One of the toughest challenges a sports game faces is in building a sense of achievement; making us feel like we’re there, either front row managing our favourite team or living the thrill-seeking moment ourselves. And it’s for this very reason why free-ride mountain biking game Descenders offers such a tense and exhilarating experience.
The true organic feel of the mountain biking here comes down to two distinct reasons, an excellent physics model that put you in complete control, and a brilliant risk and reward system that forces you to challenge yourself.
Upon starting the game you’re shown to the home camp, a small area that offers four different trails to practice on, each challenging you to learn a different mechanic. What I instantly loved was how the developer RageSquid had opted for a kind of Skate approach to the controls. Accelerating, braking and steering are all as you’d expect from any racing game, but moving into the tricks you’ll need to master the right thumbstick. Flicking down then up offers the option of a bunny hop, which is a vital skill in the later stages. The right thumbstick also pays dividends while in the air, acting as a tweak option or providing some much-needed help when trying to stomp a clean 360.
Although the camp provides some fun it’s not until you venture into the first area of the Highlands that Descenders comes alive, and boy oh boy does it come alive. Every trail you ride down in the game is procedurally generated, which put a lot of emphasis on both your reaction times and your skill level in the game. The opening area does a brilliant job of introducing you to the different elements of Descenders, providing some decent kickers to hit some clean tricks on and a couple of banked corners to practice your cornering.
Although every trial is procedurally generated you do have some control over the trails themselves. After finishing the first path of an area you can choose from one of three routes, all of which offer something different. Some are steep, some curvey and some have a heck-load of jumps. What will no-doubt influence your decision is your side objective, as completing this offers you an extra life. Now, if your thinking,’why do I need an extra life in a mountain biking game?’, well, that because I forgot to tell you that Descenders features some rouge-like tendencies, which is where the risk and reward systems come in.
The levelling up section of the game is linked to your reputation points, and as you’d expect performing better runs will reward you with more rep points. But what you may not expect is that every crash will deduct some rep points, and if you lose all your lives in a run then your rep points take a pretty noticeable hit and it’s back to camp for you. This approach often had me pushing myself to learn more of the game, by hitting the bigger tricks and linking combo’s together with skids and wheelies offered a lot more rep but also brought a lot higher risk of crashing and leaving the run with fewer rep points than I started with.
Although reaching higher leagues is tied to your rep points, it doesn’t appear that much of the cosmetic equipment is. Every time I finished a run, either through crashing or by choice I was awarded another top, shorts, goggles or even sometimes a bike. As far as I can tell, only your sponsorship clothing is tied to reaching higher leagues, along with some Descenders branded gear, which is tied to unlocking new locations.
At the moment there are four different locations for you to ride through, all of which drastically challenge you in a different way. The Highlands act as a great starting point with the mellow corners and versatile jumps; The Forrest is brutally narrow and regularly throws stunts at you that require real intricate handling; The Desert is frighteningly quick with huge kickers that unless you control your speed you’ll soon see you eating the sand and the final snow stage, well, I have one run on this bad boy and that didn’t exactly go well.
When first starting in Descenders you’ll always need to start in the Highlands, if you clear all 5 trails with lives remaining you’ll head to The Forrest, and so on. But this doesn’t always have to be the case as each locations final trial is a boss jump, yep, you heard me correctly, a boss jump. These death-defying sections will see you jump over moving trains or clearing awe-inspiring canyons. What’s great about these is that successfully landing a boss jump three times grants you a shortcut straight to the new area so you’ll no longer need to start in the Highlands, although you’ll soon be wishing you were back in the opening stages.
Descenders is currently in Early Access on Steam and coming to Xbox Game Preview very soon, the game has also been confirmed for both a PS4 and Nintendo Switch release. Despite the Early Access build of Descenders, I can’t remember the last time a sports game grabbed me so hard. The combination of the tight physics and painstakingly hard risk and reward system means that when you hit that perfect run while blitzing through the desert at 70KPH you can’t help but feel like the absolute boss. Not many games capture the nuances of their sport like Descenders does and I cannot wait to see what else the game has to offer before it’s full release.