Date: March 16, 2022
I’ve always wanted to like racing games. I’m a pretty competitive person, and “race ya!” is one of the earliest — and purest — forms of competition anyone ever engages in. Yet over the years, most of the racing games I’ve tried have failed to grab me. When I think about the racing games I have enjoyed, like Mario Kart and Need 4 Speed: Hot Pursuit, they always have additional elements beyond simply driving around a course. So, I went into Monster Energy Supercross 5 fully expecting to get bored after a couple of laps. Instead, I discovered that even the simple act of going over a jump and around a corner is a complex series of second-to-second decisions involving speed, angles, and balance — and making those decisions is a lot of fun.
At its core, developer Milestone’s Supercross 5 is like most sports or racing games (at least, I think so — I should let you know that I barely ever play them). The main game mode is the Career mode, in which you participate in a series of races, gain or lose sponsorships, and participate in various extracurricular activities in between the weekend races. There are three different activities you can engage in when not doing the official races: Training, Workouts, and optional races or challenge events.
I found the training to be a great way to learn how to do the basics (like how the heck to get my bike around corners quickly and without falling off of it), and the fact that it allowed me to increase my rider’s skills was an added bonus. Oh yeah, there’s a skill tree, because what game is complete without one nowadays? It isn’t particularly interesting or satisfying, but it’s there for those of you who like to spend points.
The Workouts are a free-roam mode, and it was nice getting a chance to cruise around trying not to crash for the 2 minutes the game gives you to collect the letters S-H-A-P-E. For each one you collect, your rider’s “shape” improves slightly — this shape represents your character’s overall health, which seems to decline over time (or quickly if you crash as much as I do during the races). There are also injuries that can occur with enough crashes, and these workouts are an important way to both heal injuries and improve your shape to prevent them in the future. While this is useful and can be a fun break from races, the environment looks like something from the PS2 era, and I quickly found myself ignoring workouts unless my rider was in bad shape.
All this extra content is really just there to support the main attraction, which is the weekend races. They’re quite a spectacle, with you and 21 other riders kicking up dirt as you drift around corners and launch off of ramps. My bike felt intuitive enough to control, but still offered a decent challenge (I played on the middle of the three realism settings). What I particularly enjoyed about Supercross, and what sets it apart from other racing game genres, is the way you need to manage your rider’s weight.
On a gamepad, this takes the form of the two sticks — the right stick exclusively controls your weight, while the left stick is used both for steering and for weight distribution while in the air. Shifting your weight back while beginning a jump, and then leaning forward upon landing, will give you a boost of distance and speed — leaning hard into a turn will allow you to make it faster, but can also lead to you comically flying off of your bike — giving you a chance to see the wonderful ragdoll animations.
Luckily for noobs like me, you can always take back your mistakes. During a race, you start with three Rewinds; using one will let you go a significant number of seconds back in time, allowing you to fix your angle for a jump or turn. It’s a really great way to make the otherwise unforgiving physics of the game more accessible — even if sometimes I did rewind three times without successfully making the turn.
You earn points towards refilling your rewind meter by landing jumps, running good laps, drifting, or doing tricks like whips and scrubs. A whip is just for showing off, while a scrub is a technique that allows you to land your bike a little bit sooner than normal. It adds yet another dimension of decision-making to the racing: You want to earn those rewinds, but don’t always want to risk crashing for the sake of pulling off a trick.
It’s not just the decision-making aspects of the racing that are effective in Supercross 5, however. The simple act of going over the jumps and cruising around corners put me in something of a flow state, at least once I started to get the hang of it. Players willing to invest just an hour or so learning how the system works will be rewarded with a soothing, almost zen experience. This is supported by tactile feedback: when using a controller capable of it, the rumble feedback the game gives you is incredibly satisfying. Drifting, landing hard, going over the whoops (a series of small bumps), and even just accelerating all shake the controller in a way that really makes you feel like you’re kicking up dirt.
At least, until you ride for 50 feet on top of another racer. While you can often crash into other riders and wipe out, you can also find yourself below or on top of another rider for extended periods of time, which was immersion-breaking to say the least. Still, besides this happening every couple of races, I didn’t encounter any major bugs or issues.
Despite how much I was enjoying the racing, it did end up feeling samey after a while. Each race lasts ten minutes, which sounds short, but after doing five laps on the same course, I was ready for the next one. The courses are varied enough that they offer somewhat different challenges, but even with the free-roaming Workouts, the trick challenges, and the brief training sessions, there’s nothing to do here but race around a track. Of course, what else can you really ask for in a racing game?
Refreshingly, this entry in the franchise offers split-screen as well as online multiplayer, so if you get bored of racing the AI you’ll have no shortage of opponents — although I couldn’t test out the multiplayer in pre-release. I did try out the track editor, which seems intuitive and easy to use, but the controls are clearly designed with controllers in mind. No one wants to hit the F keys, Milestone!
If you really dislike racing games, it’s unlikely that this one is going to change your mind. If, however, you’re someone like me who’s sat on the fence for a while, it just might offer the combination of depth and accessibility required to finally get you on the track. Monster Energy Supercross 5 releases March 17th for current and last-gen Playstations and Xboxes, as well as on PC via Steam.