Milestone won a race last year. It may have been a two bike race between SBK X: Superbike World Championship and MotoGP 09/10, but in terms of who earned the accolade of "real riding simulator", Milestone proved a premiere racing license doesn't necessarily make for a more realistic simulation. It also takes dedication, experience and – due to the complex nature of two-wheeled physics – a meticulous attention to detail.
But as accomplished as SBK X was, it also suffered from a few design flaws. These ranged from fairly bland presentation and a generally forgettable Arcade Mode to uneven difficulty scaling and excessive loading times between race sessions. They were minor niggles, but they forced left SBK X a few laps short of unadulterated brilliance.
Cut to 2011 and Milestone is ready to show us what a passionate Italian studio can achieve with a few months of fine tuning. The title of its new game, SBK 2011, comes as no surprise. Just like FIFA and Forza, SBK is a constantly evolving series which is released for public consumption at set intervals. The development process never ends. But what does come as a surprise is just how much Milestone has listened to fan feedback.
Our hands-on with the game took the form of three track days designed to showcase the revisions which have been made to SBK's three levels of riding simulation. The first let us take current world champion, Max Biaggi, around an empty Portimao circuit on his thundering Aprilia RSV4. And to make sure we went five laps without amassing a smash hits compilation of high and low sides, Milestone set the simulation to low.
This riding model feels suitably authentic, and compared to last year, there's a stronger sense of easing you into the complexities of motorcycle racing without punishing you too harshly for mistakes.
That's not to say SBK X's entry-level simulation was overly difficult but with a more forgiving mix of riding assists now running diligently in the background, a more balanced level of stabilisation has been achieved - without any drifting into the area of arcade physics.
After a few laps of cornering concentration I instigated a "Who can maintain the longest rolling stoppie" competition on the Portimao straight. Seeing the Aprilia glide on one wheel like this highlighted some graphical improvements.
The bike and rider animations are currently unchanged, as new technologies are still being implemented (including EMotion FX, apparently...). But looking at the new lighting effects and subtle motion blur, SBK 2011 is shaping up to be a less drab racer than its predecessor.
Saying goodbye to the fledgling Portimao, I was then invited to pray at The Cathedral – otherwise known as Assen. With this came a shift up to medium simulation as well as a shift down from Superbikes to Supersport.
I also traded Mad Max's Aprilia for Kenan Sofuoglu's smaller, but no less championship winning, Honda CBR600RR. At least it's what the power of dreams are made of.
Letting the good times roll, I bested a Kawasaki ZX-6RR off the starting grid and hurtled towards the first right hander. As I negotiated Assen's famous hairpin and chicane, it quickly became apparent that the gap between low and medium simulation has been bridged more progressively. In SBK X, it was hard to tell them apart.
The intermediate riding physics now feel like a genuine compromise between beginner and hardcore. You'll still be punished for braking too late or gunning the throttle too early, turning a perfectly planned apex into a jagged mess of fifty-pence-piece proportions.
But if you keep a level head and pay close attention to what the bike is doing, then the worst cornering scenarios are more than avoidable. This fine tuning also addresses the under steer problems which hampered the bikes at low speeds.
In SBK X the bikes didn't turn in with enough pace through the tighter bends, and while this made the Superbike class harder to control, it was an artificial way to augment the difficulty.
Based on our impressions, SBK 2011 is set to emulate leaning physics more accurately. This is especially noticeable during mid-corner corrections - if you take things too wide, you can now lower your speed and lean the bike with more immediacy.
Milestone is trying to make the low and medium simulations a less daunting proposition, and while this is good news for fair weather riders, uncompromising gear heads are still catered for by the full simulation. And just to prove it hasn't gone soft, Milestone took us back to Portimao for a dose of this unabashed realism.
We also had to tackle the perils of motorcycling kryptonite (i.e. rain) as we steadily edged the Aprilia round a wet track while using the throttle in more tentative bursts. One lap and two crashes later, it was clear that this pure simulation – devoid of handholding – is what every feature in SBK 2011 will be built around, and what every hardcore racing fan will aspire to tame.
If there's one prevailing criticism of SBK X it's that the arcade style Story Mode felt tacked on. But rather than scrap it, Milestone plans to introduce a revised Tour Mode which will be more akin to the license system from Gran Turismo. It also wants to overhaul the Career Mode into something less arduous.
Last year's trek from Superstock to Superbike felt dragged out because there was no way to start a race quickly. Instead you had to laboriously skip through each free practise, warm-up and qualifier before finally reaching the main event.
Milestone has promised to fix this with three customisable layouts – "Real", "Qualify and Race" and "Race only" – which can be selected before a race weekend. Further revisions will include a part testing system that's easier to understand, more realistic fall animations and the ability to download ghost data from the Time Attack leaderboards.
After the success of SBK X there was a risk that SBK 2011 could turn out be a lazy update, but based on this evidence, Milestone are crafting a sequel which aims to be a more realistic racing simulation and a more gratifying arcade racer. It's addressing many of the issues raised by its dedicated fan-base while also making the low-level simulation more accessible for the casual player.
The 2011 Superbike World Championship season kicks off soon with MotoGP soon to follow. While the likes of Lorenzo, Pedrosa, Biaggi and Haslam battle it out on the track, Milestone is gearing up for a fight of its own.
Monumental is currently keeping MotoGP 10/11 under wraps, but the current race leader has just thrown down the gauntlet with an impressive display of riding finesse. All in all, it's a good time to be a motorcycle racing fan.