"I love how we're wearing giraffe costumes," someone in my group said, chuckling as we lined up to race down switchbacks. I agreed, these goofy outfits were brilliant. But as distracted as we should have been by our character's hilariously long necks, everyone in the group was dialed into the countdown, waiting to get the fastest jumpstart on our mountain bikes. When the timer struck zero, fingers pressed triggers and we began a dead sprint down a muddy mountain pathway, skirmishing to get the first place spot.
This white-knuckle moment, and many others during my four-hour hands-on preview of the Riders Republic beta, brought me back to the glory days of extreme sports video games. I'm talking about when Tony Hawk Pro Skater launched a year after 1080 Snowboarding and two years prior to SSX Tricky.
Will Riders Republic be the next action sports hit? I haven't spent enough time with the game to form a definitive answer. What I can say is that Riders Republic contains the DNA of what made those games great, and its ambitions within this realm are unrivaled. There is a lot to unpack after my four-hour session, so let's get shredding.
Take to the slopes, valleys and sky
The spiritual successor to Steep, Riders Republic is a massive multiplayer open-world sandbox containing five main activities: mountain biking, skiing, snowboarding, wingsuit flying, and rocket wingsuiting (think Iron Man). Players roam a gigantic map comprised of US National Parks, from Zion to Yosemite to the Grand Teton. These are stitched together to create a world filled with diverse terrain. Within a few hours, I had snowboarded on mountaintops, biked around hoodoos, and glided over tall canyon walls. The landscapes are gorgeous in 4K at 60 frames per second, and Ubisoft earns praise for including facts about why these majestic vistas are so important to preserve.
Events and challenges are scattered throughout the map and vary from simple downhill races to scored trick events. I didn't do much wandering — my beta preview was guided by a friendly Ubisoft host — but I saw enough to appreciate the massive scale of the map. It's so large that you'll frequently need to use the fast travel points or one of the quicker vehicles you unlock, like a snowmobile.
Career mode consists of beating races or freestyle events either solo or with a group of up to five players. Unfortunately, local co-op, a staple of the classics in this genre, is not supported. Ubisoft told me there are 33 events in the snow tricks career alone with three more career modes to unlock afterward, so there should be plenty to do.
That said, PVP mode is where Riders Republic could really shine. It includes Trick Battles and Free for All as well as Shack Daddy events and Mass Races (the latter two I'll describe later). First, let's talk about Trick Battles. Perhaps the most creative mode in the game, Trick Battles felt like a mix of Tony Hawk's Graffiti and Battlefield's Conquest. Two teams of six are fighting to take zones on a map by nailing tricks on objects, which then turn the color of the respective team (red or blue).
Sounds a lot like Graffiti, right? Well, in Riders Republic teams win by gaining the most points, not by controlling the most ramps or rails. Adding a twist to the formula is a multiplier boost that engages when teammates are close to each other (a laser beam will link them when they're in close proximity). And when a team controls an entire zone, they can score huge points by landing more tricks in the "District on Fire." My team got crushed, but I was yearning to give it another shot after I'd learned how the mechanics worked.
Huge ambitions, simple gameplay
With a large map, more than 50+ players (on Xbox Series X and PS5) and five types of activities, Riders Republic is undoubtedly ambitious. But when it comes to gameplay, Ubisoft Annecy kept things simple — perhaps too simple. Each sport has its own set of controls, each with varying complexity, though none took more than a few runs to master. Mountain biking consists of sprinting, drifting and doing basic flips; wingsuiting and rocket wingsuiting use inverted controls, with the latter adding a boost function; skiing and snowboarding have the highest learning curve, requiring button combos to execute mid-air spins, flips and grabs.
The simplicity of the controls allows newcomers the chance to finish on the podium, but there are too few actions to perform. Don't get me wrong, I had fun in fast-paced races, skidding around corners or boosting through checkpoints on a glider. I just worry whether these straightforward activities will feel fresh in the long run without new abilities or moves adding layers of strategy. The races were also quite linear, so knowing the route wasn't an advantage. By the end of the beta session, I was yearning for power-ups and shortcuts to add a new dynamic to the races.
What didn't get old were the Mass Race events, where more than 50 players on PC and current-gen consoles unite in a crowded, crash-heavy competition. Mayhem ensued as dozens of bikes, snowboards or gliders piled up as they rounded a corner, sending people flying in every direction. I was among the dogpile early on but learned to stay composed, keep my distance, and choose the right times to engage sprint. Dodging piles of bodies on my way to the front of the pack was one of the most rewarding moments during my play session.
However, these frequent crashes highlight an area I hope to see improved before launch. When players collide, they ragdoll to the ground, arms and legs flailing in random directions. While this can lead to some memorable moments, a certain weightlessness makes collisions and landings seem insubstantial. I wanted to feel a strong rumble when I landed face-first in a pile of snow or to see a reaction when my character collided at full speed into a tree.
License to be wacky
A recent trip to the arcade reminded me of how games can serve the singular purpose of bringing fun, so it was refreshing to see how Riders Republic doesn't take itself seriously. You can equip your character with bizarre costumes; the few cutscenes I saw involved someone saying the words "Holy shizwissle"; and there is an event called Shackdaddy where you use "twisted gear" called funkies. In my preview, it involved racing on wooden mini skis.
And yet, there is an authenticity that pro athletes and extreme sports enthusiasts will appreciate. Much of it comes down to licensing. When you win an event, you'll unlock new gear from name-brand manufacturers, like a pair of Faction skis or a Marin bike. Events are sponsored by Red Bull and I spotted a few Clif Bar banners — details that, in a sports game, make you feel as if you're living the life of an athlete. It's also worth noting that every purchasable item in the Shop (located in the social hub called Rider's Ridge) is cosmetic-only so there's no paying out of pocket to earn advantages.
I had fun playing the Riders Republic beta and I'm eager to see how the game evolves between now and launch. What's clear is that this extreme sports game, like those before it, is best played with friends.
The top moments during my beta were when my team of six faced off against each other, joined forces in Trick Battles, or were thrown into a mass event with 50 competitors. It's a shame a game relying so heavily on social interaction doesn't support local multiplayer.
Regardless, gamers yearning for the next extreme sports classic will enjoy the fast-paced actions and gorgeous landscapes in Riders Republic. It's a return to lighthearted enjoyment, a game in which reflexes and precision are more important than decision making or finesse. I worry about the overly simplistic controls and linear race routes, but customizing your character and upgrading their gear along with the variety of game modes should keep players from burning out.
Riders Republic launches on October 28 on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S and Google Stadia. The game will support crossplay and cross-generation so you can team up or face-off with friends whose console allegiance differs from your own.