Ripping around a tight corner covered with loose glacial scree, I dig in, nail the nitrous boost and preload my bike's suspension at the top of a 45-degree jump. With a lurch, my ATV leaves the ground and launches into the air, floating hundreds of feet above the mountains of New Zealand before beginning its sickeningly fast decent. Being the cool-headed racer I am, I decide this is the perfect time to pull off a series of aerial tricks, including the Saddle Flip, in which I stand on my quad bike's seat and do a backflip in midair. I land it like a pro, bank some boost juice as a reward and speed off toward the next jump.
It's a typical moment in Pure, the new off-road ATV racing title from Black Rock Studio and Disney Interactive, but the game is anything but. The developers at Black Rock, formerly Climax before the studio was purchased by Disney, are no strangers to the racing game scene, having worked on the ATV Offroad series and other racing titles for years. But rather than go the simulation route for their newest project, Black Rock decided to take things in an entirely different direction by focusing on wild, over-the-top action. The result is an incredibly satisfying thrill ride that succeeds in delivering edge-of-your seat action in a striking, inviting package.
Pure is a racer with the soul of an extreme sports game. There are times when you'll be gunning for the finish line above all else, focused only on hitting your racing line and digging in to take corners perfectly. But most of your time will be spent doing things that shouldn't be physically possible, and this is when Pure is at its best.
The now-standard basic racing control scheme is here -- right trigger accelerates, left trigger brakes and the left analog stick steers your ride. Like many other off-road racing games, you can also "pre-load" your rig's suspension before taking off from a jump by flicking quickly down and then up on the left stick to get even bigger air. Vehicle feel is extremely important in racing games, and Pure gets it right. Bikes have enough weight without feeling clunky when you get them airborne, and tires dig appropriately into terrain when you're taking corners. Although there's no damage modeling, opponents can bump you off the track or land on your head to unpleasant effect during a race, so it pays to stay out of the AI drivers' way.
But the intuitive trick system is what sets Pure apart. When your quad is in the air, you can pull off tricks by hitting one of three face buttons and a direction on the left stick. You'll start each race with only Level 1 tricks available. Land enough of these and the Level 2 tricks will open up, followed by Level 3. Each of these is mapped to the A, B and Y buttons on the Xbox 360 controller.
As you ramp up your trick availability during a race, you'll also bank nitrous boost, shown as a fluid blue wedge beneath your trick meter and controlled by the X button. Depending on what type of race you're participating in you'll constantly balance doing tricks, which fills your boost meter, and using that boost, which takes away your ability to pull off higher-level tricks.
To discourage you from getting in a rut, each trick is graded on the fly as being "Fresh," "Tame" or "Stale," depending on how many times you've recently landed it. The fresher the trick, the more boost and points you get. You can also tweak each move on the fly by holding down the left or right bumper at the end of the trick, giving you even more flexibility. The controls are intuitive, the tricks are wild and fun, and the grading system pushes you to try new things. In short, Pure's controls make it easy to pick up but hard to put down, the Holy Grail of videogame controls.
The main focus of Pure is on World Tour, a single-player career mode in which you choose a racer, build your bike and set out to complete 10 stages of increasing difficulty. World Tour eases you in with a tutorial, throws a few simpler challenges your way and slowly ramps up in difficulty and length. There are three single-player event types: Sprint, Race and Freestyle. Sprint is all about speed and handling, and the tracks are shorter and meaner, with very few jumps with which to pull tricks and gain boost. Race mode strikes a balance between technical driving and crazy air, and the tracks are set up to give ample opportunity for boosting over jumps to pull tricks, solely for the purpose of banking boost juice to speed your way to the finish.
Whereas Sprint and Race are all about crossing the finish first, the third mode, Freestyle, is where Pure shines brightest. In Freestyle, there's no finish line -- you're battling against time to rack up the biggest and best trick score, and the tracks are copiously sprinkled with jumps to help you along the way. The most arcade-like of all Pure's single-player modes, Freestyle features power-ups that racers battle to grab during the event. Stars give you an instant Special Trick (good for mad points if you can pull it off), a 2X doubles your score for a limited time, and a nitrous icon fills your boost. Build your trick meter, pull sick tricks, chain them together before the combo meter runs out, and you'll stay alive. Once you know your tricks and become an expert at nailing them, Pure's Freestyle mode is extremely satisfying.
Aside from the World Tour mode, there aren't any other fully-formed single-player modes in Pure. There's a Trial mode that lets you attempt records on tracks you've unlocked without the intrusion of other racers, and Single Event is just that -- the events you've already played in World Tour presented a la carte. There's no tournament mode, head-to head or other sideline events that could have made Pure into a deeper experience. As a result, it's a relatively short game, depending on your skill level. Hardcore racing game fans will likely finish the game in just a few hours, while more casual gamers unfamiliar with the genre might have more of a challenge. The good news is that Pure's online multiplayer mode is quite robust and includes all three single-player events plus an excellent additional online-only race type called Freeride.
In Freeride, competitors race against the clock to score points in different areas. If you're more interested in going fast than taking jumps, you can focus on getting the fastest lap times. If you love racking up insane trick combos, you can follow that path to glory. If crazy air is your thing, you can go for the highest jump. Black Rock could have simply moved a couple of Pure's single-player modes online and called it a day. Instead, they carried them all over and added extras, which goes a long way toward extending the life of the game. Up to 16 players can join in online (with AI filling in if necessary), and hosts have a number of options in how they choose to set up their races. From the test sessions I played, everything ran without a hitch online, and the epic landscapes on each track looked just as fetching as they did in the single-player mode.
In a game where you spend large amounts of time high above the Earth, it pays to have stunning environments to gaze upon, and Pure doesn't disappoint in that department. There are 12 areas in Pure, from the airplane graveyard of Ocotillo Wells, Calif., to the tropical island of Kosa Phi in Thailand. Each are lovingly rendered with terrain, foliage, buildings, and impressive details like hovering helicopters and ramshackle outbuildings. Part of the fun of any racing game is getting to know the tracks in detail to get an edge on the competition, and Pure's awesome environments make that task a joy.
But after 50 races in World Tour, those 12 areas (pretty as they are) can get a bit stale after a while, especially because they're nearly always set up the same way. A few of the Sprint races have a reverse setup, and I found myself wishing for a bit more variety among environments as I progressed through the game. Despite the repetition, each track does have multiple branching paths and shortcuts that can boost you onto remote cliffsides or drop you into muddy gulches. That helps keep each track somewhat fresh and gives you incentive to try new things.
When you complete events, you're rewarded with new outfits for the characters and new parts for your ATVs (you can maintain multiple slots for multiple rigs). The quads aren't licensed, but there are licensed parts in the game, and you'll be spending a considerable amount of time building bikes for different applications (race, sprint, freestyle). And although it's fun to build your first couple bikes, adding new parts as you upgrade them can be a bit cumbersome, as you have to go back into the garage, find the part you unlocked and fit it to each bike. There's a quick-build function that lets you construct different types of bikes automatically, but there's no auto-upgrade feature, which I was wishing for by the 40th race.
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