We're screaming along at a speed that should not be possible in a racing game. Everything streaks into a blur and the camera vibrates as if attached to the front fender of our bike. The illusion of real speed is glorious. We should be hurtling uncontrollably out of bounds and smashing into trees, but we are not. We are weaving a flawless, improbable swooping thread through tiny arches of ancient stone aqueducts and flying hundreds of feet down through intricate rock formations, directing our flight in mid-air to avoid an end to our perfect run. These feats don't happen because of some extreme skill on our part; they happen because developer Techland implemented a clever combination of controls, track design and visual cues to empower the player to become a superhuman racer.
Above: The game also features an abundance of dirigibles, because - think about it - they make perfect mid-air obstacles
The lack of proper tricks also distinguishes Nail’d from its fellow off-road racing games, and we don’t miss them in the slightest. Sure, tricks can be fun for a while, but eventually they just feel like work when all we want to do is race. Once you’ve seen them all multiple times, the animations and process of inputting become perfunctory. Nail’d isn’t interested in tricks because it has other things for you to focus on. It does have moments of huge – utterly gigantic – air, but instead of occupying your floaty time with rote button presses, it provides obstacles. It’s not realistic, but it’s fun: you can direct your flight path significantly, and even more so if you customize your ride to emphasize air control. Not only do tracks throw obstacles to weave around and under in the air, but they also provide flaming hoops to pass through, earning boost.
Boost is the currency of Nail’d, as it were. It functions as one expects, providing a burst of speed. However, earning it is the delicious, addictive side of the racing. Once again, since tricks are essentially absent, it’s all about skillful driving to earn boost. Boost feats come in a tempting variety and the more difficult the feat, the more the reward. The closest to a trick comes in the form of a wheelie – but pulling one off is remarkable difficult, requiring a steady hand and proper timing. The main boost feet to master is nailing the landing: after catching air, angle your bike or quad so that all tires hit the ground at the same time. It’s not easy to pull off consistently, and different players will find the two vehicle types varying in the ease of getting that perfect landing.
Another major source of boost comes from the aforementioned flaming gates – some of which are hoops, while others are vertical pairs of poles. Seeking these out becomes a minigame, and many gates are placed creatively so that they reward not only out-of-the-box thinking, but also deft twitch control. With multiple routes to take on nearly every point of every track, keeping an eye out for the burning gates becomes a key component of racing, since often only one route will have a gate.
Other boost feats are rarer to come by and so all the more tantalizing. One rewards riding up the side of a wall for a few seconds. One rewards using boost for eight seconds straight (that’s right – you earn more boost by using a ton of it – brilliant). And many reward you for smashing the crap out of other racers. This is not a combat racing game, as there are no weapons or attacks, but bumping a rival into an obstacle earns boost, as does landing right on top of a chump.
Above: One chump, about to be smashed
We’re talking about boost a lot because it’s the fuel inside the speeding furnace that is Nail’d. The game is fast when you’re not boosting, but boy does it go past ludicrous when you boost. As familiarity with the tracks increases, and as a feel for how to pull off boost feats grows, the faster the game gets. At first, boost will feel elusive – something you crave but can’t seem to earn enough of. Later on, you’ll discover you can earn enough boost to be boosting for the majority of a race. Mastering the ability to not turn yourself into a ball of fire while boosting becomes the final phase of becoming an expert. Luckily, the game helps you along the way generously.
As we mentioned before, visuals, controls, and track design combine to make you superhuman. First, the track designs rarely have hair-pin turns and often work in long stretches where you can see turns coming up. Then the signage helps: huge red arrows are plastered everywhere, letting you know exactly where you need to go. Other racing games could take note on Nail’d’s clarity of intent, as it supports utterly reckless speeds. Finally, the controls are totally unrealistic, with bikes and ATVs giving you insane agility and responsiveness. The result: you can rocket through tracks at top speed even if you’ve never raced on the tracks before. It’s a beautiful thing when you can blaze along without having to memorize every turn. But don’t take that as an indication of dumbed-down play, because learning the tracks is a part of advanced racing.
Above: You'll have to actively steer to avoid the rotating blades of these windmills. It's never not exciting
Once we did learn the tracks, races became an unlikely Zen experience, with us boosting at full clip and soaring through tiny gaps while in a kind of trance, feeling the flow of the track design as an almost sentient presence guiding and challenging us at the same time. Racing in Nail’d is almost like having a witty conversation with the developers, where they invite you to go one way and you say “Don’t mind if I do” while looking like a total daredevil badass.