One of the most important things to consider when creating a sandbox game is the way in which players will traverse the environment. Many games neglect this aspect, and the sandbox is worse for it. Others prioritize transport and travel around their open world, and it’s these games that succeed – inFAMOUS, Prototype and others offer cathartic, enjoyable ways for players to get around their cityscapes, and often remain enjoyable long after their main story campaigns have ended for this reason.
Spare a thought, though, for the workaday public transport networks in these games. When Cole McGrath surfs a train track and drains all of the power from it, what do you think happens to the trains that have to run along that track? When a Grand Theft Auto protagonist launches one of their signature murder sprees and racks up thousands of dollars’ worth of property damage, who do you think has to clean it all up? In the end, perhaps it’s the public servants in the transport industry who are the real heroes of these games.
The train drivers of Subway Surfers, which is now exclusively available to play on Poki, Android, and iOS, would certainly agree, given that they are in constant danger of splattering its daring protagonist all over the tracks. Subway Surfers is a joint venture, developed by two Danish studios, SYBO Games and Kiloo, with a shared history of quality mobile titles. With Subway Surfers, they make a foray into browser-based endless runner games. Will this one be worth the trip, or will it run into engine trouble just as it’s pulling away from the platform (last terrible transport pun, we promise)?
As Subway Surfers begins, you’re cast as a rebellious graffiti artist who’s fallen foul of the local law enforcement. After completing a particularly bodacious tag, you’re approached by a police officer and his dog, who are politely requesting that you cease your activities and turn yourself in. You vehemently disagree with his position, so you decide to make a break for it rather than have the necessary debate with him regarding the inaccuracies in his position. Since you were applying your tag onto a train, you’re given no choice but to escape using the local train tunnels, so it’s off to a world of peril and moving trains with you.
Controls are relatively simple. You’ll only need your arrow keys for this game, so put any thoughts of complicated keyboard inputs or mouse flourishes out of your mind. Left and right arrow keys move you left and right – oddly enough – while the up arrow jumps and the down arrow ducks. Forward momentum is controlled entirely by the game; you’ll slow down if you hit an obstacle, while running for a stretch without being damaged means you’ll build your speed back up. It’s a nice, intuitive system that emphasizes skill without punishing failure too harshly, since a single mistake won’t unseat you from your current run.
This being an endless runner, it is, of course, endless. This means that you’ll never actually “win”, per se. Instead, the game will continue generating obstacles and paths for you to traverse, and the current run will end when, not if, the policeman chasing you catches up to you. In practice, this lends Subway Surfers a feeling of Zen chill that belies its rather distinct presentation style. Because you know that failure is (eventually) inevitable, you’ll keep playing in a state of acceptance that your death is assured, so the game becomes about beating your own high score and earning enough coins to stretch to the game’s many unlockable characters. They even got their own animated series.
Those characters are part of Subway Surfers’ considerable charm. Fancy playing as a ninja? How about a robot? There are a whole host of characters on offer for players who enjoy the game, and while some of them are definitely more in the realms of the bizarre than others, it’s fun just to find out who’s going on your next adventure with you. In-game coins can be collected by moving off the beaten path; you could simply approach each challenge by taking the easiest and least dangerous route, but doing so would also mean you miss out on coins and other goodies. In this way, Subway Surfers presents a consistently compelling risk-reward loop that encourages you to experiment with higher difficulty if you’re ready, all without ever presenting you with a list-style easy-medium-hard menu.
There’s plenty of wrapping around the core mechanics – a series of power ups keeps things interesting, and runs can be continued even after death by using a certain item – but Subway Surfers eventually comes down to that central loop, so it needs to be ready for primetime. It’s a pleasure to report, then, that Subway Surfers absolutely nails its gameplay. With vibrant presentation that draws the eye, gameplay that successfully iterates on its core concepts without ever becoming repetitive, and a robust system of unlocks and powerups to complement the mechanics, Subway Surfers is one of the best endless runners we’ve experienced.