy race it always seemed possible to sneak from behind and pip the leaders at the post. This was even true of the stunt courses (an aggravating aside; you never actually see any of your opponents doing stunts during these events). At one point, the stunt winners were amassing in excess of 850 points while I was stuck on 600 or so. As soon as I grabbed 840 points though, the AI was suddenly trailing with scores of 800.

This leads to some odd difficulty spikes in the game, because in two of the other events (ghost and time trial), the rubber-banding is not present. The ghost rider will drive a set race every single time and the checkpoints for the time trial never move. When you’ve benefitted from AI generosity in prior events, this can make these challenges seem quite a bit harder.

Winning races and pulling stunts nets you experience points, which in turn unlock cosmetic race outfits and improved quad-bikes (plus, eventually, buggies). Even this is a bit of a curiosity though, because I found there to be very little difference in performance between the high and low end bikes for certain events. As a test, I played some of the later arena and race levels with the default, low-performance bike. Not only did I win them again, but in some cases I did better than when I’d raced with an apparently top-of-the-range vehicle.

I’m not entirely sure what was going on there, because the higher profile bikes certainly feel faster; but the times I was recording with the ‘worse’ bike were better. It was extremely strange and (as far as I could tell) was not simply down to my increased familiarity with the tracks.

The apparent inconsistencies between bike performance and race times might go some way to explaining why there’s no time-comparison leaderboards or capacity to download and play against other rider’s ghosts. Mad Riders only lets you compare experience points totals, stunt point totals and multiplayer wins. This is a bit of a let-down, as endless leaderboard comparisons (lap times, race times and the like) are pretty much a standard issue with contemporary racing titles. Likewise, the lack of ghost opponents (aside from the pre-set AI ones) is a missed opportunity.

At the time of writing (a couple of days before release), there were a grand total of four players on the multiplayer leaderboards. Despite my best efforts my path never crossed with theirs, so I’m unable to relate much about multiplayer. Based on my attempts to host games I can say that you’re able to race on any of the single player tracks, and the title claims up to 12 players can do drop-in, drop-out competitive racing. As with most games, racing against real opponents is likely to be more entertaining than battling the AI; but as the general modes of play appear to be identical to single player the other problems afflicting Mad Riders are no doubt just as present in multi.

Whatever the mode of play, flying off ramps and pulling ridiculous backflips can feel quite exhilarating, although high speeds and loose physics mean that as a player you rarely feel in complete control of your bike. This gives the whole game a sort of ‘guiding a runaway horse’ feel, which can be fun for a while, but the lack of creativity in track design and inconsistencies with the AI limits any long term appeal. From the tacky “cheaper than a pizza” marketing slogan to the use of indistinct beats in place of licensed tunes, Mad Riders feels like a budget retread of Nail’d. That’s perhaps what the title has always aspired to be, but it means that rather than a triumphant reinvention of the stunt-bike formula you’ll pretty much get what you pay for.

5/10
Mad Riders is Nail’d with better stunts, disappointing tracks and a fresh set of inconsistencies.
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