Review: Hot crotch-rocket love never felt so good.
Strap on your helmet and slap on those leathers because Climax proves once again that they are king of the motorcycle racing sim. Simply put, this latest edition in the renowned MotoGP series is an insanely fast and fun game that no racing fan should be without.
However, that recommendation comes with a big caveat: this is not a pick-up-and-play game. Similar to auto racing giants Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport, MotoGP: Ultimate Racing Technology 3 focuses on providing the most realistic racing experience possible; as such, the realistic bike handling physics take some getting used to, as do the initially awkward controls. Climax did a very good job of simulating actual motorcycle controls, using the right stick for the gas and the right and left triggers for the front and rear brakes, respectively. The left stick is used for shifting your weight; left and right to turn, forward to decrease drag and increase speed, and back to increase drag and aid braking. The black and white buttons are used to change gears. At first, it feels as complicated as it sounds and it will take patience and time before it feels comfortable, but eventually it will become second nature.
Fortunately for gamers who find the controls too awkward, Climax made some concessions by allowing things like an automatic transmission and single button braking and gas. The one thing you can't adjust is the steering, which feels a bit oversensitive. As well, corner indicators pop up on the screen as you approach turns and glow red if you are going too fast, a very handy feature that helps make up for the poor depth perception inherent in all racing games.
Initially, the bike physics can be a little frustrating. Lock the rear brake in a tight corner and you'll spin out. Go off the track and you'll spin out. Get bumped from behind and you'll spin out. Bump someone in front and you'll spin out. Put your controller down so you can take a bathroom break and you'll spin out. At first it will feel like the bike is trying to throw you at every opportunity until you get the hang of things; as a result, the learning curve can be quite steep for beginners.
That's why Climax included a short series of tutorials that teaches newbies the basics of handling motorcycles. Each tutorial covers a single topic, be it braking, cornering and so on, but they're a bit too
basic; in fact, in many cases you can crash and wipe out like a masochistic maniac but will still pass the tutorial if you cross the finish line in the allotted time. Another problem is that the introductory text explaining the lesson doesn't match the narration, which can be very confusing. Overall, though, the tutorials do a decent job of introducing bike handling skills to newcomers, but the only way to really learn how to race is by getting on the track.
Gameplay is very fast; in fact, the background scenery morphs into a cool blurring effect when you hit top speed, greatly accentuating the feeling that you're rocketing along at speeds no sane person should ever attempt. But as the saying goes, anyone can go fast in a straight line; races are won and lost in the corners. This is where your tutorial skills are put to the test since you have to quickly determine how far to lean, which brake to apply and for how long, and how much gas to give. For example, gunning the engine in a tight lean won't necessarily make you go faster through a corner; rather, in most cases it will cause the rear tire to spin and lose traction, which in turn will cause you to get up close and intimate with Mr. Pavement.
To help ease newcomers into the experience, there are four difficulty levels: Rookie, Pro, Champion and Legend. Rookie is ridiculously easy; for example, in my very first race I finished fourth out of 20, despite wiping out several times and struggling to get accustomed to the controls and bike physics. Still, Rookie level is a very gentle introduction to the game that won't frustrate newbies but also won't hold your interest in the long run.
There are several gamemodes, including Quick Race (a single race against computer AI opponents), Time Trials (race to get the best time) and multiplayer. But the heart of the game is Career Mode, which is split into two sections: Grand Prix and the new Extreme mode.
Gentlemen, rev your engines
Grand Prix Mode closely follows the actual 2004 MotoGP season, allowing you to compete in all 16 races on famous tracks like Le Mans, Assen, Catalunya and Mugello. The attention to realism is most evident here, where the actual riders and their bikes are intricately detailed along with authentically recreated tracks; heck, they even recreate the weather conditions on each practice, qualifying and race day. Each rider's real qualifying placement is used and their AI is tweaked based on their actual race performance. Most of the time the strongest riders are Valentino Rossi, the inhumanly skilled superstar who has won every MotoGP championship since 2002, and Sete Gibernau, who gave Rossi a thrilling battle for the title in 2004. However, in races they didn't win, the game boosts the AI of the actual podium winners, meaning a rider that never gave you a problem before could suddenly be zipping past you like you were standing still. As a result, the game's race results eerily reflect the real thing. Very cool.
Just like a real race, you can run practice laps and then have to qualify. For the race itself, you can adjust the number of laps from as little as one all the way up to the actual amount for those hardcore gamers out there who don't mind going around in circles for 45 minutes straight. You also get dinged time penalties for going off the track (this applies in qualifying only) but fortunately, you don't forfeit the race for crashing ? a darn good thing because otherwise I'd probably never finish! After the race is over, you move on to the next event and cannot replay it (however, you can restart during the race). You can also watch replays of your races from a good variety of camera angles, change perspectives to those of other riders, and save them to show your friends your godly racing skills ? or humiliating wipeouts, as the case may be.
Each race is introduced with a cool video travelogue of the host city, giving you a nice taste of the local culture. If you win, you unlock exciting highlights of the actual race, including the podium ceremony (where you can watch Rossi's hilarious habit of spraying champagne on the race girls) and the press conference interviews with the winner. The highlights are very well edited and total about an hour in length, making for some of the best bonus material I've seen in a long time.
After each race, you earn credits that you can apply to boost your attributes in Cornering, Braking, Top Speed and Acceleration. You can also tweak your bike's performance with a variety of tuning options including front and rear tire compound, gear ratios, front and rear suspension, and wheelbase. You can then test your setup on a test track; fortunately, if you really screw things up you can reset everything back to default and start over. You can also customize the look of your bike, leathers and helmet by changing colors, designs and even create your own logo to slap on your rider and fairings. The customization options are fairly limited, however, so don't expect anything near to what you can do in Forza or similar games. Still, it's a nice feature that helps give you that added personal touch.
Graphically, the game is quite pretty with a lot of detail, but not as outstanding as Forza, Need For Speed: Most Wanted and other racers. However, at a blistering 60 frames per second, you won't have time to critique things like the strangely empty grandstands or the flat cardboard cut-out globs that are supposed to represent sideline spectators. You will, however, notice how your skid marks stay on the track, the cool way rain splatters on your screen, the realistic way water and dust sprays into the air, and the excellent rider animation. Each rider leans and moves realistically and independently from their bike, and when you get thrown, your rider tumbles and rolls along the ground with painfully bone-crunching (but somehow hilarious) animation. Riders will constantly turn their heads to check their immediate surroundings and bumping someone will cause him to angrily shake his fist at you.
Complementing the graphics are the realistic sound effects; from squealing tires to the shrill whine of high performance engines, the Dolby 5.1 surround sound really helps pull you into the experience and enhances the feeling that you're actually in the race. Very nice.
The computer AI is a mix of passive aggressiveness. The top ranked riders will attack corners at high speed and gun past you in a blur; lower ranked riders, on the other hand, will take corners with slow caution and will even wipe out. All riders have no qualms about bumping you and sending your rider flying into the air. This can be quite frustrating since it feels like they're doing it on purpose, contrary to the way real racers ride. However, I soon realized that this is not due to some overly aggressive AI a la
Project Gotham Racing, but rather to the simple fact that they are dumbly following a preprogrammed line and you just happen to be in their way. Hopefully in future editions they will be able to add some avoidance intelligence because having your races continually ruined by idiotic bots slamming into you like some two-wheeled demolition derby isn't exactly the epitome of fun (or realism, for that matter) ? especially at the higher difficulty levels where one little mistake makes it virtually impossible for you to catch up to the leader.
As fun as the track races are, they're really just a warm up for the thrilling new addition to the series, Extreme Mode.
Two-wheel fast, two-wheel furious
At first, MotoGP purists were decrying the apparent ?arcadification? of their beloved sim when they heard about the inclusion of a street racing mode. However, one spin around the new street tracks will drown those concerns in a wail of sweet four-stroke music. Extreme Mode allows you to race on fictional street courses in the 16 Grand Prix host cities and wow, it's a blast, primarily because the courses are designed for blazingly fast speed with only a handful of tight corners, a stark contrast to the much more skill-based Grand Prix circuits.
As such, Extreme Mode really lets you open up the throttle and gun it virtually non-stop in interesting and realistic looking courses, including the German Autobahn, a seaside village in Malaysia and a brilliant neon-lit night-time run through a downtown Japanese metropolis. The purists may not want to hear this, but Extreme Mode is a lot more fun than the bread and butter Grand Prix mode. All of the same bike physics apply, but the fast tracks and varied scenery just makes things a lot more interesting and enjoyable.
Each Extreme course pits 10 riders against each other, half the amount in Grand Prix, due to the fact that the courses are narrow and short. Keeping the number of racers down opens things up even more and helps reduce the annoying demolition derby bumping resulting from riders bunching up together. With your race winnings you can buy various bikes (which are fictional, unlike the licensed Grand Prix bikes) and performance upgrade parts but there's a problem; the game doesn't give you any performance stats on the various bikes so you don't know which ones have better handling or greater acceleration. You also can't try the bike first, so once you plunk down your cash, it's yours whether you like it or not. The same problem exists in Grand Prix mode; the addition of a few simple stats would have been extremely helpful.
With each successful race, you move up in seed ranking. You start at 100 and can go all the way up to 1 if you have the time and patience to put in a lot of hard work and commitment. Seeding really doesn't mean much in single player except for unlocking new bikes, riders and alternate tracks; however, it is quite the opposite in multiplayer. Your seeding determines your skill level in comparison to other players in a simpler version of the ELO ranking system seen in other games. Your seed ranking is adjusted according to your performance so your piddly 90 seed rank won't drop much if you're blown away by a hardcore 5 seed, but if you beat a higher seed, they will suffer a much bigger hit.
Like most games, racers are the most fun when you're playing against other people. MotoGP: URT 3 supports 4-player split screen and up to 16 players on System Link and Xbox Live. The exception is Extreme Mode, which only supports up to 10 players. You can go head-to-head in a variety of multiplayer races, or even play the core Grand Prix mode online against other players similar to Forza Motorsport. To keep things fair, you can set up games that exclude high or low seeds and even turn off AI opponents and collisions.
Multiplayer races are fast and sometimes brutal, but always fun. There is even a Stunt mode where you earn points for catching air, popping wheelies and burning rubber for those who want to take a break from trying to beat the clock. Too bad there's no Wipe Out mode; I'd win that puppy hands down every time.