If you're serious about motorcycle racing, chances are you're familiar with the annual international competition known as the Superbike World Championship. If you're not serious about motorcycle racing, SBK is probably not the game for you. This racing simulation's dedication to realism is admirable, and it delivers an experience that can be gratifying, once you get a handle on it. But even racing devotees may be put off by the steep learning curve and the unforgiving difficulty that result from this game's intense, no-frills approach to the sport.
That's not to say you can't customize SBK's level of realism to suit your tastes. There are so many customization options available that it can initially be a bit overwhelming. This is compounded by the fact that it's not immediately apparent what all the options mean. You can select from five overall realism settings that range from basic to extreme, or you can toggle each of the 15 individual settings to your liking. These include whether or not you must manually shift your rider's weight, whether your bike can get damaged or your rider can be injured, whether the front and rear brakes are controlled jointly or independently of each other, and many others. And prior to hitting the track, you can fine-tune each aspect of your bike. This can be done via standard menus that provide a single slider with which to adjust your bike's suspension, steering, gears, and so on, or via advanced menus that let you make miniscule adjustments to each aspect of the bike. There are eight sliders for the suspension alone, for instance: two each for the preload, spring stiffness, compression damper, and rebound damper.
Unless you come to the game already familiar with the physics of motorcycle racing, it's difficult to get a sense of how each of these settings affects you out on the track--when to lean your rider's weight forward or back, when to use both brakes or to use just the front or the rear--and you'll likely fall off your bike dozens of times before this stuff starts to sink in. Talking to your engineer before a race will let you read some short and simple tips on each of these issues, but the physics are so complex and just staying on the bike is so difficult that it can all be daunting. A bit of instructional handholding might have gone a long way in helping new players acclimate themselves to these fine-tuned racing machines.
Even if you choose to forgo most of the realism and set the handling model to basic or arcade, SBK is not an arcade-style racer. Maintaining a smart racing line and properly braking before turns is always a must. Maneuvering past your opponents and making your way up through the ranks without colliding with them requires patience and finesse, and even a slight misstep can result in a disaster from which recovery is difficult or impossible. The game is challenging, even against the easiest opponents, and the laughably misnamed tutorial is worse than useless. It does no tutoring of any kind. It just drops you into a series of situations that will try your patience as well as your skill. You're better off bypassing the tutorial and jumping right into some time trials or races to try to get a feel for proper handling and braking on your own.
After heading into turns way too fast time and time again, you'll naturally start to get better. Though the lack of a helpful, detailed tutorial makes the game feel downright unwelcoming, once you start getting comfortable with the handling and the physics, you'll find that the precision racing machines of SBK can provide quite a thrill. Races often have you constantly jockeying for position, weaving through the pack, pulling ahead and falling behind your competitors, and victory is made all the more satisfying because you have to race well to earn it. You'll never feel that rubber-band AI made you lose the race or helped you win it; these races are hard-fought and hard-won.
There are several modes, including a few that do a fine job of replicating actual SBK race events. You can jump straight into a race or time trial on any of the game's 12 real-life tracks, or, for a more authentic SBK experience, you can participate in a race weekend or a full-scale championship. Each race weekend consists of an hour-long period of free practice on the track, followed by two hour-long qualifying practices, then another hour of free practice, and then two races. You can play all of this in real time or skip through it as you please, and you can make the races full-length (around 20 laps, give or take a few, depending on the track) or shorten them to just a single lap. The championship takes you through an entire SBK season, consisting of a race weekend for each of the 12 tracks. You can also try to race online, though there are few people playing this game online at the moment. When we did manage to get into races, our competitors' bikes would often pop from place to place, making the skillful maneuvering for position that's so satisfying against the AI all but impossible. Regardless of the mode you're playing, there are 12 actual SBK teams to choose from, and the actual riders from each team are on hand. However, none of the visual customization options common to many other simulation racing games are included.
Visually, SBK is a bit inconsistent, but it's got it where it counts most. The asphalt of the track smoothly zips under your wheels and the bikes and riders are equally convincing. Camera options include a few first-person selections that do a remarkable job of putting you in the rider's seat, giving you a great view of the bike's gauges and making you feel the lean into each turn. And should you have the misfortune of racing on a rainy day, you may curse the rain for making the track slipperier even as you appreciate how good it looks. If you look beyond the track, though, the illusion starts to fall apart. Flat trees, simple buildings, cardboard cutout people in the audience, and a general sparseness of environmental features make the world beyond the track lifeless and empty, though you'll probably spend most of your time too focused on the action to notice. There isn't much to the game's sound outside of the authentic roars and whines of the bikes, but then, realism doesn't dictate anything more than that.
SBK is an unfriendly game. It assumes that you come to it with a high level of familiarity and comfort with realistic motorcycle racing, and if you don't, it punishes you again and again until you start to learn. It's a shame that it isn't more welcoming to new players, because if you've got the patience to learn how to handle these bikes on the track, you might find yourself having fun. There are certainly less sadistic motorcycle racing games available that make their complexities more accessible. But if you're a serious gearhead who doesn't mind learning things the hard way, you may find that getting comfortable with this game's deep tuning options and realistic racing physics is worth all the scrapes and bruises you'll pick up along the way.