Review / Nail’d (Xbox 360)

While Nail’d isn’t the first off-road racer to grace the current console generation, it is the first to show such willing and welcome disregard for Sir Isaac Newton’s three little laws. Sure, Pure, Motorstorm and Fuel might feature similarly death defying tracks, jumps and tricks, but developer Techland’s arcade-style racer is the only one that can truly be called gravity defying. There’s a reason that most of the screenshots posted online for this game feature an ATV or motorcross bike cruising along at angel altitude, and that’s because you’ll spend more time in the air than on the ground. The combination of impassibly sheer tracks, impossibly steep ramps and improbably fast speeds combine to make leaping hot air balloons, snow capped mountain peaks and slow moving dirigibles some of the least crazy things you will do in this game.

Nail’d doesn’t simply suspend the laws of physics, it dangles them by their dainty little ankles over a sheer 3,000 foot drop off, letting go the instant the starting buzzer sounds. Like other off-road racers before it, Nail’d offers riders numerous branching paths between the starting and finish lines. Where it stands apart is not in its twists and turns, but in the vertigo-inducing drops and rises, bringing an exaggerated and oft times exciting sense of verticality to the relatively earthbound genre. It might sound awesome, and the first few times you ramp a speeding train, leap a hot air balloon or race sideways along a dam wall, it is awesome, but the loose physics ultimately end up being both the best and worst thing about Nail’d.

You might as well paint a 1950’s pin up on the side of your ATV, as the amount of time spent airborne makes it feel more like a flying than a racing game, but racing you are. And unfortunately, it’s the racing that falls a little flat. Techland has done a great job conveying a sense of speed, as the breathtaking forests, caverns, mountains and volcanoes fly past almost but not quite too fast to appreciate the impressive depth and scale designers have incorporated into each track, but despite the breakneck pace, hidden shortcuts and diverging paths there are times that the game feels like its running on autopilot. Through one series of seemingly challenging switchback turns I literally held down the right trigger, the equivalent of flooring the gas, and my bike steered itself to safety. And by safety I mean a ramp jump through a flaming ring of fire, but you get the idea.

Not to say that Nail’d doesn’t have moments to test your twitch-gaming skills – there are plenty of tight spots where a last minute ninety-degree turn in the air will prevent you from slamming into a canyon wall. But that just brings to mind another major complaint, the game’s inconsistent collision physics. As thrilling as it is to pull off an absurd move or trick, it’s tempered by the frustration of never knowing what will trigger a wreck. You can slam into a rock wall at 120 miles a hour and bounce back without a scratch, but even think about grazing a bush, or a wall, or a single spine on a wild desert cactus and it’s all flying bodies, tumbling vehicles as the screen once again wipes to the Nail’d logo. There doesn’t appear to be any logic involved when it comes to interacting with the game’s terrain, which means lots and lots of crashes. This destroys the great sense of white-knuckled tension the developers were clearly aiming for with the exaggerated sense of height and speed, repeatedly bringing the rollercoaster ride to a grinding halt.

Fortunately, respawns are snappy, and there are plenty of fiery gates and hoops scattered throughout the track to help you fill your boost meter, which can also be maxed out by performing boost feats like landing smoothly after a jump, safely traversing a section of track or smashing other riders into the wreckage of a downed airplane. Considering you’re already going ridiculously fast, the boost system ends up feeling a little underwhelming, merely adding a blurred, washed out effect to the rapidly passing scenery, but it can give you an advantage when used strategically in local and online multiplayer, which supports up to twelve players. As for the game’s single-player Tournament mode, you’ll be hard pressed not to win every race for most of the game, even if you crash seven times in a single lap. Not that I’m speaking from personal experience. Ahem. The point is that the AI doesn’t make for much competition until fairly late in the proceedings, when you’re on the verge of unlocking all 14 tracks and 4 regions. What keeps things interesting is the massive number of races, which include A-to-B and closed circuit events, and modifiable game modes, which allow you to do things like turn on unlimited boost or race ghosts of the development team’s best lap times.

Nail’d is a fun but flawed off-road racing experience, the thrill of leaping and plunging through its extreme environments is dragged down by inconsistent physics, a lackluster boost system and unchallenging AI. Though it’s thrilling to soar between the blades of a giant wind turbine or share airtime with a jumbo jet, it’s ultimately how your vehicle handles on the ground that’s going to make or break a racer, and that’s where Techland gets nail’d. No other game even comes close to touching the stomach-dropping sense of speed – if you are at all prone to motion sickness, consider yourself forewarned – but simply put, there are other titles with sharper graphics, deeper customization and tighter controls. With a more consistent damage system and better handling, Nail’d could have been the crowning jewel of the off-road racing genre’s mud-stained crown, but in its current state falls somewhere between the abysmal Fuel and the awesome Pure. As a flying game though, it reigns supreme.