Extreme sports games are something I love to get involved in, and so Descenders was always going to be one I was excited by. Now calling downhill mountain biking ‘extreme’ may seem a little like we’re pushing it, but with no properly exciting mountain bike game to speak of on console since Downhill Domination back in 2003, I’m willing to call Descenders whatever it wants – so long as I get a decent thrill without having to throw myself around some mud-soaked, hazard filled course in real life!
If you’ve paid attention to the Xbox Game Preview programme in recent months, then for some time now you’ll have noticed Descenders as one of the available titles to be enjoyed during its growing development and I’ve got to admit, with big changes proving few and far between early on, I did have a slight worry that what had started as a promising game, may not actually come to fruition. But now, with update 1.0 finally arriving, my apologies are necessary, as Descenders has turned into a rather enjoyable, highly capable and essential extreme sports title for any fan of mountain biking adventures.
The bulk of your time with Descenders will be spent taking to procedurally generated tracks and environments with the aim of jumping, flipping, tricking and whipping your bike over every jump, around every tight corner and across every finish line in sight. Doing this will earn points – Rep – but the real reason you’ll want to continue through the web of events is to make your way to the elusive yet incredibly challenging ‘Boss stage’. Oh, and there are fresh new maps that lay beyond that too.
At the start of the game though players will first find themselves welcomed in to Descenders with a basic tutorial that explains the controls and how to manoeuvre your bike, before being placed into the initial staging area. It’s a bit of an odd arena though, as it feels a lot like one of those holiday parks our parents have dragged us to at some point… just with a ton of ramps and jumps taking the place of what would usually be the collection of buildings, caravans or tents. It is here where you’ll discover that multiplayer is very much a part of Descenders and from this very first stage, several players are thrust into play with you. Although none really affect your game, everyone can either ride around together or alone in the immediate area, with it all behaving very much like the starting areas you see in games such as Destiny or The Division.
A little snooping in this area will quickly unveil the very basic local amenities. Available from the off is the ‘The Shed’, a shop like wooden cabin which players can enter to customise their bike or rider with new parts and gear, and a Daily Challenge leaderboard. Venture further and you’ll find a few cabins, some watchtowers and plenty of woodland, but there’s nothing else that really requires all too much attention unless you are willing to ride all the way to the edge of the staging areas map and attempt to ride off the edge – doing this will see the player character comically flung at incredible speeds back to the centre of the map.
To get things going though you will want to access options such as Ride, The Shed, Standings and Sponsor Office. Ride is the place to go to get into the many procedurally generated tracks of the game, and the options to do so include Career Session, Career-Plus Session, Freeride, Daily Challenge and Casual Lobby.
Nothing there is really in need of major explanation, but to clear up any possible confusion, Freeride and Casual Lobby are where you go for some no-strings-attached riding until you feel a lack of excitement by falling from your bike anymore. Career Session is the general core mode that will see you play through tracks to earn Rep, beat bosses and snag yourself a sponsor, and Career-Plus mode is similar, just with 4 extra fresh and exciting environments that are locked until the player reaches the dizzy heights of 100,000 Reputation. Daily Challenge, meanwhile? Well, that’s something that has been available in gaming for as long as I can remember.
Career Session is the place to get stuck into from the start and here players begin their riding in the Highlands, able to progress through random events which will lead onto the boss event – made obvious by a skull icon. From there you move onto The Forest, and so on. Mess it all up though and you’ll be stuck in Highlands longer than you wish to.
Whilst procedural generation isn’t exactly unheard of in racing/sports games with DiRT 4 utilising procedural tracks just a few years ago, having roguelike elements is certainly something we’ve yet to see. Descenders however ensures we get to see how it can work as with the start of each new run, players are afforded a number of life points. If you have five life points, you have five attempts to get to the boss event and beat it. Should you completely stack your bike whilst mid-trail, you’ll find yourself a life point down, and when you run out, you’ll need to start the entire area over again.
On each run, players will often find others accompanying them, much like in the opening area. Once more though, having other Descenders around you never affects your personal gameplay, and the only purpose they really serve is that of a bit of company; everyone goes about their own business with you able to see them as you go. It’s a mechanic I like a lot to be honest and whilst we again see this a lot in MMO titles, seeing it in a game like Descenders is a really clever move as it not only allows players to watch others and potentially get past an area that is proving troublesome, but it also does a fantastic job of bringing the game world and every environment within it alive. That’s something that cannot be applauded enough.
During each stage random objectives will be given to complete whilst running the course. Completing these isn’t necessary, as all you really need to do is make it to the end of the course, but if you want some bonus Rep that can be used to buy new gear in The Shed, then you’ll find completing them helps. Not to mention the bonus objectives often bring a bit more joy to each level than a simple A-to-B ride.
Each stage comes with three unique ratings; Steepness, Curves and Stunts. Of course the track itself will be procedurally generated so you’ll never see the same one twice, but having the option to choose from a branching selection of routes does allow the player to pick to their strengths. That said, a level that looks easy at first may often come with a bonus catch, such as more Rep but double health loss on bails, for instance.
To help you along the way, the option to hire crew members can arise and these can give access to perks such as reducing friction when travelling off the path, or less Tweak during a run. Should you fail for any reason – and you will numerous times thanks to the sheer difficulty of timing a perfect jump – you’ll end up having to go back to the start with nothing.
The other key goal besides unlocking new areas and beating bosses, is gaining a sponsor. There are 3 to note; Arboreal, Enemy and Kinetic. Each team emphasizes a different and unique playstyle with Arboreal focusing on off-road terrain, Enemy favouring stunts and Kinetic preferring speed. When you finally get the option to have a chosen sponsor, you’ll unlock clothing for your chosen team and can also earn additional clothing and bikes of all different rarities.
Descenders on Xbox One hasn’t been created with a huge budget, however it has to be said that visually it is very good. Of course, the gameplay is the most important thing, but having a believable and lifelike feel to a beloved sport is a necessity. With bikes looking phenomenal, tracks holding plenty of fine detail and environments flourishing with life, Descenders has certainly mastered the visual side of things. As for the music, I’ll be honest, I didn’t really enjoy it. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, but personally I want something a little edgier than the accompanying mellow soundtrack that’s currently included.
Overall and if you’re into mountain biking, enjoy games that are a bit different, or simply want a bit of a challenge then Descenders is a game you need to be paying attention to. With a price tag that is more than fair, and procedural generation keeping things fresh every time you pick up the controller, this is definitely one of those games that will stick with you – no matter whether you’re looking for a quick half hour session, or an adrenaline fuelled day filled with breakneck speeds and death defying stunts.