Get your arse back on the saddle; it’s a Descenders review for the PlayStation 4.
I may as well squeeze my externals into an ill-fitting lycra suit and take to the local mountains for a better chance at hill bombing, as when it comes to Descenders, the only way I can descend is in the air ambulance.
It’s a tough game. That’s not because of the level design per se, but the ferocity on how it handles and may as well be called Ragdoll Descenders. A younger me playing Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX on the Dreamcast may chuckle at my futile attempts to do a Superman over a few jumps only to fly higher on the impact with the dirt, but the bike fan in me wanted to do so well, the crashes were bumming me out.
You could even argue that Descenders is a homage to Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX or perhaps Tony Hawk Pro Skater if you’re unfamiliar. The game is more of a trick-based game. That’s not silly little grinds and flips off of traffic cones and the face of a postman, but they’re frequent enough for ‘trick-based’ to be valid’.
From the opening tutorial, it was clear that this game was going to require patience; not patience in a bad way, but in the sense that you needed to be strategic with your runs as timing is critical if you’re to maintain momentum and enough speed to get your bike in the air – a problem I struggled with quite a bit.
Before you Google ‘downhill mountain biking‘, use your common sense as it’s in the title. Your bike is wheeled to the top of a hill (usually), and then you have to hammer it to the bottom as fast as you can using lightning-quick reflexes that will make a QTE look like a game of Spider Solitaire.
But, unlike a game such as, quite possibly one of my favourite games of the year, Lonely Mountains Downhill, the emphasis is on leaving the ground by way of a jump, flip or grind (ish). And no, gyrating your hips on the saddles doesn’t constitute a grind. Pervert.
Perhaps this is what I struggle with most as my mountain biking tastes has always been about single track and touring and the velocity your bike hits can be pant filling. Bolt-on a bunny hop you can do on command which sends your bike toppling down a few yards crunching your bones as if they were dried spaghetti and you get the idea on how dangerous this sport and game is.
Art imitating life, there’s a good deal of attention on the online game, and when in free roam, you’ll find other players loitering around. And, much like real life, though you can’t hear them, you know they’re sniggering as your faceplant for the 30th time when attempting to bunny hop a tree trunk to grind that’s been set up in the sandbox area for training.
It’s Downhill From Here
But whittle down the crashes and ragdolling and Descenders is a fun game. It’s not quite what I was expecting as I thought it would be more race-based and feel a bit more fluid. What I mean by that is that crashes weren’t as frequent, like say in TT Isle of Man Ride on the Edge 2, but I suppose they’re mostly self-inflicted as you attempt to do a no-hander 30cm from the ground.
The cream of the crop should be rewarded for their efforts, and those managing to keep their rider and bike in momentum for more than 30 seconds may find themselves earning a sponsorship deal. As a comparison in gamer terms, it’s like getting sponsorship on Twitch only instead of getting stuff like G-Fuel and filters to make your eyes look big, you get bigger, more robust bikes and ‘better’ ill-fitting lycra with brand whoring all over it. As you can imagine, this is my cup of tea.
But the career mode on offer isn’t without its issues as the crashing side of things is pretty unforgiving if you can’t get used to it – especially when you’re so far in a track and a little clip of an ant carrying a bit of shopping and you go arse over tit. It’s a sports game, so there’s no health as such, but you do have an energy bar, and once it’s depleted, you’re out.
One way to boost it is by performing bonus objectives such as tricks here and there for a bit of a buffer. It’s good to keep you in the game, but it’s a bit like doing a speedrun and then getting sidetracked by an optional path.
The levels are varied with over four environments, with no track being the same, there’s plenty on offer. Each of these levels is broken up into three sets of criteria: steepness, curves and stunts. You’re intelligent enough to work that all out but in summary that boils down to speedy tracks, swervy ones, and bumpy bits to do a trick off of.
There’s also the boss jump. As you won’t be fighting an oversized dinosaur/turtle chimaera, the boss element of the game is doing an epic jump that would make most die-hards wince as you have to get the right amount of speed and timing to pull off some next-level performance. Ace these, and you’ll unlock the career plus section that will make everything before it looks like child’s play.
Procedurally Generated Crashes
For the majority of the time, you’ll find you want to do the bare minimum just so that you survive. I mean, even if the game was utterly void of all tricks, it’s fun tearing through the countryside at high-speed weaving in and out of obstacles or taking an extended ‘shortcut’ without being penalised for it, whatsoever. I love that freedom, but again, hit something and the momentum is gone, and you’re looking at a biker with a snapped neck, arse in the air ready for someone to park their wheels.
Presentation-wise, it’s good, but other than pausing the game or admiring the textures of the floor, I didn’t get to pay too much attention as you really are in for the ride. Ha! See that? Brilliant. In other words, your concentration levels are so high that anything other than 10 metres ahead is a distraction.
The way it should be.
Of all the very many good points in Descenders, the stand out element for me was the ‘unknown’. With procedurally generated maps, you never know what you’re going to get so you can’t grind the same level over and over again so that by the time your mates come over, they think you’re the mutts nuts (though they didn’t see the 100s of biker corpses to the side).
Not knowing a track is the fun part of it (in real life) as you get to explore your surroundings, and aside from the irritating music, Ragesquid and No More Robots have captured the scene well. While Lonely Mountains Downhill was serene with its soundtrack of birds and the breeze, Descenders is a bit rawer and in your face – a trailblazer if you will.
But again, that’s kind of the point. Some of the music tracks are ok, but for the most part, they were overpowering. If you’re going to go that route, you need to go balls-out like Tony Hawk Pro Skater and have some licenced music such as Rage Against The Machine – something energising that you can *attempt* to sing to while catching some air.