Version tested: Xbox 360
The 2011 Superbike World Championship is under way, and it's shaping up to be a classic. Last year's champion, Max Biaggi, put down the fastest lap times at Phillip Island and Monza, but was denied a first-place finish on both occasions. He also suffered an embarrassing disqualification at Donington Park after he failed to pull in for a jump start, and this helped Carlos Checa edge out a lead over his former MotoGP team-mate. However, rivalry is the mother of epic racing and it will be interesting to see how this season progresses.
Healthy competition has also played its part in recent motorcycle games, with Monumental and Milestone taking charge of the respective MotoGP and SBK licenses. The ensuing rivalry has resulted in some excellent simulations. SBK X took the crown last year with its superlative riding physics, but with Monumental stepping up its game with MotoGP 10/11, the disparity between the series has shifted from a difference in quality to two distinct styles of racing simulation.
Milestone needs to make a confident response - and because it already had an accomplished template to build upon, SBK 2011 has turned out to be tempered refinement rather than ballsy revolution. This means the presentation and structure will be instantly familiar to anyone who bought SBK X. But once you take this game out for a spin, it's clear that Milestone has focused its efforts on the simulation.
SBK 2011 removes the separate Arcade mode that featured in last year's game. This means anyone who fell in love with the Boost and Wheelie buttons (anyone...?) will have to switch to Low simulation as the lowest point of entry. But with more progressive assistance between the three levels of riding simulation, SBK 2011 offers genuine accessibility.
The new SBK Tour mode makes up for the lack of arcade features by offering 50 racing challenges. These start out easy and include a lap of Silverstone on an Aprillia RSV4 Factory without exceeding 60 seconds of maximum braking time, but quickly move to trickier tasks like a lap of Vallelunga on a Ducati 1198R in less than 165 seconds with at least 25 seconds of wheelie time. Completing these challenges also unlocks bikes and riders for the fourth Legendary class, including Carl Fogarty on his Ducati 996 and Pierfrancesco Chili on his Suzuki GSX750R.
The other modes include Quick Race, Time Attack, Championship and Race Weekend, all of which make a return on a copy-and-paste basis. The updated roster also features the riders and teams for the new Superbike season, including Marco Melandri and Eugene Laverty for the Yamaha World Superbike Team. But the Supersport and Superstock classes are based on last year's line-up, so anyone looking for Luca Scassa will find the Italian glaringly absent.
(We asked Milestone for comment and it said: "The reason is connected to development of the game. The liveries and teams of 2011 for Supersport and Superstock are available too late in the production cycle of the game to be updated".)
Another absentee is the Motorland Aragon circuit which is supposed to replace Kyalami for the 2011 season, but to make up for this discrepancy, Milestone has included all 14 circuits from SBK X along with two new additions: Silverstone and Vallelunga. Silverstone needs no introduction and is faithfully recreated with its new Arena layout. Vallelunga is a perilously twisty track that was last seen in the 2008 SBK season when Noriyuki Haga narrowly beat Biaggi to the top of the podium.
Anyone looking to craft their own racing legacy will find solace in the returning Career mode. This is very similar to last year's offering but features some welcome revisions, including new technology tests that make upgrading your bike less of a headache, and a more sedate presentation that replaces the office backdrop from SBK X. Otherwise, you have eight years to advance from the bottom of Superstock to the top of Superbike, and with four levels of difficulty to choose from, this can be a complete cakewalk or an extreme test of riding skill.
The racing pack AI is also more believable, with riders that react naturally to your stealthy overtakes and botched corners. While the graphical improvements are marginal, the rider animations now seamlessly transition from sweeping corners to thundering straights. But to fully appreciate these subtle nuances you'll need to tame the revised riding model.
Ask three SBK fans what they didn't like about SBK X and you could get three different answers, as bike games are very subjective. But one prevailing criticism was a perceived stiffness and a lack of cornering flexibility. SBK 2011 seeks to remedy this with a framework that feels looser and more responsive, and while the changes are far from dramatic, they do allow for more aggressive riding.
Full simulation is now less punishing and will hopefully encourage more players to ditch the training wheels after reaching the boundaries of Low and Medium simulation. And while the steering flexibility is offset by a rear brake that's less useful for mid-corner alterations, the overall effect is a physics model that's more natural and less scripted. But in terms of value for money, should you buy SBK 2011 if you already own SBK X?
It's a question that rests entirely on your expectations. If you played SBK X casually and stuck to Arcade mode, then this probably isn't the game for you. But if you engaged with the Simulation mode and enjoyed knocking the second off your best lap times, then SBK 2011 is a no-frills update that takes another step towards simulation supremacy. And because this is a two-horse race, comparisons with MotoGP are unavoidable.
MotoGP 10/11's main weakness is an online mode that's plagued by connection issues, so by offering an environment that's comparatively stable, SBK 2011 is the online racer of choice. Otherwise, it's a difficult decision between simulation styles that boils down to personal preference. MotoGP 10/11 has a more advanced physics model with a narrow focus, while SBK 2011 offers a more flexible racing experience that's a few shades more hardcore.
What lets it down is an overall lack of progression from last year's game. But once you adapt to the improved riding model, you'll probably overlook the lack of new gimmicks. In short, SBK 2011 is a solid upgrade on an already winning formula.
7 / 10