ATVs are the perfect meeting point between motorcycles and cars, making for a fast but light vehicle that should be fun to control in a videogame. Yet, I can’t think of any game that captured the appeal of ATVs without pandering only to gearheads. MX vs ATV was a bit too niche. Nail’d came close, Pure came really close, but Mad Racers does it one better by making the ATVs faster and the tracks crazier.
Mad Riders (PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade [Reviewed], PC)
Released: May 30, 2012
MSRP: $9.99 / 800 Microsoft Points
Mad Riders reminds me of many of my favorite racing games. Most of all, it reminds me of SSX 3, MotorStorm: Pacific Rift, and Burnout 3, three of my favorite games. Mad Riders isn’t so different from any other racing game at its core: it’s still a race to the finish line. The difference here is in the environments and way the ATVs control. Like Burnout, you’ll rely heavily on your ability to boost to get ahead. You only gather boost fuel from item pick-ups and stunts, so you’ll need to be very strategic in burning up your resources.
Instead of dodging traffic to fill up your boost meter, you’ll be taking constant risks in performing tricks in the air and on the ground to earn boost. For whatever reason, Mad Riders takes its time in unveiling tricks to the player. This makes for a rather dull first tier of stages -- there are eight tiers each featuring five tracks -- but the game quickly ramps up once you have the full repertoire at your disposal. Soon, you'll be overwhelmed by all the trick opportunities. There are bullseyes you can risk landing within, hoops to jump through, and other ways to earn boost during a race.
Pulling off tricks in Mad Riders doesn’t have the grace and visual flair of SSX, but it still gives me that same rush. I love pulling a wheelie off on the ground and using the boost gained to ride past my opponents on an uphill slope. Or, risking a double flip in the air to get some extra boost for the end of a track. You are constantly making these risk/reward decisions that keep you on your toes. The vehicles feel somewhat jerky, not nearly as smooth as I like. There are some nice control touches, though. I loved how you could extend or shorten your jumps in the air by holding down or up on the left analog-stick. It's not very realistic, but it a fun addition that gives the game its own distinct feel.
Another key component to the game are shortcuts and refill areas. Along with boost tokens, the tracks have shortcut tokens you can pick up and store for future use. There are several shortcuts and refill stations (supplying boost tokens) you can trigger in the map, as you draw near them. These can give you a great advantage, but they can also help out competing racers if they weasel their way into the open path. Shortcuts, along with branching paths of tracks, help take away some of the repetition of the game’s straightforward races.
Mad Riders has a wide audience in mind, so I can understand why it plays dumb early on. It doesn't make it okay, however. Along with a shorter list of tricks, the early game also hides behind dumbed down tracks that lack the sharp turns and branching paths of later stages. Eventually, the tracks open up and become increasingly challenging and unpredictable. All of the game’s tracks take place in tropical areas, reminiscent of Pacific Rift. You’ll drive through ancient ruins, beaches, and dense jungles. The narrow paths, high-contrast visual filter, and locations crowded with trees make for a disorienting racing experience. I found myself frequently going off path, not because I couldn’t make a turn but because I didn’t even know I was supposed to.
It doesn’t help that the game has one of the peskiest track reset systems I’ve ever seen in a racing game. If you wander off the main path, even a little bit, the game will suggest you respawn, despite still being in relatively good control of the situation. Then there are all the myriad screw-ups you’ll find yourself in due to the game’s wonky physics and vehicle handling. You’ll eventually grow used to the game’s quirks, but it takes some time for it to sink in. Though the game is accessible, learning the ins-and-outs of it can be a frustrating period.
I love variety in racing games, but Mad Riders is one of the rare times where I wish the game just stuck to standard races. The game offers five different modes: race, stunt race, race the clock, ghost challenge, and arena. Most are inoffensive distractions, but I found myself groaning whenever I had to do an arena race. These tracks take place in a small, enclosed area where you race toward waypoints in a circle. Stunts and speed rarely factor into these matches, which goes against what makes Mad Riders fun. Instead, you focus on perfecting your slide and finding the best shortcut to the next waypoint, which is fine until you get stuck on some object along the way or can’t tell where the next checkpoint is because the waypoint arrow blends in with the rest of the screen.
Once you have exhausted the game’s campaign and perfected the very difficult elite races, you can breathe new life into the tracks online with other racers. Although the game copies-and-pastes track sections into one another to make-up its large track roster, it’s still 45 original tracks at the end of the day which will keep you guessing upcoming turns instead of memorizing them.
Techland have made a worthy follow-up to Nail’d, despite Mad Riders' quirks and faults. I’m a junkie for a good and fast arcade racer. Mad Riders is one of the first games to fit that bill in some time.