Version tested: Xbox 360
My understanding of the noble motorbike lurks somewhere between my understanding of owls (ast-hoot-ly observant) and my understanding of gravel (WHERE DID IT COME FROM HOW WHY ETC): I've never owned it, I don't know who makes it or how or why, but I'm capable of distinguishing it from its friends. Yes readers - I know - it's got all the makings of the Surely I'm Not The Best Person To Review This intro. But wait! I'm really quite good at MotoGP '06! And I love it to bits! So either this is a complete failure, or it's that rarest of things: a niche game with genuinely broad appeal. Stop paging down to the score.
No, really, stop paging down to the score. You're going to have to be patient. Otherwise you might struggle with the game proper. And that would be a real shame. So slow down. Pace a bit. Stroll around the drive-way. WAIT! What's that noise? AAARHH GRAVEL RUN.
This here MotoGP's handling model comes across as a further refinement of the excellent mechanics that made up the three Xbox games. You can brake at the front and back of the bike independently, make your choice of analogue or digital acceleration, and move around in the saddle to make that critical difference to top-speed, deceleration and cornering. GP '06 also retains the slightly odd power-slide move, accessed by nudging the back brake or double-tapping accelerate, allowing you to say pooh to the tightening of a corner by trying to zoom out of it instead of braking.
And, as I say, bike virgins will take a while to adjust to all of this. Approaching a corner requires more planning than that wise decision you made to tarmac over the scary stones outside. Not only do you need to brake heavily and then power out of the turns, but you've nowhere near as much time to find the right line as you would in a car, and if you mess it up then you're either going to collide violently with the barrier and fly off, losing several seconds, or you're going to snake around like an oil tanker. Full of gravel.
It's worth putting the time in though. Because, as the MotoGP fans yawning their way through the basics will happily tell you once they're done throwing weird, scary, unnatural congregations of domestic stone at my face, there's really very little else that comes this close to simulating a motorbike.
So to paragraph six and a more pointed thought: MotoGP '06 is a bit harsher than it used to be. I didn't spend as long with GP3 as I did with its predecessors, admittedly, but even so it feels like there's a bit more frailty to the rider this time. That'll upset a few people, I expect, but someone with an eye for the smaller details of control should have no trouble picking it up. The tutorial only covers the very basics, but Rookie difficulty allows plenty of room to foul up without costing you races, and an associated mode instils the subtler disciplines under the successful guise of a PGR-style ladder of challenges. Yes you'll spend a lot of time in the gravel (noo!), but after a couple of hours in the saddle, whether you're learning the ropes or returning to them after a break, you're more than capable of stepping up to Pro championships.
What's more, should you need time to get used to any of the MotoGP season tracks, there's plenty of room to do that across practice and qualifying sessions prior to the race proper. That said, this reviewer hasn't touched a bike game in months and didn't have much need for either until the Champion difficulty - at which point a solid pole and a steady line through corners proved an absolute must. With so many points of entry though, it's hard to imagine MotoGP '06 frustrating you for too long. And if you're still glowering, mumbling things about how only a numpty would need time to learn such brilliant and widely known circuits, you're the sort of person who'll appreciate that GP '06 includes full 2005 and 2006 season data too.
It's not just about racing around Laguna Seca and Donnington either. As with MotoGP 3, there's a street-biking mode called Extreme, with a bespoke track to complement each of the licensed game's 17. The idea here was to highlight the excitement that swells around each GP, where bikers often group together and put on displays, by offering a range of street races loosely drawing upon features of each track's surrounding area. The result is probably the best bit of the game, with street bike riders in jeans zooming around wider tracks in several engine categories. Extreme's undoubtedly an easier ride to start with too, notably in that you can power-slide much further without falling off, and asks less technical questions of your biking skill. You might call it MotoGP's arcade mode.
Then there are the Challenges - also welcome. A bit like PGR3's non-race offerings, they're about hammering away at a task until you've drawn the most speed from a particular sequence of corners, outpaced a rival over a lap's distance and danced through chicanes like a metallic ballerina. As well as building up your technical skills and being a genuinely useful diversion from the slog of championships, they also add a few more experience points to the total you build up elsewhere.
Experience points allow you to refine your bike's stats in key areas of cornering, braking, acceleration and top speed, and they're global attributes rather than bike-specific. Not only does this help you build up, but it offers a simpler way to tweak settings if you fancy attacking some time trial circuits. MotoGP's always been happy to let you customise individual bikes - and you can still manipulate gear ratios, wheelbase, suspension and tyre compounds - but by moving your points into different areas you can make another difference. This kind of duality of approachability and biking depth is dead handy, and as far as those of you with a mission to absolutely cane the hell out of GP '06 go, it means another layer of expertise to acquire.
Meanwhile, on a technical level, GP '06 is phenomenal. The circuits are near-perfect facsimiles and the eye candy's as textured as it is tasty - from rubber laid down through sharp braking to the juddering gravel traps, and slight bumps in Extreme mode's civvy streets unseating you easily and asking a more deliberate approach. Extreme's tracks look particularly magnificent, as it goes, with a much broader range of trackside detail, while environmental effects like rain and fog are handled competently and prefaced by some of the prettiest clouds around.
Of course this is to say nothing of the bikes themselves, which are done up to a level of detail barely fathomable by old-days Xboxen. When we visited THQ a while ago we were walked through the detail to an almost nauseating degree - right down to the way the carbon fibre mesh had been modelled - and developer Climax's observation that where the game had to pretend before it can simply fill in the gaps now seems astute. There's more detail here than perhaps you'll ever appreciate, but the game engine rarely stutters under the weight of it - even with 20 riders on the track - and there are only barely noticeable level-of-detail effects between this and what you might imagine is Climax's optimal level of detail. It's one of the most detailed racing games we've ever seen.
The same level of detail's gone into the sound too, and all the bikes are quite distinctive. You can tell whether it's an Extreme or a GP race without even glancing at the screen. It seems all those evenings spent in containers sampling engine revs were time well spent, then - indulgence is a glorious thing when it's put to such good use.
Sadly all this detail does come at a slight price and that's loading times, which are quite sizable. PGR3 was no different, it's fair to say, and GP certainly isn't any less playable on account of them, but it might have been nice to do some of this stuff in the background. Challenge mode, for example, surely could've kept its detailed instructions on how to address individual corners for the load screens rather than having you commit them to memory before you even start the process.
You also have to question the game's attitude to reward in some places. Extreme mode, for example, requires you to complete a 17-track GP season to access, and while you can understand Climax's desire to put its licensed fare front and centre, the fact that Extreme is actually a good bit friendlier on its lowest levels feels a bit contradictory. The game's also rather stingy with its achievements and gamerscore points, only really starting to cough them up at a regular rate after a solid day of play when some of the more serious difficulty levels are conquered. That's fair enough on some level, but adds to the sense that the game's aimed more at the hardcore racing fan than somebody who might have enjoyed GP3's slightly arcadier approach, when actually in all other respects it handles the broad strokes fine. That said, you can't complain too much about the seeding system, which gives you a tangible sense of gain with each victory - and helps in matching players online.
Online is something MotoGP helped kickstart for Microsoft in its original incarnation (albeit with an add-on component bundled with the original Live package - it wasn't until GP2 that the game was built to fully accommodate Live), and it's smoothly handled here with separate players-of-matched-skill and ranked matches and all the options you'd expect - including a PGR3-style spectating facility if you have to sit out a round because you got there late. Then again there's another flag to be raised for the decision to hold back the more interesting modes, like Tag, where you have to try and put the best times in on corners to claim them in your name, with the winner the person who "owns" the most corners by the end. Tag may be something that those with a solid base of skill will most enjoy, but it would've been nice to have the option to lose horribly at it from the start - if only to whet the appetite.
Still, none of this is fatal in the slightest - and once you've unlocked a few things and reached a plateau halfway up the learning curve, there's a huge amount of challenging content to pick at and a great deal of incentive to do so thanks to multiple rating systems, rewards, integrated leaderboards and a huge number of unlockables, including reversed tracks.
MotoGP remains a bit of an acquired taste - but then that's motorbikes in general isn't it? Approached with a bit of patience it yields great results - and probably represents the pinnacle of biking games across both Xbox formats to date. Improved load times and a bit more encouragement for the newcomer would guarantee it higher marks, but don't confuse yourself with that score - if you've a passion for bikes this could be a system-seller, and if you like well designed racing games you'd be a fool to miss out too. Where PGR3 appeals to people who see "red car" just as much as them that can tell it's a '97 Audi, similarly MotoGP '06 is a game that knows its place and welcomes you to it whatever your background.
8 / 10