Poor old Urban Trial Freestyle, released to a flurry of indignation about its similarity to a certain other series with Trial(s) in the name. “Copy cat!” they cry. “Rip-off clone!” they shout, while defenders take the stance that, hey, maybe there’s a place in this world for more than one series featuring a dude trying to stay on a motorbike and doing stunts.
Both sides kind of have a point. Redlynx don’t own the genre; they just happen to be on top of it right now. Older readers might remember games like Kickstart back in the Spectrum/C64 era that set the engine churning on this model. Trials Evolution just leads the pack at present. Nobody sane lays this sort of accusation at PES and FIFA, despite them both being football games.
But the thing is, those two titles play a very different style of football. Each has its own distinct features and feel. Urban Trial Freestyle … well … it does look and play an awful lot like a Trials game, making it a comparison that goes beyond the premise alone.
If UTF were a game bringing more to the table than the title it’s drawing comparisons with, even that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. But in almost all areas it brings less. Fewer tracks (UTF has around twenty in total, repeated across forty levels in five different zones – plus a handful of one off challenge maps,) no level editor, and not much of a multiplayer component being chief amongst the absentees.
Still, UTF can at least point to a price difference here. It’s $5.00 USD cheaper than Trials Evolution: Gold Edition. Plus it has the not-to-be-underestimated benefit of having nothing whatsoever to do with Uplay.
To its credit, the game gets most of the genre formula right. It’s easy enough to recreate the concept of a physics-based motorcycle title with obstacles, stunts and the like, but it would be even easier to balls up the execution and make the whole affair a horrendous nightmare. UTF neatly bunny-hops over this issue, delivering a competent set of tracks under the sway of some consistent (if occasionally rather odd, and gravity-light) physics. In the majority of cases, I was ragdolling my way to a full collection of broken bones thanks to my own ineptitude. As it should be.
The one exception to this is any segment involving pneumatic platforms, which seem to propel your biker off in new and exciting directions no matter how often you approach them at the same speed and angle. Maybe a tiny, tiny discrepancy in my stance was making the difference here, but these portions seem a lot more haphazard than the general scenery.
UTF’s tracks also seem to wane in creativity as they progress. You start off riding through a few bizarre locations like crumbling fun-fairs and countryside picnic retreats, but the second half of the game keeps things a firm industrial grey, whether it’s recreating a building site, underground tube station or, well, another building site.
That may explain why so many of the levels are obsessed with having things crash and explode in your peripheral vision. But as an attempt to liven up a tepid colour palette, that doesn’t really work. It just makes every other track seem as if it’s co-directed by an inept sibling of Michael Bay. You could argue that the intent is a distraction to put you off, though if that was an intentional design decision it’s a highly questionable one.
In terms of map variety, the game offers what could be considered the bare minimum of track types in the form of alternating ‘stunt’ and ‘time trial’ levels. The former requires the rider to do long, high or precise jumps at pre-determined locations (so, um, about that word ‘Freestyle’ in the name …) while the latter just requires you to race to the end as quickly as possible (and pops in a ghost of the fastest real-life rider out there for good measure.)
Depending on how well you do, the game awards a five star rating and these stars unlock additional courses. Eventually (probably around halfway through,) you’ll hit the rather unenjoyable wall of needing to go back to replay (and replay, and replay) previous tracks in order to eke out a slightly better rating and unlock the next course.
As you ride through UTF’s world, you come across discarded bags of cash that you can use to upgrade your bike. How I dearly wish that I could sell the chassis and tire upgrades that I bought before realising that the engine upgrades are what’s really necessary for doing well on the game’s later levels. Finding the extra cash for that top-tier engine is a case of (even more) replaying of previous levels, hunting for the hidden areas where stashes of $2,000 USD lurk.
There’s a half-hearted nod towards disembodied multiplayer in the form of the aforementioned time trial ghosts, as well as the usual set of leaderboards and a somewhat neat display of a Steam avatar next to each stunt area depicting the current master. No direct online competition between riders though, sadly.
It’d be unfair to knock Urban Trial Freestyle too hard, because it just about achieves what it sets out to do in recreating the Trials formula; albeit in a reduced, rather unambitious way. A fair amount of what made Trials great is here too and that’s … fine, but really no more than fine. The lack of any unique, distinguishing feature to set it apart from its clear rival means that Urban Trial Freestyle is forever doomed to be that game which is sort of like Trials, but just not as good.