‘Rider Republic’ is all about going fast and crashing hard

In these unprecedented times, it’s sometimes therapeutic to soar through the skies over some of America’s natural wonders on a jetpack, magically transition to a pizza delivery bike, and dive on the Earth below.

It’s also really, really funny. This combination of awe at the raw beauty of our national parks, the adrenaline rush of doing things that would disintegrate a human body in real life, and the sheer comedy of extreme sports slapstick is the secret sauce that makes Ubisoft Republic of Horsemen one of the best hidden gems of 2021.

It’s ostensibly a game of winning races and trick competitions on bikes, skis, snowboards, as well as wingsuits and jetpacks, but let’s face it: Winning is for losers. It’s really about the joys of going much too fast and crashing so hard that the game physics don’t know what to do with your restless idiot body.

Republic of Horsemen puts you in the shoes of a custom character who’s new to the scene in the titular Republic, a massive open world made up of landmarks from a handful of real US national parks, like Bryce Canyon and Yosemite. The Republic seems to be ruled by some sort of Burning Man festival for extreme sports, and you’ll spend the first hour or so being tutored by a series of somewhat annoying dopes who say things like “holy shiz whizzle” while teaching you how to doing snowboard tricks.

This is by orders of magnitude the worst part of Republic of Horsemen. Feel free to mute the game and listen to a podcast or something. Nothing anyone says here matters.

Once you’re done with the thankfully short and reasonably effective tutorial, you’re freed into this dreamy national park landscape to participate in events, earn stars to unlock even more events, and generally have fun in a world magnificent open that is not interested in keeping the player from any part of it. It will only take an hour after the tutorial to unlock the jetpack, which means you can fly around the Republic without any restrictions.

Whereas Republic of Horsemenprogression is pretty fun on its own (the downhill bike races are especially thrilling), the true joy of this game Ubisoft has buried behind far cry 6 in the release schedule is its gloriously dumb physics engine. In a stroke of genius, crashing horribly in a way that would be fatal to a real person has no stakes. Just a quick press of a button a few times and you’ll be back, often without even losing position in a race. You can also press a button to go back a few seconds at any time.

A more hardcore extreme sports sim could have punished players for failure, but Republic of Horsemen takes the enlightened position that failure is funny and therefore good. I can’t count the number of times in about 15 hours of play that a hard knockdown has made me laugh out loud in a way that video games don’t usually do. Sometimes it happens while I’m exploring. Sometimes this happens in the middle of a race. Sometimes it even happens as I cross the finish line. The one constant is that it’s always delicious.

Downhill Bike Races are probably the best single-player progression events in “Riders Republic.”
Credit: Ubisoft

What fascinates me the most Republic of Horsemen it’s how stripped down it is compared to what open-world games have become over the past decade. In fact, he has a FateStyle social hub with shops where you can spend fake and real money on costumes and emotes to show off to other players, plus a world map full of icons for events and collectibles. Tracking his progress will fill up a bunch of XP bars and also unlock new gear.

But it all sounds like a formality, something that exists because market research indicates it must be. You can’t run a $60 game without stuffing it with carrots and sticks.

The thing is, those carrots and sticks only get you so far. It took me less than 20 hours to feel like I saw everything I needed to see of all those icons on the map. Dig deeper and you’ll see that this is a game of finding your own enjoyment. The developers clearly understand this because there’s actually a separate “Zen Mode” that disables progression and clears the map of events, collectibles, and other players. At this point, it’s just you and nature.

Ultimately, the satisfaction of seeing your avatar at the top of the leaderboard at the end of a race has nothing to do with rushing to the top of a mountain, equipping a pair of rocket skis (yes, rocket skis), and hurtle down its slopes at speeds so fast that it feels like breaking the sound barrier. Zigzagging between trees, lining up jumps from natural and man-made ramps, and doing your best to stay upright at inhuman speeds creates pure, distilled excitement, without gamified trappings.

There’s no goal or reward for it other than the thrill of going incredibly fast and the inherent bliss of when you inevitably hit a rock from the wrong angle and rush into the abyss. The tactile interactions between the vehicle and the environment in Republic of Horsemenand the myriad of ways to use them to create your own Donkey stunts, make one of the simplest open world games in years and one of the most fun.

Earnest L. Veasey