A title like Mad Riders conjures up all sorts of wild possibilities. Alas, you might be disappointed to discover that this game does not, in fact, involve racing rollerskate-wearing elephants down rainbow highways, nor does it include oversized hammers to swipe at foes. It's actually a rocket-powered ATV racer, the promised insanity delivered through gigantic leaps, the age-honed medium of stunts and wall-shifting shortcuts. You can drive as a gorilla, though.
There are eight tournaments to speed through, each consisting of five races of numerous types – a standard race for position, point races won with the greatest number of stunts, a race against the clock where checkpoints must be reached before time runs out, et cetera. Further tournaments are unlocked with stars earned by placing in the top three. Calling them tournaments is a bit loose – they're not so much tournaments as groups of levels, and you don't have to play them one after the other in a block either. Quick races are also available.
Experience is awarded based on your final position and the number of stunts performed, and levelling up your profile with this XP unlocks plenty of new things: race types, paint jobs and drivers for example. With little regard for your driver's safety, the most effective route to points, victory and unlocks is to hurtle around the tracks at top speed, launching off ramps and performing dizzying stunts.
It takes a little to get used to – no thanks to the tutorial, which pops up with message after message mid-race and actually decelerates your vehicle in the process, killing momentum – but after practice it becomes unthinkable to take your thumb off the boost button except to perform a stunt. The boost gauge is filled with the power of your stunts or red tokens that litter the tracks, so there's always incentive to do a little mid-air manoeuvre.
At full pelt the pace is gratifying and blistering, but thankfully the controls are just about responsive enough to deal with it. Crashes are an inevitable regularity, though, in part due to the sprawling courses that aren't easily memorised. Most have multiple routes, with paths that fork two or three times per lap, and then shortcuts get added later on; collect blue tokens and, when notified, you can hit Triangle to lift a stone wall and proceed down a hidden road. Unfortunately there's a tendency for the courses to repeat, setting different objectives or an altered main path in the same area, which can get tiresome. At least they're pretty to look at, set in fancy locations like jungles.
Mad Riders isn't done any favours by the initial limits imposed either. It's only natural that the race types are introduced gradually so as not to overwhelm. What doesn't make sense is the way that stunts are restricted and locked away until you've gained the experience necessary to level up. Until you've got through a couple of the tournaments, the only mid-air stunt you have is a backflip; whips to the side and front flips, for example, aren't added until much later, by which point it's pretty much second nature to backflip while soaring through the air. Every stunt is narrated by an enthusiastic voice actor with either the stunt's name or an awe-stricken moan. This becomes slightly irritating considering the fact that one of the 'stunts' is drifting around corners; prepare to have the word “sidewinder” burnt into your mind.
When there's a crash, the screen cuts off and respawns the driver on the course in an appropriate position, usually after the area that caused the accident so that there's no second chance to get points from that part of the lap. The problem is that it often feels like this happens too fast, before the full effect has even been seen, the crash sound effects not even given chance to end – or even begin in some instances. For example, you tumble to your doom after misjudging a ramp, but you only see yourself fall a couple of feet before the screen goes white and you're chucked back into the action. You might topple off a ledge and be cut off before a crash has been seen, so you have to take it for granted that a crash was about to happen even when it looks like you might survive. In other sections you can drive slightly off the road and into the wilderness, hoping to find a cheeky way to cut a corner, only to be respawned. It makes for fast gameplay but snips at the imagination somewhat, not allowing you to consider that there might be yet more hidden routes to discover.
Every race type can be tackled in multiplayer. Get into a quick game lobby and races are randomly selected, points awarded for positions to create a mini-league table. The connection is smooth and relatively timely, and there's little noticeable lag. There aren't too many players about at the moment, so we could never get a full lobby, but if it's fun enough with half a lobby competing we're sure it's a riot with all slots filled. A nice touch is the multiplayer notifier that pops up during single player. It's unobtrusively placed to the right and appears when somebody has opened a joinable multiplayer lobby; all you need to do is hit left on the D-pad and it'll whirl you into it without delay, though you lose the progress of your current single player race in the process if it does connect. If the connection fails, however, you're sent straight back into the single player race you paused, so you can continue from the exact wheel spin you left it at.
There may be some more serious faults, though. During our week of playing, Mad Riders completely froze and locked up the system on three separate occasions, only fixed with a hard reset each time. Infuriatingly there doesn't seem to be any pattern to it; there's no common race, track, length of play session or action that we can identify, it just happened from time to time without warning. We've not had problems with other games or media in the same time period, which seems to indicate that the PS3 isn't the issue.
Once it gets going and the tricks begin to unlock, Mad Riders is extremely fast and quite fun. There are several niggles that drag this racer down, though, such as the slow introduction of stunts and the harsh quickness of some respawns which directly opposes the multi-pathed style of the courses, and it never really does enough out of the ordinary to live up to its title.