So frequently, I’ll see a new game announcement and wonder, who’s it for? Who on earth could possibly be the target audience for this weird mishmash of genres and concepts? Who’s going to buy this?
With Riders Republic, I have no such worries. The target audience is me, exactly. I grew up on extreme sports games—mainly Tony Hawk, but also Dave Mirra and snowboarding games like SSX and Amped. As an adult, I’ve made it my mission to visit every single U.S. National Park, and have already traveled to and hiked in roughly half of them. I also played the hell out of Ubisoft Annecy’s 2016 winter sports game Steep.
I—and perhaps I alone—am in the center of Riders Republic’s Venn diagram. This is, for the uninitiated, an extreme sports game set in an open world that mashes up landmarks from different national parks, with gameplay in the basic mold of Steep (albeit with a few major alterations). I’m currently weighing whether or not to sue, since someone at Ubisoft obviously stole and read my diary. But that’s a discussion for me and my lawyer.
After an lengthy hands-on with the game’s closed beta, I can safely say that everything I played leads me to believe I will dump 100+ hours into this game at launch, competing in challenges, landing big tricks, and just exploring beautiful swaths of nature I’ve seen in real life or one day hope to visit. Is it a perfect game? No, but an awful lot of it feels perfect for me.
While my five-hour play session didn’t let me peek into every corner of the map, I did get at least a glimpse of every region, and got to compete in events across every major mode and three of the included sports. In terms of the main disciplines, I got to try out a little bit of everything: bike races, bike tricks, snow races, snow tricks, and both aerial disciplines, the wingsuit and the rocketwing. While I only unlocked two of the exploration vehicles—the snowmobile and the paramotor (a powered paraglider)—I did get to try out the other two listed in the menu, the rocket bike and the rocket skis, as part of the Mass Races. (More on that in a bit.)
While each of these disciplines works pretty well in its own right, the real joy of Riders Republic is that you can instantly swap between them (like you could in Ubisoft’s other recent racer The Crew 2) by opening up a radial menu. There’s something liberating about being able to swap from a rocketwing to skis without losing your momentum, even if you’ll probably wipe out crashing into the slopes at 160 miles an hour. Hilariously, you can even swap in midair to the snowmobile and send it plummeting to the earth below like a ton of bricks. There’s certainly a lot of room for goofy fun and ridiculous stunts.
If you played Steep, the basic feel of all the snow- and air-based gear will be quite familiar—and there’s even an optional control scheme that closely replicates that earlier game. By default, however, things work a bit differently. Perhaps in the interest of making bikes, the big new addition, control more conventionally, the standard layout places acceleration on the right trigger, braking on the left (complete with the ability to drift), and jumping onto the face buttons.
Yes, that’s “buttons.” Plural. In a change that does take some getting used to, the face buttons now handle all rotations and flips. Holding and releasing any of the face buttons—X, O, square, or triangle on PlayStation 5, which I played on—will allow you to jump. The other face buttons then become modifiers for spin and flip tricks, correlated to their relative direction. If you hold and release X to jump and then triangle in the air, for instance, you’ll do a front flip, whereas square to O will put you into a left spin. Mixing and matching the vertical and horizontal face buttons is how you initiate corkscrew-style tricks. From there, everything can be modified further with grabs, by holding down the left or right trigger (or both) and pressing the left stick in a given direction. If it sounds a bit complicated, it can be, though I think by the end of my session I had a handle on the basics.
Still, the skill ceiling seems quite high and the learning curve a little steep when it comes to the trick-based game modes. This isn’t your pick up and play extreme sports game in the vein of Tony Hawk. A lot of the challenge, at least from what I’ve played, comes from properly timing your landings. There’s actually a setting, on by default, that will automatically land for you (within reason), and another that brings behavior in line with how it worked in Steep: you’ll line up a landing as long as you release the trick button with enough time to do so. But in the latter case, you’re getting a miniscule landing bonus; in the former, no landing bonus at all.
If you want to actually rack up the biggest scores, you’ll need to switch to manual landings, which force you to time the release of your tricks at just the right time to make sure you’re both level with the ground and aligned with your forward momentum. In theory, you can make quick corrections once you release a trick by using the face button, but in practice there’s usually not a ton of time for fine tuning, so it’s really, again, all about nailing your release. If you can manage multiple perfect landings in a row, you’ll actually build a modifier that makes each successive perfect landing worth more. It’s quite the challenge, but it feels like the truest way to play.
One last aspect worth mentioning is the game’s multiplayer, which does its best to make you feel like you’re in a living, breathing world full of crazy daredevils. You can, of course, encounter real human players in the same online instance as you, but the world is also densely populated with ghosts performing the same lines other players have run previously. In a particularly neat touch, you can even see them on the map and zoom in to watch them tiny on the landscape like a tilt-shift photograph.
If you want to just goof off with your friends, you can party up in a group of up to four and compete in events together (for some friendly competition), explore the world, or even hop into solo events without breaking up the group. There’s a handy social wheel on the D-pad that lets you teleport to another group member’s location or invite them to yours, and in my limited experience these work great and should take some of the stress out of coordinating.
As for the dedicated PVP modes, I had a chance to play one round of both Free for All and Tricks Battle, the two main competitive modes. They’re both fine, but didn’t make a huge first impression. Free for All lets you pull off tricks for the highest cumulative score before time runs out, with up to 12 players in a session. Tricks Battle is a bit more structured, with two teams trying to land tricks in snow-based arenas. It’s a bit like the Graffiti mode from Tony Hawk, with players able to tag specific rails and pipes by landing big tricks on them, but you’re not just trying to switch the highest number of modules for your team’s color. Instead, the maps are divided up into districts, and if you capture every trickable item within a district, you get a 5x score multiplier for any tricks you land within it. Ultimately, it’s just the score you earn from your tricks that count, but tagging items can help boost that further. In my opinion, it’s a bit too much to keep track of to really work as a game mode, but my experience so far is admittedly as limited as it gets.
Finally, I spent a good deal of time messing around in Mass Races, the big events that Ubisoft has touted since the game’s initial announcement. The premise is simple: You compete in a series of three races, each of which switches between different disciplines multiple times, alongside a whole lot of other people. Whoever manages to average the best placement across the three races wins. While promotional materials have promised up to (or even over) 50 players in a single race, the count appeared to be capped at 32 for the closed beta.
Even that was a lot, though. From what I’ve played, they feel a bit like the racing version of a battle royale shooter. With so many competitors, you’re probably not going to come in first place, and that’s okay. Nor will you have much of a chance to flex your technical skills if you don’t break away from the pack. No, you’re going to be focused on pure survival. Don’t fall down. Don’t miss a gate. And try not to let other players slam into you, because they’re definitely going to make you fall or miss a gate.
It’s entertaining, but those aforementioned collisions can make Mass Races frustrating if you’re actually trying to win. With so much mayhem in the pack, anyone who manages to get out ahead early and not make a critical error will probably end up finishing in first. Coming from behind didn’t seem too common, or too possible, in the five or so attempts I made. But maybe I just don’t have what it takes.
Beyond that, there’s a lot of Riders Republic I didn’t get time to dive into, like the character-customization items you can pick up in the shop with in-game or real-money-equivalent currency and the gear you can unlock by playing: better bikes, skis, and snowboards with higher stats. Thankfully, those stat-boosting items can only be obtained through gameplay, and some events like Mass Races appear to level everyone out with the same items. But if you need your RPG-loot itch scratched, the game certainly seems to be trying something on that front. I just can’t speak to whether it’ll be an engaging addition or a distraction in the long run.
There also appears to be a somewhat structured story about winning some kind of invitational, though I’ve already forgotten the name of every single character, and I just finished playing an hour and a half ago as I’m writing this. What I do remember, is that everyone I’ve met in the game talks like a total d-bag, using so much ridiculous slang and jargon the dialogue sounds like it was written by a machine learning algorithm trained on ’90s movies and post-post-ironic TikToks. One guy calls snow “pow pow.” Someone else called eyes “lunettes.” Imagine having a real conversation with anyone like that.
But hey, I don’t have to love the too-extreme vibe Riders Republic is shooting for to love the game itself. And from what I’ve played, I’m already falling hard—in more ways than one.