We're screaming along at a speed that should not be possible in a racing game. Everything streaks into a blur and the camera vibrates as if attached to the front fender of our bike. The illusion of real speed is glorious. We should be hurtling uncontrollably out of bounds and smashing into trees, but we are not. We are weaving a flawless, improbable swooping thread through tiny arches of ancient stone aqueducts and flying hundreds of feet down through intricate rock formations, directing our flight in mid-air to avoid an end to our perfect run. These feats don't happen because of some extreme skill on our part; they happen because developer Techland implemented a clever combination of controls, track design and visual cues to empower the player to become a superhuman racer.
Above: The game also features an abundance of dirigibles, because - think about it - they make perfect mid-air obstacles
The lack of proper tricks also distinguishes Nail’d from its fellow off-road racing games, and we don’t miss them in the slightest. Sure, tricks can be fun for a while, but eventually they just feel like work when all we want to do is race. Once you’ve seen them all multiple times, the animations and process of inputting become perfunctory. Nail’d isn’t interested in tricks because it has other things for you to focus on. It does have moments of huge – utterly gigantic – air, but instead of occupying your floaty time with rote button presses, it provides obstacles. It’s not realistic, but it’s fun: you can direct your flight path significantly, and even more so if you customize your ride to emphasize air control. Not only do tracks throw obstacles to weave around and under in the air, but they also provide flaming hoops to pass through, earning boost.
Boost is the currency of Nail’d, as it were. It functions as one expects, providing a burst of speed. However, earning it is the delicious, addictive side of the racing. Once again, since tricks are essentially absent, it’s all about skillful driving to earn boost. Boost feats come in a tempting variety and the more difficult the feat, the more the reward. The closest to a trick comes in the form of a wheelie – but pulling one off is remarkable difficult, requiring a steady hand and proper timing. The main boost feet to master is nailing the landing: after catching air, angle your bike or quad so that all tires hit the ground at the same time. It’s not easy to pull off consistently, and different players will find the two vehicle types varying in the ease of getting that perfect landing.
Another major source of boost comes from the aforementioned flaming gates – some of which are hoops, while others are vertical pairs of poles. Seeking these out becomes a minigame, and many gates are placed creatively so that they reward not only out-of-the-box thinking, but also deft twitch control. With multiple routes to take on nearly every point of every track, keeping an eye out for the burning gates becomes a key component of racing, since often only one route will have a gate.
Other boost feats are rarer to come by and so all the more tantalizing. One rewards riding up the side of a wall for a few seconds. One rewards using boost for eight seconds straight (that’s right – you earn more boost by using a ton of it – brilliant). And many reward you for smashing the crap out of other racers. This is not a combat racing game, as there are no weapons or attacks, but bumping a rival into an obstacle earns boost, as does landing right on top of a chump.
Above: One chump, about to be smashed
We’re talking about boost a lot because it’s the fuel inside the speeding furnace that is Nail’d. The game is fast when you’re not boosting, but boy does it go past ludicrous when you boost. As familiarity with the tracks increases, and as a feel for how to pull off boost feats grows, the faster the game gets. At first, boost will feel elusive – something you crave but can’t seem to earn enough of. Later on, you’ll discover you can earn enough boost to be boosting for the majority of a race. Mastering the ability to not turn yourself into a ball of fire while boosting becomes the final phase of becoming an expert. Luckily, the game helps you along the way generously.
As we mentioned before, visuals, controls, and track design combine to make you superhuman. First, the track designs rarely have hair-pin turns and often work in long stretches where you can see turns coming up. Then the signage helps: huge red arrows are plastered everywhere, letting you know exactly where you need to go. Other racing games could take note on Nail’d’s clarity of intent, as it supports utterly reckless speeds. Finally, the controls are totally unrealistic, with bikes and ATVs giving you insane agility and responsiveness. The result: you can rocket through tracks at top speed even if you’ve never raced on the tracks before. It’s a beautiful thing when you can blaze along without having to memorize every turn. But don’t take that as an indication of dumbed-down play, because learning the tracks is a part of advanced racing.
Above: You'll have to actively steer to avoid the rotating blades of these windmills. It's never not exciting
Once we did learn the tracks, races became an unlikely Zen experience, with us boosting at full clip and soaring through tiny gaps while in a kind of trance, feeling the flow of the track design as an almost sentient presence guiding and challenging us at the same time. Racing in Nail’d is almost like having a witty conversation with the developers, where they invite you to go one way and you say “Don’t mind if I do” while looking like a total daredevil badass.
Such a strong core of racing mechanics over ten tracks (plus four more as free DLC to purchasers of a new copy) would be enough to make Nail’d great. But it goes further and provides additional modes, vehicle customization, and a massive campaign to battle through. The modes (known as mutators) and variations in race types seem minor, but actually affect races in startling ways. Aside from the simple races, there are Free Races, Stunt Challenges, and Detonator races (the last one coming with the DLC). In Free Races, it doesn’t matter who comes in first at the end – it only matters who had the single best lap during the specified time limit. In Stunt races, getting first place is good, but you also have to perform boost feats, which add to your score, so it becomes a different balance of going for out of the way boost gates instead of aiming for the shortest route. And Detonator races randomly attach a bomb to racers which can be passed to another racer if you perform a boost feat in a deadly game of hot potato.
Above: The yellow smiley bomb in Detonator mode can get passed back and forth in split seconds, so don't assume you're safe when you pass it off
Mutators also shake things up in neat ways. No Collision removes player-on-player collision so you can't bully your way through the pack and must succeed purely on racing merit. Our favorite, though, is Boost Madness. Everyone gets unlimited boost. While this sounds like it could turn things into a mess, it actually becomes a glorious exercise in showing you how fast Nail’d can really be, and if you thought your racing game was fast, fuhgeddaboutit. And yes, it’s possible, through the aforementioned intelligent track design, to boost nearly the entire time, requiring only occasional releases of the ultra-throttle.
The single-player tournament (the main "campaign") is a massive undertaking. It's a sweeping tour of every track, and it features varying race types and mutators, meaning there are entire events of several races in a row where you have Boost Madness and are in the Stunt race type, or there will be races with no racer collisions, etc. This means you have to switch up your racing style, and we found that tweaking the parts of our bike or ATV made a difference in certain events.
Above: This awesome track from the free DLC has you flying through gaps of an old rollercoaster and even driving on the coaster tracks for brief periods
The good thing with parts customization is that there is not really a superior way to go. Every part, from body to handlebars to shocks, affects different stats with a give-and-take - for instance, one part will give you better air control so you can steer during jumps, but it will reduce your ground steering. Playing around with these parts is fun because you can really feel the difference: our first attempt at specialization saw us focusing on parts that maximized air control over everything else, and we were practically like an airplane during jumps. Later, we focused on pure acceleration and created a virtual ground rocket that was a bitch to turn.
It's too bad that the one component of Nail'd that should really stand out is actually not user friendly: the multiplayer. There's no splitscreen available, although there is system link. The online is a bit of a mystery right now, because hardly anyone is playing. Much of the time, we have encountered not a single server available. The ones we have joined almost always end up kicking us when we win too much. The real problem with the multiplayer, though, is that the design for setting up races is kind of a mess. It's not immediately clear how it works, so most new players will end up racing on one track over and over. In order to race on different tracks, the host must pre-select a series of tracks, but these can't be altered mid-way. In fact, there's no way to change race parameters without completely quitting out of the server.
Above: Multiplayer could turn out to be awesome, but it's a pain to set up
There also isn't a way for players to join up randomly in Quick Match without other players already having set up games as hosts, so unless people are taking the time to host games, Quick Match is useless. But even if it finds games, you're at the mercy of the host instead of a standardized set of modes or even randomized modes, which would be nice. It's too bad, because the races we did get to play online got intense in a way that races against AI could not, especially when we had some serious photo-finishes.
We're hoping people do discover what a gem Nail'd is, because with a bustling online community the multiplayer could become addictive despite the game setup issues. Even so, the game is a wonderfully unique racer that really stands out even based solely on its single-player component. If you have even an inkling of interest in this type of game and want to see how fast it really can be, we doubt you will be disappointed with it.
Dec 1, 2010