When you think of video games, it's easy to dismiss them as the pastime of spotty teenagers who haven't washed their hair in 18 months and who think a bar of Dairy Milk Fruit and Nut counts towards their five-a-day. But that's unfair. Video games are more mainstream now than they've ever been. Especially when they focus on things people like. Things like, say, football (it was coming home) which has games like FIFA 2018, FIFA 2019, FIFA 2020 out every year, until the sun dies and life as we know it ends.
Despite the nationwide soccer-ball World Cup hangover at the moment, and contrary to this incredibly hot summer's "life is nothing but football, football, death, taxes and Brexit" vibe, it's important to remember, and we say this as an action sports and adventure title, that there's stuff on this Earth that isn't football but which many, many, people are passionate about anyway.
Mountain biking, for example. People love mountain bikes, don't they? Love to ride them. Down hills. Over rocks. Through trees. All that jazz. With that in mind then, why the Hell hasn't there been a good mountain biking video game in, like, bloody ages?
That's where Descenders comes in. Developed by Utrecht-based RageSquid, and with preview versions already out on PC, Mac, Linux and Xbox One (with other console editions scheduled for release later this year), the downhill MTB game has been getting a lot of love from testers and players alike with an 8.2/10 score on KeenGamer and a 9/10 rating on Steam.
Riders and gamers, of a certain vintage, will tell you how much they loved Downhill Domination on Playstation 2; a game that was basically SSX on wheels, and which was released way back in 2003. Since then however, it's been slim-pickings to say the least.
In order to find out more about Descenders, and the people behind it, we got in touch with RageSquid; hoping that that they could, pardon the expression, dish the proverbial dirt. Our questions were answered by a collective made up of Roel Ezendam (physics/gameplay programmer), Roan Albers (artist), and Lex Decrauw (studio director/programmer).
"Descenders comes from a nostalgic love for old extreme sports games," they tell me. "Think about Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, SSX, Dave Mirra and even more recent ones such as the Skate series. We noticed that there aren't a lot of these games around these days so we wanted to change that.
"With Descenders we wanted to add our own flavour to the genre, instead of just doing what has been done. This is where games such as Spelunky and FTL [Faster Than Light] have been a huge influence. It's not just games that influenced us though. Events like Rampage, Joyride and Hardline have been a massive inspiration as well."
"Descenders comes from a nostalgic love for old extreme sports games"
The wild and fast paced nature of mountain biking, and other action sports which pack big adrenaline rushes in the real world, means it can be hard to translate the excitement of it to a screen, a controller, and a sofa. I was curious to know how the team at RageSquid had gone about tackling this challenge, and making Descenders feel like mountain biking.
"The foundation of Descenders is a solid and smooth set of controls that are easy to grasp. Having that feeling of being in control allows players to feel confident enough to bomb the hills at crazy speeds," the RageSquid boys inform me, before adding "The second element that really adds to the rush is having to deal with the consequences of your mistakes. Having limited health, and the fear of having to start over will make you think twice before you pull off that 720 backflip. However, this also means that landing a sick trick on your last health will give you a bigger feeling of accomplishment."
With the game makers being based in the Netherlands, a flat-country not exactly renowned for its downhill trails and mountain biking culture, I was interested to know how RageSquid had gone about keeping Descenders true to the sport.
"We got a lot of feedback from actual mountain bikers back when the game was in beta," they tell me, "Their feedback has been amazing, and super valuable. I think we got most of the core values of mountain biking correct but it's the subtleties that are pointed out to us by people who actually ride. For example, we didn't get the way the bike sounds when the rider isn't pedalling right but luckily we have a dedicated community of riders that were willing to help us out with this."
"Events like Rampage, Joyride and Hardline have been a massive inspiration"
One significant aspect of Descenders that should keep players coming back time and time again is its "procedurally generated worlds." The guys at RageSquid explain this concept to me by saying that it effectively means that every level you play on the game will be new, and that it will have been formed by mathematical formulas rather than by hand. This, as they pointed out, involved teaching the computer to distinguish between what constitutes a fun track and what doesn't; so that it can lay down jumps and obstacles in a way that feels consistently fresh and enjoyable.
Descenders, although it's still being developed, is currently available to play via Steam's Early Access and the Xbox One's Game Preview. The PS4 version will almost certainly come after the full 1.0 launch, with a Switch port-version largely dependent on whether Nintendo's less powerful console can run the game to an acceptable standard.
For more information on Descenders, visit the game's website.