There is, it seems, a special place in the heart of video games for the enterprising criminal. Games like Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row and Hitman celebrate the endeavors of people who are at the very least rubbing up against the more contentious aspects of their respective legal systems. There’s a spectrum, of course: Grand Theft Auto celebrates whirligig murder sprees, while Hitman is all about sneakily and quietly breaking the law in such a way that you won’t be noticed doing so.
Where, then, would the protagonist of endless runner game Subway Surfers (which you can play in your browser here), fall on this spectrum? It’s a more knotty and interesting question than it may initially seem to be. Said protagonist has ostensibly done nothing worse than simply spray the game’s logo in graffiti onto the side of a train, but the way in which the cop chasing him devotes so much energy to catching the punk suggests that this is a city in which graffiti is the worst and most devious crime it’s possible to commit.
We are, of course, being facetious for comedic effect. The graffiti of Subway Surfers is little more than a framing device for the game’s fast-paced endless runner action. If you haven’t played Subway Surfers before, it’s a co-production between two Danish studios, one of which has worked on the mobile versions of well-known franchises like LEGO before. As such, you’d expect a certain pedigree going into this endeavor, and a certain pedigree there most certainly is.
Subway Surfers is an apt title. You play a graffiti artist who must run away from a police officer who has taken a slightly unhealthy interest in your work. Unfortunately, the only route available to you is a series of very much still in use train yards and railway tunnels, so it is through these that you must escape. Along the way, you can add stealing to your list of crimes, since there are a series of coins and collectible objects you can snap up in order to make gameplay a little easier and unlock more stuff from the game’s menu.
Okay, so that’s the Subway aspect of the title taken care of. Where, though, does Surfing come into it? Well, occasionally, you’ll have access to a futuristic hoverboard, which allows you to become immune to crashes for a certain stretch of time. Losing the hoverboard means the game’s stakes immediately rise, but while you have the hoverboard you can enjoy the immunity that comes with being the world’s best combination hoverboard rider and graffiti perpetrator. For the record, we’re not even sure why we’re being chased. We thought our graffiti looked pretty sweet.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Subway Surfers is a darn addictive game. You may have played endless runners before, but Subway Surfers offers a particularly compelling example of the genre to those willing to invest the time in it. Part of that is the excellent visual presentation, which marries the warring factions of graphical fidelity and aesthetics by presenting a stylized city rich with detail but bursting with color and life. Part of it is the soundtrack, which is appropriately “young people like this sort of thing”, but in a good way.
Most of Subway Surfers’ appeal, though, lies in its core gameplay mechanics. The presentation is fluid and smooth, with animations representing their respective actions beautifully. Leaping over a barrier, ducking under an overhang or dodging an incoming train all carry the same sense of accomplishment and satisfaction thanks to a solid engine and a responsive yet simple control scheme. Indeed, Subway Surfers only uses the arrow keys for control, but that’s all it needs; the gameplay is uncomplicated enough that a straightforward control method doesn’t intrude on Subway Surfers’ appeal.
That’s not to say it isn’t a varied and challenging experience, though. Hazards are numerous, and there are various different types of obstacle to overcome. Barriers must be leapt over or ducked under, pipes can be dodged in several ways, and oncoming trains can only be dodged by moving left or right. Difficulty ramps up quickly, but the game never presents clusters of obstacles that can’t be surmounted with enough skill and forward planning. While it might look like Subway Surfers is predicated entirely on your ability to respond quickly to threats, this is actually quite a strategic experience, dependent just as much on being able to predict what’s coming as your ability to react to it on the fly.
Each stage is also littered with power-ups, which operate in a similar way to the pseudo-titular hoverboard in that they bestow our hero with more ways to avoid their relentless pursuer. There are the Super Sneakers, which increase the hero’s jump height; the Score Booster, which…well…boosts score; and the Jetpack, which allows the hero to soar above all of their aggressors, watching serenely as trains, pipes and other obstacles fly by with nary a care. There are others, of course, but this is a flavor of what you can expect from Subway Surfers’ many and varied powerups.
All of this adds up to a game that feels good, looks good and offers just enough tools to help less skilled players while allowing those with a greater handle on the controls to enjoy the experience. There are extra characters and features to unlock, but they do little more than change the game in an aesthetic sense. If that’s your bag, then you’ll love what Subway Surfers has done with its unlockable characters. If not, you’ll still find an extremely solid and enjoyable endless runner here.