Version tested: PlayStation 3
The Tour de France is a fabled race, and one that's rich with over 100 years of prestige; this year, it's 21 stages over the course of 3 weeks that take in the breadth of France's landscape, the picturesque flats of the Brittany and the punishing ascents of the Pyrenees all attacked under a hot July sun by a dedicated throng of some of the world's fittest athletes. The stamina and strength to see it through those three weeks makes it one of sport's greatest physical endeavours, and the dedication needed to see success cements its place as one of sport's great spectacles.
All of which is quite hard to translate to the plastic controller thatís in your hands while you're lying prostrate on the sofa on a summery Sunday afternoon, one eye looking wistfully out the window and thinking you'd be better off, you know, riding a bike yourself.
But that's a task that French developer Cyanide - lonely veterans of the scene with numerous PC cycle management games under its belt, as well as an ill-conceived Xbox Live Arcade outing a couple of years back - has made its trade. Setting themselves up for a fall, this lot, but there's one thing that's authentic: like the real thing, Tour de France 2011 is utterly impenetrable and has a certain French stubbornness about it.
The learning curve here is steeper than the Tour's highest climb, and it does little to ease in anyone unaccustomed to the sport's various eccentricities. Know how to manipulate a peloton, maintain an echelon or exploit a relay to its full potential? You'll likely be stoking search engines trying to find the meaning behind these new and unfamiliar terms as much as you're prodding buttons in mild confusion, as Cyanide certainly isn't forthcoming with any answers.
Instead, after a flicker-book tutorial that only really compounds the confusion, you're thrown into the 132-strong peloton with little in the way of introduction. Teams are chosen from the off to attack either the Tour in its entirety or a solo stage, and control is restricted to a single rider chosen just before the stage. It's up to you to pick which one's best for the task, be that a sprinter for some of the early, flat stages, a climber for those that spiral up into the clouds or a puncher for races that ask for those quick, energetic bursts.
Again it's something you'll have to figure out for yourself, with little to no guidance from the game. There's no due warning of what the next stage brings, nor an indication of what physical condition your riders are in and subsequently who's best placed to attack. It's archaic in its demands; to enjoy any success you'll need a pen and paper to hand, to be studious and to look outside of the game for guidance.
It's a game that assumes you'll be as intimate with the sport as the developer, though it's that very intimacy that's Tour de France's saving grace. There's an authenticity, and a passion, that shines through the laborious presentation and budget visuals. This year's leading teams are all present to a degree, modelling well-replicated jerseys but sporting a few aberrations here and there: Team Leopard Trek become Team Guepard Trik, and the brothers Schleck are now christened Schlick and Schlock, a pairing that's actually got a nice cadence of its own.
Stages, too, are authentic, but again to a fashion. Rather than presenting you with a stage in all of its arse-numbing, 200k-plus entirety, they're each broken down into manageable sections, taking in highlights of the course; typically, it's the start, a sprint in the middle and the final mad dash to the line, each coming in at around 10k and ensuring that stages still take a healthy 10-15 minutes to complete.
More importantly, each gradient has been authentically mapped (which means, in lieu of the game offering any worthwhile assistance, guides such as the Guardian's can come in terribly handy). It's close to the real thing, though that's providing you're watching the Tour with a plastic bag over your head.
There's a paucity to the visuals that indicates the game's modest roots. Riders are all one model, as, disappointingly for those with a bike fetish, are the rides themselves. The environments fare a little better: the Tour is one long OutRun stage, all rolling hills, runs through small towns and scenic Alpine routes, and that much is intact if a little wonky.
They're enough to soothe you into Tour de France's gentle rhythm, though, and it's as stealthily engaging as an afternoon spent transfixed by the race itself. Stages are best attacked with discipline and reserve, and the tactics soon begin to unfold. Though you're in control of a single rider, orders can be implemented through a radio earpiece. It's as clunky as a rusty Raleigh in its implementation, but it runs the full gamut of options: riders can be sent to the front of the peloton to up its pace, ordered to break away or tasked with protecting you should you want to make the break yourself.
Races are satisfyingly organic, and the high-speed shepherding of the 132-thick peloton becomes incredibly engrossing. It's soon clear that it's best not to race for glory yourself, but rather play as a domestique, riding to and from teammates and orchestrating a grand plan. The game recognises and rewards that too, and earning the Maillot Jaune for one of your comrades is as good as winning it for your own back.
And winning the yellow jersey isn't everything; cycling's a sport that's rich with meta-achievements, whether that's punching for mid-race sprint points or making a bid to be king of the mountains - and sometimes, a solid afternoon's work in the peloton is reward enough.
Tour de France 2011 is ultimately, however, a little too confident in the appeal of the Tour itself, offering nothing beyond the 21 stages and not even making a cursory attempt at multiplayer. You'll have to bring a passion of your own to see through the game's many deficiencies, but it'll be a passion shared by the developer of this endearing curio.
6 / 10