The pitch meeting for Slide Stars must have been an experience. “How about we take the tricks and obstacles of Trials HD, replace the bike with a rubber duck, the tracks with water flumes, and the riders with internet personalities from around the world? You know, celebs of the calibre of Holly H, Ben Azelart and Brent Rivera? Then – and here’s the killer – we launch it at full price as an Xbox Series X|S launch title”. We wouldn’t have stumped up the cash for that pitch.
It’s a game concept that shouldn’t work, and… well, it doesn’t. Slide Stars is just about the most empty-headed game we’ve played, and it would be considered among the worst launch titles of all time if it wasn’t for some stupendously under-the-radar marketing. Barely anyone could tell you it had come out.
Don’t get us wrong: Slide Stars works on a ‘press a button and something satisfying happens on screen’ level. You control your choice of floating vehicle, from a tyre, to a military dinghy, to a mech (yeah, we couldn’t figure it either), and navigate a twisting and looping course to its end. Like Trials HD, half of the task is keeping the thing upright, as you aim to anticipate landings so that you’re not meeting the ground headfirst. Being on water, you not only have to nail the landing, but also the wobbling momentum that follows.
This side of Slide Stars works okay, and in any other game it might have been satisfying. There are rare moments where you can nail landing after landing, and it feels good. A lot of this is down to the A button, which speeds you up in anticipation of a jump or loop, and can send you hurtling through the level like you’re a rubber-ringed Sonic the Hedgehog.
Failing doesn’t always feel bad either, as – also like Trials HD – there’s some ridiculous ragdoll physics that can send your superstar flying. In a so-bad-it’s-good way, it’s coupled with terrible collision detection, which means your cadaver can end up twitching in the middle of platforms or – our personal favourite – actually merging into your chosen vehicle, like something out of John Carpenter’s The Thing. We enjoyed becoming human-hotdog hybrids, or rubber ducks with human limbs. A rictus grin stays on the celeb’s face as they spasm inside, which took us to our happy place.
So what goes wrong? It’s all in the decisions that have been made, across the board. Everyone’s to blame, from the designers, to the artists, to the marketing and PR peeps.
There are the course designs, for a start. For reasons that we just can’t wrap our heads around, Slide Stars fails to discern a good course from a bad one. So, instead of courses that play like Green Hill Zone and send you speeding through loop-the-loops and sequences of ramps (we noted 2.2 Long Lagoon as the only level that got it completely right), we get weird quasi-platformer levels that play to all of Slide Stars’ weaknesses. You get countless elevators, which require you to stop and wait while they take you up. You get balance beams that you have to stay in the centre of, and seesaws that require you to apply your weight in the right place. There are platforming sections, with rows of rocks that you have to hop over. Every single one of them grinds you to a halt, crushing the flow, and then forces you to hop about tamely like you’re last in a sack race.
Worst of all, the game doesn’t know how to handle things when it gets slow. You can baby-hop next to a platform and you’ll suddenly fail, your corpse apologetically tumbling into the surf. Slide Stars seems to think you’re hurtling at 100mph even when you’re hopping at 1mph, and it’ll kick you off the lido for the smallest infraction.
Ah, Trials HD you made us feel like we were god’s gift to reflexes and anticipation. Slide Stars is just a bumbling game of trial and error. It occasionally and inexplicably zooms in so you can’t see an upcoming bomb chicken or alligator, and you’re dead. Ramps are positioned in such a way that if you anticipate them and nail a boost before you hit them, you will slam headfirst into a platform and die. Basically, you have to guess whether the game wants you to go fast or slow, and there are no rewards for taking an obstacle optimally, as – more often than not – Slide Stars will punish you for having the audacity of playing well.
A good example is a ramp on an American Swamp level that fires you off-screen and into the rotating blades of a windmill. You have a roughly 50:50 chance of hitting these windmill blades, as there’s nothing onscreen that tells you what position they are in. There are countless examples of these random pitfalls, like totems spewing fire and sewer ducts pumping out waste. If you’re chasing the ‘no fail’ objectives for a given course, prepare for some grumbling restarts.
There are countless design quibbles. The game’s eager for you to do tricks to earn ‘Airtime’ and more points, but all you can do is the odd 180 or 360s, as there’s nothing resembling a trick button. The majority of points you’ll get are from ‘Near Misses’, when you’ve escaped death by millimetres, and that’s not a fun goal to chase. Then there are the ‘Affinities’, which feel nicked from – of all things – Skylanders. Each celeb has three affinities, which might be comedy, fitness or fashion, perhaps. If you have the right affinity at the right gate in a level, you suddenly have access to ramps and hidden areas that other affinities won’t. Sounds fine in theory, but it means that you’re forced to choose certain characters or the level suddenly devolves into a bizarrely vanilla and obstacle-less ramble. We went into one level without the right affinities, and almost went in a straight line from A to B, like we were playing Pooh Stick Simulator.
Let’s stop jabbing at the design and move on to the music and visuals. We hesitate to call it a soundtrack, but Slide Stars has only a few songs and they all layer on the repetition, jingling away like they were from the recent Paw Patrol game. Visually, sure, everything has a bright, holiday-in-Ibiza sheen, but the characters are mannequins with the same ridiculous physiques and nary a similarity to their relevant celebrity (we spotted that the devs have mirrored the model for the Stokes Twins).
So, we come to the celebrities themselves. We’re probably not in the demographic who will fawn over a lot of them, but we know enough to spot some glaring fundamentals. The most recognisable faces are at the end of the unlocks, and require a fair few hours to gain, while the first few faces are (no offence intended to the personalities) almost complete unknowns who barely break 100k followers on their various channels. We had to go hunting for who Amusementforce were (they’re thrillseekers who do POV runs through the world’s most dangerous rides), and – even then – we weren’t able to find what they looked like, as you most commonly see their bums as they disappear down flumes.
There are personalities, too, who are extremely popular in a single country. Some fans are probably going wild at their inclusion, but we suspect a large majority are shrugging their shoulders. If they brought some of their personality, humour or uniqueness to Slide Stars, a lot would be forgiven. But no. Imagine, if you will, a version of Slide Stars that includes some of the Youtubers’ videos to watch. Imagine if the character were voiced by the relevant celeb, or performed one of their trademark moves, or even played one of their songs. Unforgivably, Slide Stars does none of these things. Faces are ported onto a gurning 3D model, someone ticks a sheet on a clipboard, and they move onto the next. Slide Stars is not even clearing the lowest of expectations.
We’re at risk of labouring the point, but there’s one bugbear that we have to prize off our chests. The one, single thing that each celebrity offers to this experience is a quote, meant to inspire their followers, and this plays out in-between levels on a loading screen. We kid ye not, but we counted four separate versions of ‘be yourself’, and there were some absolutely criminal tips that no impressionable follower should agree with. We don’t know Milan Knol, but no, “if you’re having fun, nothing else matters” is not a life-lesson that will get you particularly far. Alan Stokes tells you to “be yourself, but be unique”, as if this mind-bending paradox will help anyone. There are umpteen tips about loving your body no matter who you are, but Slide Stars then carves out impossible physiques and hourglass figures for its celebrities that bear no relationship to reality.
Slide Stars on Xbox misunderstands everything that makes Trials HD great, producing a play-doh homage without any of the speed, trickery or finesse. Then it ushers in some moderately popular internet personalities, but doesn’t do them – or their audience – the service of including any of that personality. As an Xbox Series X|S launch title, it does nothing to showcase the system. And as a full-price, £35.99 title, it does nothing to justify the price tag.