Techland are the masters of the game trailer that fully overshadows the game itself. From Dead Island’s tragic reverse-time zombie attack to the spoof, self-deprecating trailer for Mad Riders, every Techland release has a wave of hype preceding it that can often be hard to match. Mad Riders’ advertising prominently exclaims that the game is ‘cheaper than a pizza’ – although that depends where you buy your evening meal. What it does promise is a wild and wacky off-road racing game that’s cheap, cheerful and packed with crazy stunts, insane tracks and robust multiplayer for the equivalent of a pocketful of change.
Things get off to an ominous beginning with the first loading screen – a brief explanation of various button functions – featuring no less that two glaring typos. It might be nitpicking, but it does not bode well when the instructions for the ‘Basics Controls’ tell you to press the left button to ‘break’ your ATV (which, as much as you might like to, sadly only slows the thing down). Luckily, you won’t need to pay too much attention to this screen for the rest of the game – once in a race the basic controls are intuitive so that even beginners will be zipping along at top speed. Having previously developed the terribly named but fun to play Nail’d, Mad Riders acts as Techland’s spiritual successor to the ATV racer, layering races with stunts, boosts and multi-route environments (still, however, sporting a terrible name). The controls are simple enough - stunts require a button press combined with a direction held on the analogue stick. Push forward and you’ll do a flip, hold it to the side and your ATV will twist in that direction – it’s all straightforward.
The bulk of Mad Riders game play lies in the Tournament section; within this menu option you’re presented with a series of unlockable mini-competitions comprising of standard races, time trials, stunt races and ghost one-on-ones. Winning a race awards your profile with up to three stars unlocking new challenges, new tracks and opening up a harder selection of events. Any stunts performed during the race will earn your rider XP (as well as for your final position at the end), causing your profile to level up. Moving up a level will provide you with increasingly more powerful motors, new customisation options and a wider range of stunt abilities – all fairly standard rewards within the racing genre. XP is doled out generously and increases the further into the tournament you delve, with special events offering up greater rewards.
There’s a good selection of tracks to tear up, although many are retooled routes through the same area. Despite this it’s unlikely that you’ll experience raceway fatigue, thanks to some surprisingly lush vegetation, shortcuts that can be accessed and a few memorable props. For example, one environment features a downed plane, its metal carcass creating jumps and flattening routes through the dense jungle. Another track features the occasional oriental pagoda, visible in motion blur as you speed past - both act as landmarks to remember, helping to decipher the many tangled routes to take. Numerous jumps present the opportunity for big air and stunt combos, a bonus shot of XP and boost your reward for managing to land the jump in a target painted on the ground. There are multiple routes to explore with more opened up by collecting blue tokens that open up secret shortcuts – the longer races can be mind-boggling in their number of available route options. The environmental graphics are rather pleasant for a downloadable title; there are some pretty lighting effects and each environment has a distinct style however it can sometimes look a little ropey at times, mainly thanks to some underwhelming particle effects.
Aside from all the single player grinding there’s also a multiplayer mode, comprised of online races against opponents. It’s nothing new to online racing but the spontaneity and unpredictability of human opponents adds a chaotic kick to proceedings. Should you entirely miss the menu option on loading the game, a pop-up will appear on your screen during single player sessions, informing you that there’s an available lobby waiting for your presence. While it’s certainly handy for those who are looking for something more social, the pop-up can be intrusive in its ubiquity – the UI is cluttered enough without a garish multiplayer sign sliding in from right of screen. While there’s an option for system link, the lack of local multiplayer is a disappointment, especially considering this is the type of game that would benefit from some close-proximity elbow jostling.
The main problem with Mad Riders lies with the name itself – the tracks are by no means simulation accurate but describing the game as mad is a bit of stretch. If anything, it’s the gaming equivalent of E3 2011’s Mr Caffeine and his brand of corporate-approved schtick – sure there are stunts and jumps, but it’s not like anything we haven’t seen before so the in-your-face attempt to be crazy gets annoying very quickly. Every time certain stunts are performed the race announcer, sporting a fake American accent despite a discernible European tinge, will shout it out like he’s just learned the word. Flame-adorned fonts and urban-styled banners flash across the screen but do little to inspire astonishment or even excitement. One particularly irksome design decision seems to be another casualty of wackiness – a camera effect is employed which stretches the screen near the edges, lending the image a focused cone-of-vision appearance. While it certainly increases the intensity of speed, at times it can become mildly nauseating especially when motoring up and down the game’s steep hills and valleys. Imagine sitting on the bonnet of a stomach-churning rollercoaster going 160mph and you’ll get the idea.
A rather unforgiving track reset system also dilutes the madness to a degree – stray an inch beyond the track and you’ll be forcefully respawned, the game’s title thrusting toward your face for a few seconds as you are placed back within allowed track parameters. Hit a huge jump and clip some scenery on the descent and, rather than tumble around in hilarious ragdoll chaos, you’ll be respawned. The track design exacerbates the respawn frustration – steep hills push your ATV to tip over, dense vegetation often disguises the prescribed route and atmosphere-scraping jumps are littered with obstructions all of which will result in an unwanted respawn, totally removed from player control. A few more insane crashes may have meant losing the race but I’d rather be allowed the chance to rectify a botched jump than be placed back on the track thanks to the game acting like an overbearing parent. It doesn’t help that your rider seems to have his hands superglued to the handlebars, making it appear that Techland would rather just initiate a respawn than follow through on ragdoll animation during a crash.
Overall, Mad Riders never really escapes the bounds of mediocrity. It’s certainly enjoyable; more so than you’d think upon first impressions. The progression system is enough of a hook to keep you playing and the bitesize nature of the tournament means one extra try is delightfully tempting if you’ve got another few minutes to hand. It’s a shame that so much of the game is by the numbers predictable or, worse, trying to be crazier than it actually has any right to be. It’s the perfect post-pub game before crashing for the night – quick and easy to play, requiring minimal thought interaction beyond gripping accelerate on the controller. However, the lack of local play means any friends who follow you home will have to fight over the controller should they want a go. Longevity comes mainly from the multiplayer – the tournament section has a few fiendish trials but at least half of them will see you finish first with little effort. Where it fails, however, is in a lack of personality, visual flourish or mechanical ingenuity. It’s competent in what it does but the closest it gets to a soul actually comes from the typos present in the menu, not the track design or insane stunts, as if the flaw tells us it wasn’t created by a game-creating automaton. Again, it’s another case of a game overshadowed by an impressive trailer. However, don’t let that put you off – for the price it’s worth a try, especially for fans of the niche genre, although a menu option for ‘Platinum Tracks’ (another instance of microtransaction DLC rearing its ugly head) sours the bargain a little, given its prominence on the main menu as if it’s part of the game already. Just be aware, although it might be as cheap as the price of a pizza, it’s shallower than a deep-dish Domino’s and potentially nowhere near as filling.