This is Portabliss, a column about downloadable games that can be played on the go.
Hi, my name is Earnest and I have a motorcycle problem. It started small, a few races here and there, a couple minor upgrades, but before I knew it, I was standing on a street corner, panhandling for enough cash to make it through just one more run. Don't pity me though. It's too late for that. Instead, take a lesson from my struggle. Remind yourself each morning that no matter how much the withdrawals hurt, no matter how hard it is to cope with your demons, spending $5 on virtual gas for your fake motorcycle is an awful investment.
That fanciful scenario was brought to you by developer RedLynx and its new iOS (and eventually Android) entry in the Trials series, Trials Frontier. If you've played any of the prior Trials games, you can likely commiserate with my addiction, but, unfortunately, the microtransactions present in the mobile game are a glaring dark spot on an otherwise glowing pedigree.
Don't let that ominous introduction scare you, though. From a design perspective, Trials Frontier is one of the most engaging iOS games available. It offers a short race structure – almost every event can be completed in under a minute – which is perfect for portable play, but more critically, RedLynx made some very intelligent choices when designing Frontier's controls.
As the iPhone and iPad lack the analog sticks that have been crucial to the Trials games, Trials Frontier mimics this functionality by placing the acceleration and braking buttons on one corner of the screen, while the opposite side handles a rider's rotation (and no, there is no gyroscopic tomfoolery, in case you were worried). Both sets of controls are immediately intuitive and responsive, and during races Trials Frontier offers a familiar, addictive blend of platforming, racing and physics-based destruction.
Likewise new to the series is the Trials Frontier storyline. The game casts players as a nameless motorcycle rider who, through the kind of logic usually reserved for late 80s sports movies, becomes a heroic savior to a group of hardscrabble settlers living in the dusty wastes. If you read the previous sentence and then furrowed your brow, wondering why anyone would need a canonical explanation for the game's motorcycle hijinks, you'll be happy to hear that the plot is very easy to ignore. If you simply want to race, you can just click through the dialogue boxes that pop up before and after each event. The story isn't anything to write home about, and realistically, it only exists to give players a sense of guided progression through the life of a Trials rider.
That is the biggest addition to Trials Frontier, an upgrade and quest system that resembles traditional role-playing games, which attempts to paint each race as more than just a rush to the finish line. One mission might have you racing against a local thug, in an effort to find out where his boss is hiding, while another might award precious bike parts upon completion. Though Trials Frontier boasts a number of different motorcycles, each can be customized by finding (or purchasing) new parts to bolt onto the existing frame. Unfortunately, these additions are purely for performance, so no matter how much you spend on tricking out your handle bars, they'll always look like the same welded steel T-junction.
So far, so good, right? Sadly, like so many mobile games, the ultimate promise of Trials Frontier is laid low by microtransactions. Players can spend from $5 to $100 dollars purchasing both coins and diamonds, each of which serves as in-game currency. While you can't directly purchase upgrades or new bikes, this proprietary cash is essential, because without it you can't buy fuel. As in reality, fuel is necessary for motorcycle racing, and each race deducts a certain amount from your current supply (though, happily, no fuel is required to restart a race or jump back to the last completed checkpoint).
When your bike inevitably runs out of fuel, you've got two options: Wait for the gas tank timer to run down and grant you a gratis refill, or spend real money to buy more gas. Though it only takes three minutes to earn a single unit of gas, each of the game's races requires at least five units, thus an empty gas tank spells a 15 minute, real-time delay. To RedLynx's credit, players earn a full tank of gas each time they level up, but after the first ten levels, progression immediately slows, leaving you to stare at the timer, anxiously awaiting your next race.
Don't get me wrong, the microtransactions included in Trials Frontier are far from the most egregious I've seen. If anything, they're comparatively tame. However, the inescapable specter of an outstretched hand, waiting for players to deposit their money, casts a pall over this otherwise excellent mobile reimagining of the addictive Trials formula.
Despite that complaint, Trials Frontier is excellent. It carries over everything that makes Trials so engaging, while stripping out the clunky, bloated pieces that are best left to games running on stationary consoles. If you need a quick fix of motorcycle racing, or simply want to launch your hapless rider into the game's innumerable hazards, there are few better options. And, in the end, those microtransactions are likely the only reason publisher Ubisoft is offering Trials Frontier at the very attractive price of "free." You'll have to take the good with the bad here, but fortunately, Trials Frontier offers far more of the former.
This review is based on a pre-release iTunes download Trials Frontier, provided by Ubisoft. An Android version of Trials Frontier is also in the works. Images: Ubisoft.