In these unprecedented times, sometimes it’s therapeutic to blast up into the skies above some of America’s natural wonders with a jetpack, magically switch to a pizza delivery bike, and plummet to the Earth below.
It’s also really, really funny. That combination of awe at the raw beauty of our national parks, adrenaline from doing things that would disintegrate a human body in real life, and the pure comedy of extreme sports slapstick is the secret sauce that makes Ubisoft’s Riders Republic one of 2021’s best hidden gems.
This is ostensibly a game about winning races and trick competitions on bikes, skis, snowboards, as well as in wingsuits and jetpacks, but let’s be real: Winning is for losers. It’s really about the joys of going way too fast and crashing so hard that the game’s physics don’t know what to do with your flailing idiot body.
Riders Republic puts you in the shoes of a custom character who’s new on the scene in the titular Republic, a massive open world made up of landmarks from a handful of real national parks from around the U.S., like Bryce Canyon and Yosemite. The Republic appears to be governed by a sort of Burning Man festival for extreme sports, and you’ll spend the first hour or so being tutorialized by a series of somewhat annoying dopes who say things like “holy shiz whizzle” while teaching you how to do snowboard tricks.
This is by several orders of magnitude the worst part of Riders Republic. Feel free to just mute the game and listen to a podcast or something. Nothing that anyone says here matters at all.
Once you’re done with the mercifully short and reasonably effective tutorial, you’re set free in this national park dreamscape to participate in events, earn stars from them to unlock even more events, and generally goof around in a gorgeous open world that’s not interested in gatekeeping the player from any part of it. It’ll only take another hour after the tutorial to unlock the jetpack, which means you can fly around the Republic with zero restrictions whatsoever.
While Riders Republic’s progression is fun enough on its own (downhill bike races are particularly thrilling), the real joy of this game that Ubisoft buried behind Far Cry 6 in the release schedule is its gloriously stupid physics engine. In a stroke of genius, crashing horribly in a way that would be fatal to a real person comes with no stakes at all. Just rapidly tap a button a few times and you’ll be right back up, often without even losing position in a race. You can also tap a button to rewind a few seconds at any time.
A more hardcore extreme sports sim might’ve punished players for failure, but Riders Republic takes the enlightened stance that failure is funny and therefore good. I can’t count the number of times in roughly 15 hours of play that a hard spill made me laugh out loud in a way video games usually don’t. Sometimes it happens while I’m exploring. Sometimes it happens in the middle of a race. Sometimes it even happens just as I cross the finish line. The one constant is that it’s always delightful.
Downhill bike races are probably the best events in the ‘Riders Republic’ single-player progression.
What fascinates me the most about Riders Republic is how stripped down it is compared to what open world games have become in the past decade. Sure enough, it’s got a Destiny-style social hub with shops where you can spend fake and real money on costumes and emotes to show off to other players, as well as a world map full of icons for events and collectibles. Following its progression will fill a bunch if XP bars and unlock new gear, too.
But all of that feels like a formality, something that’s there because market research says it has to be. You can’t launch a $60 game without stuffing it full of carrots and sticks.
Thing is, those carrots and sticks only take you so far. It took fewer than 20 hours for me to feel like I’d seen all I needed to see from all those icons on the map. Dig deeper and you’ll see that this is a game about finding your own fun. The developers clearly understand this because there’s actually a separate “Zen Mode” that turns off progression and empties the map of events, collectibles, and other players. At that point, it’s just you and nature.
Ultimately, the satisfaction of seeing your avatar atop the standings at the end of a race pales in comparison to the rush of flying to the peak of a mountain, equipping a pair of rocket skis (yes, rocket skis), and careening down its slopes at speeds so fast it feels like you’ll break the sound barrier. Zig-zagging between trees, lining up jumps from both natural and artificial ramps, and doing your best to just stay upright at inhuman speeds creates pure, distilled excitement, free of gamified trappings.
There’s no objective or reward for doing that other than the thrill of going incredibly fast and the happiness inherent to the moment when you’ll inevitably hit a rock at the wrong angle and go hurtling into the abyss. The tactile interactions between vehicle and environment in Riders Republic, and the myriad ways you can use them to create your own Jackass stunts, make one of the simplest open world games of the last few years also one of the most fun.