Head back in time to 2001. It was an exciting time where extreme sports ruled your playtime on most gaming formats. The Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series was about to reach its pinnacle; SSX became the must-have game for the PS2 launch and as far as the eye could see there was some form of extreme sports games to enjoy. Since those glory days, it’s got a little quieter. Now it’s time for mountain biking to get some love.
The last mountain bike game I recall being any fun was No Fear Mountain Biking that came from the Codemasters crew back in the PS1 days. It had a great understanding of speed and track layout that made you feel as if it was you versus the mountain or trail you were riding on. That’s where Descenders gets it right, right out of the gates. It’s easy to pick up but tough to master. Before tackling any course you’ll be put through a tutorial, which is a good thing. You’re not simply going to press one of your face buttons to bunny hop. Pull back on the right analogue stick and flick it forward to perform that move. From there on you’re taught how to do backflips, front flips, 360’s and how you’ll use both the left analogue stick to steer at high speeds, but also the right analogue stick to tweak your bike. Once you’ve got the basics down and you’ve joined a team (with only one option in this preview) you get to head out to your first career session, Highlands.
Highlands is the perfect starting point as you’ll reach some impressive speeds and procedurally generated tracks are easy to deal with. Be aware that you don’t have to stick to the track to reach your goal, as long as you get to your goal you’re good to go, but there is a reason to not go off-road. Should you crash out you’ll lose a life (indicated as a health point). Run out of health points and it’s game over and you have to start all over again. Perform the bonus requirements before crossing the finish line and you’re rewarded an additional health point. It’s crucial to keep your health points building as the deeper you get into Descenders, the more complicated the tracks become, and losing a health point is something that can easily happen.
Descenders is a game about pushing your own limits. You don’t have to ride at the highest speeds to get to your goal. The concept is to keep it at your own tempo. Rather slow down, correct your approach to the next ramp and now speed up to pull off the move that could gain you an additional health point. Some bonus achievements might require you to push for higher speeds, but you deal with that when you have to. Each area (Highlands, Forest, Canyons and Peaks) comes with a node layout. It’s up to you to decide which path you take and each course poses a different challenge based on a set of stats – steepness, curves and stunts. Before taking on any course the bonus achievement helps you dictate what direction you might take. There’s no use taking on two frontflips if it’s a steep race with no stunt areas. As you make your way through the nodes you’ll discover a medic level that provides you with a health point just for completing the level (and if you complete the bonus you could walk away with more than one health point), a Danger Zone that has the stats turned up to max, Construction Zone or a level that forces you to race with a specific viewpoint. Ultimately you’re trying to get to the Boss Jump level. Complete this and you get to move onto the next stage.
There is, however, a little catch.
Should you run out of health points you’ll have to start from the very beginning of the game again. To get access to a new area from the start you have to complete a boss jump level three times, with each new attempt increasing the difficulty. Once you’ve completed a boss jump three times you’ll unlock the new area to start from permanently. It’s a clever progression system that makes the fourth world unlock very satisfying. You work hard to get there. To be honest, I got a little bored in the first of four areas. Highlands is perhaps a little too simple, but once you make it to the next area it all starts to click. Forest brings the first real challenge where, if you don’t get to the boss ramp quick enough, you have to deal with mist while dodging trees and really tough obstacles. In Canyon and Peaks thereafter it pushes the speeds and clean landings you have to deal with at great heights. Simply said – the further you get in Descenders, the more fun it becomes.
While doing all this you’re also building rep points. Rep points allow you to pick a new crew member to unlock a cool perk – more checkpoints, heavy bails don’t drain your health as much, tweak speeds increase, smoother curves and more. You also get to unlock more items in The Shed (Bikes, helmets, goggles, shirts, pants, handlebar, rear wheel and hats). Unfortunately, these items are nothing but cosmetic upgrades, but it’s still cool nonetheless. Your rep points also help you progress from novice to pro division. Once you do get to the pro division you’re provided with advanced tips to help you improve your skills even further.
Descenders is also an easy game on the eyes. Unfortunately, you’re not going to find something that is 4K and HDR, but what is there looks good and just helps make it a little more believable. In the preview code I played I did not stumble over one glitch, which tells me the code isn’t far from being ready.
Fans of the Mountain Bike genre should take note. So far it’s looking very good and has a wheelie good chance of stealing your heart and all your time.