Motorcycles are fast, sexy and dangerous, which is why the bad boy character in almost every '80s movie rode one. Capturing that attitude and sense of danger has proven difficult in videogames, however, which must be why most games focused on motorcycles tend to be built around professional racing rather than street riding.
The premier outlet for such activity in the real world is the MotoGP Championship, which consists of 18 Grands Prix in 14 countries and features the top riders and manufacturers in the world. And historically, the videogame incarnation of the MotoGP racing franchise has been handled by THQ (with developer Climax Studios) and Namco Bandai.
But in 2006 Disney bought the Climax racing studio and the MotoGP license later went exclusively to Capcom. And the company has brought developer Milestone Interactive (Superbike World Championship 08), on board to make the latest title in the series, MotoGP 08. The result has been a shift in focus away from both the hardcore simulation and arcade zaniness of the previous Moto GP games, and the final product is uninspired and unexciting.
The trouble begins at the tutorial. For the uninitiated, driving a two-wheeled vehicle at 100 mph is hard, and racing one competitively is even tougher. Unfortunately, the tutorial in MotoGP 08 gives you very little guidance in how to handle your machine. As you drive the introductory test track, you'll occasionally get a message notifying you that you have a new "tip." That means pausing the game, bringing up the tutorial screen, looking at the brief and unhelpful note and then returning to the game to continue driving. It's an unintuitive and cumbersome process that does little to draw players in and get them excited about the game.
The standard racing modes are all here – there's a Career mode, Championship event, Time Attack mode and Quick Race option. The Career mode takes you through all three 18 MotoGP events, allowing you to battle real-life racers and bump up your bikes stats as you go along. Championship is a wide-open competitive mode that lets you customize your season however you see fit. Time Attack challenges you to set personal records on each of the tracks, and Quick Race is just that. There's also an extensive Challenge mode with 50 different events that test your skills with handling, braking and racing your bike, and you can unlock more difficult challenges as you complete others.
There are three handling setups in MotoGP 08: Arcade, Advanced and Simulation. The first makes it tough to lose a race, the last is impossibly difficult and the middle setting strikes a balance between the other two. Using the Arcade controls, I came in first place in 90 percent of the races in my first Career Mode run, beating my closest competitor of the season by double-digit championship points.
But moving on to Advanced mode makes your bike somewhat more difficult to handle. Racing with Advanced controls, you'll routinely see your back tire kick out if you accelerate too aggressively in a turn, which makes for far more realism than the Arcade handling. Simulation mode, on the other hand, will have you wiping out at every turn unless you're a seasoned MotoGP pro.
If you fall into the latter category, you'll probably be disappointed with what MotoGP 08 has to offer. Aside from the Simulation handling mode, there is very little true sim to be found here. Part of what makes simulation racing so attractive to fans is the mix of realistic controls and deep customization. Through trial and error, hardcore players can tweak and tune to their hearts' content in order to find just the right balance of performance. In MotoGP 08, there are just four categories of bike customization: Tires, Suspension, Turning Speed and Gear. Do you want to use soft, medium or hard tires? That's the extent of your tire customization in MotoGP 08. And the other three categories each feature a single bar with 10 segments each.
MotoGP 08 is being handled by a completely different developer and publisher than previous games in the series, but since Capcom is essentially taking over where THQ left off, a comparison to last year's MotoGP 07 is inevitable. And last year's installment is a better game. The bikes handle better, there are more customization options available, the tracks appear more vibrant and dynamic and the presentation in general is much sharper.
Capcom has said that it set out to make MotoGP 08 as accessible as possible without compromising the simulation aspect of the series. But that's exactly what happened. And that wouldn't even be so bad if the end result was a wildly fun game – it's not. The handling feels floaty and unsatisfying, the tracks are dull and there's little personality at work here overall. MotoGP 08's presentation is the very definition of bare-bones. Finishing a career season, for example, is met with little fanfare.
Take rumble, for example. Vibration is supported in MotoGP 08, but it only kicks in when your bike goes off the track. First of all, if you're playing the game properly you'll rarely go off-roading anyway, so you'll almost never feel it. What's more, rumble can be a useful way to learn to control your vehicle in racing games and its exclusion from the main racing experience in MotoGP 08 is puzzling. Getting a bit of a vibration from the controller when your rear tire starts to fishtail would go a long way toward mastering the tricky handling of notoriously hard-to-manage superbikes.
There are presentation issues like these throughout MotoGP 08. The crowds look like cardboard cutouts, the environments are static (flags atop the grandstands stand as still as statues) and every rider's animations look exactly the same. There's no bike customization to speak of (you can't create logos and layers or change your bike's colors), the rider creation process is generic, there's no garage in which to admire and outfit your rides, and there's no real motivation to keep racing. In many racing games, finishing an event nets you money, reputation points or a shiny new trophy. In MotoGP 08, all you get is a cutscene of the next track (always shot exactly the same way) and a couple points to power up your bike in four very basic categories.
Graphically, MotoGP 08 is unimpressive too, although there's a good amount of detail to the bikes and riders. Milestone has made sure to include all the championship tracks, but they somehow manage to be drab and featureless, which could be why there's no free-look function. Want to glance over at that picturesque copse of shrubbery at Donington Park? Too bad. As a whole, the look of MotoGP 08 just doesn't impress, especially when compared with last year's THQ MotoGP-based game.
The multiplayer functionality in MotoGP 08 is also quite basic, but it works smoothly online but offers all the same racing options as the single-player experience. Choose a ranked or player match, pick your bike class and track, and then it's off to the races. Although the online race setup options aren't all that detailed, you can stick with the same party from one race to the next if you choose. Online is where a lot of MotoGP fans will likely spend most of their time, and I'm happy to report that the function worked well in all our tests.
It's also worth mentioning that the versions of MotoGP 08 I played were extremely buggy. I had experiences in which the HUD disappeared when we popped into a game or the display screen from the Career menu continued to hover over the race track as we started an event. As you can imagine, it's difficult to complete a race when a giant leopard-print helmet is rotating over your motorcycle. Hopefully, these issues were fixed for the retail release of MotoGP 08.
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