Version tested: PlayStation 2
Making, and indeed reviewing, a motorcycle game is always a tricky business. On the one hand, you've got bikers who want an accurate representation of their hobby, which despite its tearaway reputation involves a lot more thought, skill and effort than driving a car. And on the other, you've got gamers, who are more acquainted with car games and Super Hang-On than the delicate physics of bike riding. Understandably, they want to get on and have fun without actually learning to ride a bike before they can play.
Thankfully for both parties, recent years have seen an underground revolution in bike games, with several titles erring on the side of realism, and shying away from slapping a bike licence on game physics which could have been lifted straight from an '80s arcade game. Rider aids and training sections are expected these days to give bike virgins a chance, and if you're willing to persevere a little with braking in a straight line, feeding in the throttle and nailing it out of a corner, you'll come to appreciate the pull of 180mph bikes which cost half the price of a family saloon car.
Superbikes Riding Challenge is the latest addition to this new generation of bike games, and it's clear that a lot of time and effort has gone into including both bikers and gamers. Italian developer Milestone has published three previous World Superbike licensed games, and if its first bike effort in five years falls down anywhere, it's through over-ambition as it has crammed almost every possible idea into one title.
Real world motorcycle manufacturers are geographically split into Japanese and European groups, and this is very much a European rival to the Japanese Tourist Trophy, designed by Polyphony Digital. A total of 40 bikes to unlock may seem underwhelming, but the emphasis is on the top models in each range, with just a few more idiosyncratic choices thrown in. The usual suspects include Hondas, Suzukis, Ducatis and British brand Triumph, but the oddballs include Moto Guzzi and Voxan bikes, giving enough variety to keep interest levels high without forcing you to ride anything dull to increase the vehicle inventory.
The tracks provide plenty of variety too, with real world locations including Valencia, Hockenheim, Laguna Seca and Britain's Don ington Park. These are matched by fictitious road-based tracks, including London streets, Scottish Highlands and Alpine passes. The tracks have been lovingly re-created, with the infamous Corkscrew corner at Laguna Seca as tricky as it should be as you career downhill and around a tight right-hander. It's possible to spot the odd tree out of place, but the only major oddity is the rebranding of the famous Dunlop Bridge at Donington, which now sports French tyre rivals Michelin.
The graphics on both bikes and tracks are good, if not outstanding, but it does offer the benefit of seven opponents on track and on screen at any time, without any noticeable effect on the speed of the game. And the level of detail is good enough to identify the clothing worn by each rider, licensed from stylish Italian firm Dainese. The only niggle is that your opponents tend to wear the same kit as your rider, giving the strange feeling that you're actually trying to pass seven clones on your way to victory.
Bikes and clothing are unlocked in Trophy and Career modes. You need a separate profile for each mode, which gets a little annoying when you've loaded the wrong game more than once. Trophy Mode is the arcade method of unlocking kit and bikes with short three-race challenges. For each set of three events, you can pick from a choice of four bikes in a reasonably competitive group. Although the bike you choose is also given to your seven rivals, some bikes do give an easier ride to victory, so it is worth switching bikes occasionally. Particularly with the road courses, it's easier if you pick a Ducati V-twin machine.
Meanwhile, career mode takes place in seasons, with three Tours (similar to Trophy mode), and one Championship. The only difference is that the Tours and Trophy modes allow you to quit and try other things in between races, but once you're in Championship mode, you're committed until the end. Then again, at the standard three-lap length, it's not too much of a chore.
In career mode, you're given experience points based on your race performance, allowing you to upgrade your abilities. You're also able to select new pieces of kit, which have a purpose other than simply making your rider look more stylish. Each piece of kit has an effect on the statistics of your rider, which gives them more meaning than in similar games, but does raise an eyebrow when changing your boots gives you more throttle control, and improving your back protector improves your braking. However, better kit also gives you more protection in falls, and your rider can find himself unable to complete races if he becomes too injured.
In addition to the usual cornering, braking and crashing attributes, Superbikes also allows you to boost your willpower and intimidation skills. Follow another rider closely, or swerve across them, and you'll notice a blue gauge above their heads will drop. The lower it gets, the more likely they are to suddenly take a detour off the Tarmac and let you pass. By the same token, when another rider shadows you you'll hear your heartbeat as your own willpower drops. It's a nice idea, but given the speed with which you can overtake, one that rarely gets used. You'll also spot that your rivals increase in experience points as they race against you, and each rider will have a specific weak spot, with some intimidated as soon as you come close, and others launching themselves into a crash at the first corner. Ignoring intimidation, the AI of the other riders isn't bad, and they certainly seem to weave around you, rather than through you, although they do appear to get a bit confused at the first corner of certain tracks, meaning you can go from last to first in one manoeuvre.
The handling of the bikes is the most important aspect of the game, but also the least interesting to review. Mainly because it works so well, with front and rear suspension compressing over bumps and from landing wheelies and stoppies. Independent front and rear brakes allow you to corner and spin up your rear tyre with a celebration of smoking rubber, and the bikes feel realistically weighty. Crashes are suitably horrific, as bike and rider career and tumble down the road, occasionally causing further mayhem as other bikes clip them.
One disappointment is that while you are able to slide the rear wheel on corners and gain 'powerslide points' in career mode, attempting this on a dry track there's little or no warning when the slide turns into a launch pad for your bike and rider - what racers technically call a 'highside'. If you do want to play around with sliding, it's better to switch conditions to wet, when the loss of traction becomes far more predictable. And the spray from the rear tyre is a nice touch.
The manual gear option seems slow at first as the animation of your rider's foot pushing the gear into place appears to have been modelled on an arthritic 70-year-old. However, blipping the throttle to match your speed to the correct gear does improve things, and manual gears allow you to brake a fair way later. But for once, there's no shame in choosing the automatic mode in a racing game.
Slow animation also affects the oddest feature of the game. The gesture button allows you to wave your fist in the air like the highly-strung professional racer you are, but considering the only people who will see it are computer-controlled characters, or the mate sitting beside you in two-player mode, it seems a little pointless. And even more so when trying to gesture makes you sail off the track with one arm still in the air.
Superbikes Riding Challenge really does wear its heart on the sleeve of its leathers. There's a solid riding game which will appeal to any motorcycle fan, with a few idiosyncratic attempts to increase the mass audience appeal, and some niggles. It isn't as shiny as its main rival, but you can get beyond that, it's probably got the better racing action. Like the stereotype of older Italian motorcycles, it's the choice of the connoisseur. It's got enough character and fun to survive a few problems with the finishing touches, and the longer you spend with it, the more you'll appreciate it.
7 / 10