Many years ago, stalwart developer Electronic Arts decided to fragment their EA Sports called with an offshoot label called EA Sports BIG to house their line of over-the-top arcade-style sports and racing franchises like NBA Street, SSX, and Sled Storm. One of the best games to come out of the label was the motocross racing title Freekstyle. Combining the blindingly fast off-road motocross racing of ATV Off-road Fury with wild off-the-wall trickery of SSX, Freekstyle was (and still is) a truly viscerally white-knuckle racing experience.
It would be hard to argue that Freekstyle had not influenced an entire genre of racing titles, with popular franchises like Motorstorm, Pure, and ATV Unleashed all owing a big nod to EA’s arcade classic. The newest in this line of arcade motocross titles is Mad Riders, and it comes to us from Polish developer Techland.
Techland’s name may sound familiar to gamers – they are the very same studio that brought us the massively popular zombie shooter Dead Island last year. And while we wouldn’t normally associate the eradication of the undead with no-hold-barred ATV action, Techland actually has a rich history of niche racing titles including 2010’s arcade-style motocross racer Nail’d. In fact, one would have a hard time telling Nail’d and Mad Riders apart, except to say that the newer download-only title is more like Nail’d-lite with its streamlined gameplay and customization options.
Mad Riders is an ambitions title with some of the greatest sense of speed ever experienced in a game. With excruciatingly fast action accentuated by nauseatingly warping and blurring visuals, Made Riders will have even the most seasoned racing veterans holding on for dear life as they try to maintain control of their racer through the heavily twisting courses and over the fantastically high launch ramps.
Unlike the complex suspension loading mechanics that have become the norm in racing titles, Mad Riders only gives gamers two options to customize their hang time – pull back to lengthen the jump, push forward to shorten it up. While this may seem like a bit of hand-holding at first, the mechanic is actually quite effective and rewarding, serving a bit like the motocross’s answer to drifting in a Ridge Racer title.
Mad Riders covers all the requisite bases by offering gameplay in the form of career mode, quick race, or online multiplayer. The career mode is not incredibly demanding, although a few cheap design issues are sure to infuriate their fair share of gamers with one too many final-lap flubs requiring race unnecessary resets and restarts. Thankfully, the game saves between multi-race events, so if a gamer messes up they can restart at that race, and not have to repeat the whole event. As an added bonus, Mad Riders dishes out a near-constant flow of PSN trophies to help keep gamer interest.
While quick race is hardly worth mentioning, the online multiplayer was surprisingly solid – with very little lag and no noticeable loss of speed. It was a blast to race against human opponents, who were definitely a bit more forgiving than the game’s picture-perfect AI opponents.
Visually, Mad Riders is a mixed bag – while the graphics are definitely impressive from a distance, in the heat of the game things just seem to fall apart. First, there is the off fish-eye lens effect that I am still not sure is intentional on the part of the developers or a function of the conversion to HDTV. I would like to think the developers intent was to warp the visuals to deliver an amazing sense of speed – however, what it looks more like is the incremental stretching some HDTV’s call “panorama” to bring a standard 4:3 screen ratio broadcast to 16:9 by stretching very little in the center and increasing more and more as they near the edge. With HDTV’s the idea is to keep the center of the screen relatively normal (so actors don’t look short and fat) and simply fan out the edges.
The problem with this stretch comes in when the screen pans and objects noticeably distort as they cross from one side of the screen to the other. This odd warp-appearance happens constantly during Mad Riders, which proved to be not only distracting, but also nauseating. I felt like it was incredibly difficult to gauge the oncoming course, with narrow bottlenecks and jump ramps particularly difficult to navigate.
It also didn’t help that the game’s scenery was so easy to get hung up on – which was surprising since most of the track side obstacles ended up being little more than a flat cardboard-cutout textured to look like trees and bushes and such. Getting hung on a piece of scenery typically stops the racer dead in his tracks, requiring a voluntary track reset.
To make matters even worse, far too often a slight veer off course would cause the game to automatically reset the rider, eliminating any momentum he or she may have had. For a game that prides itself on white-knuckle action, it is inexcusable when the game interrupts a beautiful racing line because it registered a tire crossing some imaginary boundary.
On the audio front, Mad Riders takes a cue from the likes of SSX and Ridge Racer with the annoying-yet-endearing color commentator incessantly complimenting the gamer on pulling off a good powerslide (“Sidewinder!”) or landing a great jump (“Perfect Landing!”). These phrases are repeated constantly through the course of a race, so gamers will surely want to check out the options menu in which they can turn the announcer off.
I hate to hammer on Mad Riders too much, because I was able to find some enjoyment in play it – but compared to the PS3 exclusive MotorStorm franchise, Mad Riders just doesn’t measure up. The gameplay may be breathtakingly fast, but amongst all the visual glitches and gameplay shortcomings it simply seems more like a work in progress than a finished product.