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‘Riders Republic’ is a high-octane, downhill thrill ride to zone out to. Wait, what?

(The Washington Post illustration; Ubisoft)
7 min

Riders Republic

Available on: PC, Xbox Series X and Series S, Xbox One, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Google Stadia, Amazon Luna

Developer: Ubisoft Annecy, alongside other Ubisoft studios | Publisher: Ubisoft

Release: Oct. 28, 2021

As I played “Riders Republic,” I puzzled over one question: Was I supposed to feel thrilled or relaxed playing an extreme sports video game? The game’s answer is yes.

In “Riders Republic,” players walk, ski, bike, fly, parachute, snowboard, drive and sometimes flop across a virtual agglomeration of national parks and landmarks — a mash-up of Grand Teton, El Capitan and more, crisscrossed and stitched together by an assortment of mountains, scorched forests, valleys, dirt trails and ski lifts. The world map is dotted with “events,” courses corresponding to different extreme sports like dirt biking and powder skiing. As you complete these events, you unlock new gear, learn tricks and gain access to more challenging courses.

I found “Riders Republic” endlessly engrossing. The game crashed on the Xbox Series X semi-frequently, but I pressed on, knowing that right around the corner I was likely to find some new thing that would surprise and delight me. Often, these were new forms of transportation that were familiar but ever so slightly different — early on, I unlocked skis, powder skis and rocket skis — or courses that subtly highlighted the unique strengths of various gear. Then, there were also totally unrelated surprises. At one point, I unexpectedly snowboarded past an enormous bear. Genuinely lovely!

“Riders Republic” is billed as an MMO, and across every landscape you’ll encounter tens — maybe hundreds — of other riders. Some of these are real people, though I couldn’t begin to guess at the ratio of human to bot. Real players come into focus primarily during “Mass Races,” 64-player competitions across a series of courses and sports that happen twice per hour. Mostly, though, you’re surrounded by AI riders cheerfully slamming it downhill, doing stunts and bopping from waypoint to waypoint. Their presence enlivens the landscape and has a generally calming, screensaver-like effect.

The locations are stunningly rendered, of course. As a millennial with unrealized outdoorsy ambitions, I appreciated “visiting” spots like Thor’s Hammer in Bryce Canyon, Utah. My visit was brief, admittedly; I zipped by, threading through the surrounding rock formations in a wingsuit. But at some map markers, the game parks you in place for a minute to feed a paragraph of flavor text about a nearby landmark. You can choose whether to opt in to these interludes, but I felt that drawing a clear connection between the virtual spaces and their real counterparts was a thoughtful flourish.

Can virtual nature be a good substitute for the great outdoors? The science says yes.

There’s one thing about the simulation that deserves mention above all: In its gameplay and presentation, “Riders Republic” is the most thrilling virtual approximation of extreme sports I’ve ever seen. The game can be played in first- and third-person view, and while the latter may at times feel more intuitive from a gameplay perspective, the way “Riders Republic” plays in the first person is nothing short of an achievement. In real life, I am an avid cyclist and a modest, on-and-off skier. When I tear downhill, teeth first, I don’t think in terms of my miles per hour, or really numbers at all. Instead, I am at once blank, devoid of careful or organized thought and also aware, at a near-primal level, of rhythm and motion, weight and weightlessness — a heightening of the senses and a narrowing of focus. Millisecond to millisecond, by way of motion blur, particle effects, speed lines, vibrations in the controller and a stable of other subtle audiovisual tricks, “Riders Republic” gets that feeling.

Also, I spent the vast majority of my playtime listening to podcasts.

Therein lies the core of my ambivalence about “Riders Republic.” There are moments that, in their fidelity, evoke feelings of true risk and tension, as when your skis catch on the gristle of snow and ice as you brake for a sharp turn. But eventually, you know, you catch onto the fact that the individual turns don’t really matter so much. Nor, in the grand scheme of things, does ragdolling off the side of a cliff. The stakes are low. You can rewind at any moment, or, in the worst-case scenario, restart the event. And with faster loading times on current-gen consoles, there’s no real penalty for starting over.

Plenty of people do some other thing while playing games. In the past, you may have played “Halo” with your friends in a basement, but back then, the conversation was the centerpiece, not the game. There’s also a robust vocabulary around “maintenance games,” to which players regularly return to fulfill daily or weekly in-game chores. These chores are repetitive in ways that are often therapeutic and not terribly taxing in terms of attention. In fact, they can even be delightful, if in a mildly Pavlovian way. “Pokémon Go” and the Destiny franchise — in which much of a player’s time is spent at a home base, turning in quests and converting weapons and items into currency — are often cited as examples of this genre.

Why do we enjoy games that make us work? Proficiency, control, fairness, escape.

With maintenance games you could at least, Joker-like, implicate “society” or “capitalism” in your desire to double up on entertainment, to min-max how you spend your time. But “Riders Republic” is unique in how the strengths and pure enjoyment of its core mechanics edge out any desire to go turn in quests and whatnot at the game’s main hub, Riders Ridge. In the game, completing certain missions for sponsors (often “gain X number of points doing Y stunts”) unlocks new gear, roughly equivalent to some of the systems in “Destiny.” But I never felt an incentive to follow through on these with any regularity.

For me, the core loop of “Riders Republic” was to enter the overworld map, select a new event, go there, complete it, return to the overworld map and start the cycle again. Ubisoft is often critiqued for overwhelming players with map markers and quests. But here, the former were a positive and the latter were near invisible. The game plays great as is, and most loot confers only marginal benefits. And so, the chorelike check-ins that are a staple of games like this faded into the background.

In July, my colleague Noah Smith asked the McLaren Formula One driver Lando Norris about whether simulation games might someday supplant their real counterparts. Norris was skeptical.

“Well, some people love that feeling … of being on the edge and risking their lives in some ways, like, that’s what a lot of people love, is that buzz,” Norris told Smith. “That buzz of fear and physically feeling these things is just something, and even noise and sound and smell. All these small things can just add up and make a big difference.”

“Riders Republic” is an imperfect simulation for that reason, though it comes admirably close in a lot of ways. But the ways in which it is different, in which it heralds the coming of a new type of game, one that is fully realized but which, in the hands of players, will also first and foremost be a vehicle for some other form of entertainment, is worth examination in its own right.

For lack of a better way of phrasing this, “Riders Republic” is extremely breadlike. You can enjoy bread on its own merits. But more often than not, just eating bread is a very sad experience. Good eating means toppings: olive oil with some pepper, butter, cold cuts, a bagel with a thick schmear — you get the idea. Likewise, “Riders Republic” is a game that cries out for some kind of second thing — music, a podcast, a phone conversation, whatever — while also completely avoiding the now-common language of tasks and chores that usually comes with “maintenance” or “podcast games.”