It’s difficult to know where to start with Riders Republic. Sure, you can boil it down into a dozen words if you’re getting paid the medium bucks in Ubisoft’s marketing department – an “open world extreme sports extravaganza” they might call it – but even with a snazzy tagline and genre description, it’s tricky to really get across what it feels like to play.
That’s what Riders Republic feels like half the time. It doesn’t matter where you go or what you’re doing in this game, there are going to be dozens of other people zipping around doing their own thing. It’s like going for a nice stroll through the park, but there’s people bursting out from behind every tree, darting through the bushes, dancing on the picnic tables and a rowdy group in fancy dress making a right fool out of themselves in the children’s play area.
It takes a while to get there, though. Getting to try out the closed beta over the last few days, the game starts off with an hour-long tutorial/”onboarding” to play through where you meet a few characters who want to mentor your career in the fashion that characters in extreme sports and arcade racing games always seem to do. Still, it won’t take long before it throws you at the peaks to race down on bikes, skis, and snowboards (depending on the climate).
The BMX biking is new (for anyone that’s coming to this game after playing Steep), and it really plays into the game’s pick-up and play arcade style. You can throw yourself down the mountain trails, making use of a short sprint meter, power sliding through corners with ease and taking off from frankly obscene leaps. You can also pull tricks as you do so, with the default setting automating your landings for you. You’ll probably want to turn that off to feel a tad more engaged with trying to align your chosen mode of transport.
Skis and snowboards, by contrast, are more about the tricks rather than the speed, leaping from ramps on the wide-open pistes and with simple to grasp trick combos to perform grabs, spins and flips. Just watch out that you don’t get lost in the spinning midair, or you’ll have an awfully painful-looking landing…
Then there’s the last mode of transport we had in the beta: the rocket wingsuit. This is awesome, from the Iron Man-style vertical launches, through to the fraught air races through trees and wooden hoops. It’s a little bit too easy to wipe out on the greenery of a tree or to slap into one of the checkpoint rings and have to reset, but it’s another fun way to get around and race in the game.
And there’s a lot of different ways to race and play in Riders Republic. You have all of the career events that you can take on solo or with a group of up to six players together, and there’s also competitive multiplayer modes, such as the 6v6 PvP competitions to trick across the various ramps and pipes in an arena, each trick earning both points for your team and securing territory that can lead to major points bonuses.
However, the real showstoppers are the Mass Starts. These 64-player races are mad as a box of 64 frogs being thrown down a mountain. Everyone starts at the same time and, aside from a grace period before collisions set it, it’s a full-on race through checkpoint after checkpoint, the game even seamlessly switching you to different sports at various points, so you suddenly swap from bike to rocket wingsuit, to skis and back again.
The game mode takes place over three rounds, but it’s a brutal test even if you get to average your three results. At one point I managed to get myself just into the overall lead of a race and – in a phrase that will go down as one of the top ten things said before a disaster – I said “Don’t worry guys, I’m in the lead now, so I’ve got this.” I then slid off course, missed a checkpoint and probably finished somewhere in the low 30s…
The main disappointment with Mass Starts is that they will only be held once an hour when the full game releases in October. Also, they aren’t anywhere near the same scale on the last generation consoles, which are limited to “20+” players.
Between the races, the open world is one that’s just a pleasure to look around and explore, no matter the mode of transport you choose. Ubisoft Annecy has stiched together seven of the US’ national parks – Mammoth Mountain, Yosemite, Grand Teton, Sequoia Park, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Canyonland – and there’s great variety to be found as you shuttle around the map.
One of the greatest joys is really just pulling up the game’s map. By default it’s a 2D map, but a simple tap of the button shifts to a 3D view with all the elevation changes of the open world. It’s just as cool now as it was in Steep and the fast travel is about as fast as you could possibly want, which was already impressively quick in Steep, and can now benefit from the new generation’s SSDs as well.
The big new trick here is that you see all of the people playing the game moving around as well, streaming down the mountains in droves as they take on races together or simply follow some of the same routes and contours through the environment. Zoom in and you can even see the little 3D figures moving. It’s pretty neat.
Playing Riders Republic with others in the group, all experiencing it for the first time together was an absolute hoot. The banter was flowing back and forth, the commiserations and celebrations as we various face planted trying to do tricks, got good finishing positions in the Mass Starts, or put on ridiculous giraffe heads and howling with laughter as they flopped around while jetting around.
There are still a few caveats and more than a little polish needed before the release of the full game – missing a checkpoint is ludicrously punishing as you have to painstakingly rewind instead of teleporting back on track – but for those who enjoyed the scope and scale of Steep, Riders Republic looks like it’s taking that core concept and turning it up to 11.