Version tested: Xbox 360
After wracking my brains for several days, trying to figure out which other game MotoGP 07's supposedly intimidating difficulty curve resembles, I've finally worked it out.
It's not a Formula One game, although that would appear to be the obvious comparison. After all, both skew more towards accurate simulation than arcade thrills and both tend to send gamers unfamiliar with the difference screaming into the darkness. Nor is it Gran Turismo, or any of the other more realistic racers out there. While MotoGP features a line-up of state of the art real world bikes with far-reaching opportunities for technical tinkering, it's always been a series more in love with the adrenalin of the race than the aesthetics of the ride. For all its attention to technical detail, this isn't auto-porn.
No, the game that crept into the back of my mind while playing MotoGP 07 was, somewhat bizarrely, Guitar Hero. Think about it. Both look really cool when in the hands of an expert, both seem incredibly hard if you play using a mindset that works in other games, and yet both reward patience and practice with a rush of pure gaming joy when you realise you've cracked something that once seemed impossible.
To be honest, I've never really understood why people find MotoGP so daunting. If I had a custard slice for every time I've heard someone complain that they fly off the track at every corner, I'd have - well, enough custard slices to make me a very fat boy indeed. So let's get this out of the way right now. It's very possible - and actually rather simple - to get round a MotoGP track without leaving face scrapings across the tarmac at every bend. Are you ready? Here's the big secret: YOU HAVE TO SLOW DOWN.
I mean, really slow down. Motorbikes aren't cars and, in a game with such painstakingly balanced physics as this, trying to hurl them into hairpins at 200mph just isn't going to work. So, yes, you slow down. Right down. And then once you've entered the bend at a non-fatal angle, you can hammer the accelerator on the way out. That's how the sport works, and a huge part of the appeal is knowing how to squeeze those extra few mph around each corner to take pole position without muffing it all up. It's common sense really, and the game even boasts a multitude of features to help you get your head around the concept. Independent braking for front and back wheels means that you can adjust your slide with precision even while cornering. You can also alter the wheelbase and other mechanical bits to improve your braking and turning circle. Even the icons that appear to let you know which way the track is going to bend next flash red if your approach is too fast or at an unfavourable angle.
So let's have no more of this "MotoGP is too hard" silliness. What it is, is challenging. This is a game that makes you work before you see any evidence of progress and this, coupled with the misunderstood handling, is probably why it has such a hardcore reputation. In Ellie's preview earlier this year, the game's creative manager, Craig McCracken (no relation to Zak) was quite adamant that this year's update would be more accessible, with words like "mainstream", "immediacy" and "spectacle" being bandied about like so much cheap funfair bunting. Fans who feared this meant the series was going casual can breathe a sigh of relief - the concessions are minimal, to be honest. The handling is slightly less unforgiving than before, but we're still a long way from Enduro Racer.
The number one question in the mind of fans is "Have they addressed the visual flaws from last year?" and the answer is "Yes, they have. Thanks for asking. Help yourself to some peanuts". The frame rate on corners in MotoGP 06 was cause for concern, bringing with it some ugly v-sync tearing, but that seems to be a thing of the past. There's still the occasional stumble, but nothing to compare with what came before. The bike handling, meanwhile, is much as it ever was, and newcomers will still need to practice on the numerous track challenges before they can start clocking up clean laps. The addition of visual cues, such as juddering wheels, are actually of more benefit to those familiar with the series and its control. To a novice, it's just a wobbly wheel. To someone more steeped in MotoGP lore, it's an obvious indicator that your speed and trajectory need tweaking.
More disappointingly, the much touted attempts to recreate the razzle dazzle of a MotoGP event are fairly naff. Introductory animations show poorly rendered mechanics and umbrella girls milling around the track, often using the same animation loops and passing through each other. You'll be skipping past these to get to the action in no time. Once on the track, the larger and supposedly more dynamic crowds barely register. They cheer as you race past. Sometimes someone lets off a smoke flare. A helicopter might buzz overhead. That's about it. Nothing that hasn't been seen in, ooh, every racing game ever made.
The popular Extreme mode is still present and correct, offering marginally grittier street races around the cities hosting each official event, but the handling isn't distinct enough to make it anything more than a less formal appetizer to the main event. A more worthy addition can be found in the online section, where you can now gamble your hard-earned (and painstakingly customised) bikes in pink slip races. Lose the race, lose your bike. MotoGP has always had a robust multiplayer component and community and this idea serves both well.
In terms of accuracy, the game does a better job of making you believe you're racing against actual MotoGP riders than ever before. Current trophy hogs Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi almost always lead the pack and, as you progress up to Legend difficulty, you start to suspect it might be easier to catch them in real life. Improvements to the AI are more like tweaks than radical overhauls, but the way the riders bunch around the track feels a lot more fluid - and it changes from skill level to skill level as well.
The hike between Rookie and Pro mode is more pronounced than ever, another indicator that talk of making the game more welcoming to newcomers hasn't quite borne fruit. And, of course, the game now features the Misano, newly added to the MotoGP roster and making its real life debut this very week. Taken along with all the other refinements, and the fun pink slip mode, the addition of a long awaited new track is more than enough to make this a worthy update for fans of both franchise and sport.
Whether or not it's accessible enough for the sought-after mainstream gamer is harder to answer. The game has never really been that hard, just misunderstood, but it can still seem off-putting. It's obvious that Climax is aware the handling scares people, yet the training mode is as cold and useless as ever. Rather than using comforting words to explain exactly how to ride a bike, how to approach corners, how to master the sharp braking and bursts of speed required for victory, it simply dumps you in a series of coned areas and leaves you to work the handling out for yourself through trial and error. Big whoop. It can be mastered, obviously, but it's a curiously aloof teaching method in a game supposedly chasing new fans.
Even the Achievements seem designed to keep the uninitiated at arms length, grudgingly doling out tiny plaudits after hours of ferocious concentration. Clearly this is fine for the hardcore player, who'll be in it for the long haul regardless, but it can leave everyone else feeling inadequate and unrewarded. To put it in perspective, if you win a racing season at every difficulty level - a feat which requires over 70 races and phenomenal skill - you'll still only have earned a measly 100 Gamerpoints, half of what MotoGP 06 handed out. It's not that Achievements should be given out like candy, but they can be a great way to draw noobs in without compromising the difficulty of the actual game, and to be so miserly with them while allegedly trying to attract new players feels counter-productive.
And so it goes. MotoGP has always been a series on the cusp of greatness, an 8/10 niche franchise that, with a little more thought, could easily be a 9/10 breakout hit. This entry, the last from original developer Climax, could have been the one to finally make that breakthrough. A triumphant, genre-defining swansong. Instead it's a safe and solid continuation of what's worked in the past. Existing fans can therefore rejoice, but all those fabled mainstream gamers may still find it a snarling pitbull of a game and back slowly away. Their loss.
8 / 10