So you like racing games? That’s good.
You like real-world race tracks? That’s bad.
You like a blinding sense of speed? That’s good.
You need gear ratios and realistic physics? That’s bad.
However, if you like insane thousand foot jumps and impossible stunts, you will find a lot to enjoy in Mad Riders. And that’s good.
From Techland, the Polish game developer most famous for Call of Juarez and Dead Island, comes a racer that bears a strong resemblance to their 2010 off-road racer Nail’d. Instead of bikes, the focus is squarely on ATVs as you blast through tropical locations. It's actually fairly hard to not just see this game as Nail’d 2. I won’t assume you have played Nail’d, as it was quite full of ‘meh’, but if you have played it, then you should know that they improved it in almost every way possible. So much so that it deserves going with a different title to distance itself from its older brother.
It's still very much an arcade racer. It starts off extremely simple with one button for go, one for stop, and one for boosting. However, you are awarded experience points for finishing well and for racing with style. These points are then used to level up your racer, which will unlock better vehicles, more stunts, and customization options.
As you work your way through the single player tournament mode, you will be introduced to the gameplay mechanics at a fairly good clip. Right when you think you have it all figured out, they’ll put another trick in your toolbox adding to the depth. Well, about as deep as an arcade racer can get.
You will also eventually unlock buggies. They can't stunt but get a recharging boost meter.
One of the biggest gameplay hooks (that they wisely kept from Nail’d) was how you can steer your vehicle in the air. When going off a ramp, your ATV acts as if it has an invisible hang glider attached allowing you to increase the jump distance (at the sacrifice of speed) or to nose dive to get back to the ground quicker. You can even boost while airborne, but the main point of being in the air is performing stunts.
Like many arcade racers, successful stunts add to your boost meter and winning is all about the boost. You gain boost for front and backflips. You gain boost for drifting around curves. You gain boost for making perfect four point landings. Heck, you gain boost by boosting continuously for longer than four seconds (harder than it sounds). While boosting the world blurs around you as you blast forwards, so you get a real sense for just how fast you're going; it feels like you're controlling a jet on wheels.
No matter how fast you go, the game keeps up. No matter how much was going on, I never experienced slowdown or stuttering, online or off. The graphics may not be the most cutting edge, but at the speeds you’ll be moving, it looks plenty slick. Loading is fairly fast too, with only ten seconds to load a new track and two seconds when restarting.
While the game shows no sign of crashing, that doesn’t mean your character won’t be. If you slam into a barrier going too fast, hit something in the middle of a trick, or completely fall out of bounds, you'll respawn after about a second on the loading screen. This happens so fast that you never actually see the crash take place. You’ll be driving along and suddenly loading screen. I appreciate that a racing game knows not to break the flow by making you sit through a long crash animation before getting you back into the action. However, half the time I didn’t know whether I fell out of bounds or slammed into an obstacle at such a high speeds as to cause a crash.
It's worth going into a bit more because crashing happens very frequently. You'll end up going so fast that it's almost impossible to fully control yourself around the curves of the muddy track. Half of the problem is that the tropical off-road setting, while nifty to the eyes, sometimes makes it difficult to know what is and isn’t the boundary.
However, the largest source of crashes is mid-air obstacles. Boost off a ramp and suddenly you may find yourself flying towards a tall stone tower - often you won't be able to see where you're leaping until you're already flying towards it. There is plenty of that physically impossible aerial maneuverability that enables you to dodge these hazards. Except, when going super fast you will barely have time to react if you take the ramp at an odd angle. Even worse, you don’t get to adjust your position in the air as well if you're performing stunts. Since you’ll want to take every opportunity to add to your boost meter, you’ll be trying to squeeze in as many stunts as you can before you land. Put the two concepts together and you'll end up crashing more often than you’d think. Memorizing the courses ends up being the only effective way to avoid constantly crashing.
There are 45 tracks set across eight different tropical worlds, and six different event styles. There are your standard be-the-first-to-finish races and ghost challenges. The stunt races seem pretty straight forward until you notice that after the first person completes all three laps every other racer starts to lose points until they finish. An arena track has checkpoints that pop up in a mostly obstacle-free area everybody races to run through. A perfectionist challenge gives everybody about seven minutes to try and get the quickest single lap time on a given track. Finally, the worst of the otherwise great bunch, Race the Clock. It's a standard mode where the timer is ticking down and you must get through gates to give you more time. The amount of time given demands a near-perfect run and crashing almost guarantees you will fail. Like Burning Laps from the Burnout series, I find that when arcade racers suddenly punish you for driving recklessly it always ends up killing a lot of the fun.
One feature that makes Mad Riders different is how it handles shortcuts. Once you have leveled up enough to gain the ability, you will begin to find special tokens around the track. You can carry up to three of these at a time and they are used to activate shortcuts and recharges. A recharge activates a series of boost tokens which will usually max out your boost meter if you're good enough to grab them all. The shortcuts are completely locked out unless you have these special tokens, making them quite important to collect.
This is all fine for single player, but online multiplayer is where the meat of your value lies. However, because of how powerful some of the later abilities and vehicles are it is important to take your racer to the max level in single player first, which won’t take that long. Once you go online, everything runs smoothly for up to twelve players at a time. Tracks load in just a few seconds and I never experienced any slowdown or crashes in the many hours I logged in. You can custom build your ‘grand prix’ from any of the available tracks, or just let it be random. You’ll also be gaining experience in multiplayer, unlocking even more content for the dedicated.
Arising from the ashes of Nail’d, Mad Riders manages to learn from its mistakes and do a lot of things oh so right. It doesn’t surpass the best of the best, but as the trailer says, “for the price of a pizza” (or $10) it’ll give you at least a good 20 hours of arcadey racing goodness. So go ahead and give it a try.
This review is based on the Xbox Live Arcade version of Mad Riders, provided by the publisher.