Servicing a niche can be a thankless task. This is especially true when the niche in question is already dominated by another game, and you're the one battling to make your mark.
So it is for SBK '08, the official game of the Superbike World Championship, a racing series that has yet to claw the spotlight away from the more successful MotoGP games. With MotoGP now switching to Capcom for future instalments, this gear change could be the opening that Italian publisher Black Bean Games needs to nip into pole position and win the hearts of bike-loving gamers everywhere.
Last year's effort seemed to be courting the more casual racer, with its lifestyle approach and forgiving handling. Based on time spent with a virtually complete playable build of this year's entry in the series, this seems to be a development that has been swiftly reversed. While the option for slightly less demanding arcade handling is still included, the game has reverted back to being a more technical experience.
As you'd expect, all the 2008 riders and tracks are here, including the new Miller Park track, which debuted in real life at the beginning of this month. Black Bean proudly revealed that Superbike teams such as Ducati, Honda, Kawasaki and Suzuki were all provided with pre-release code so their riders could practice the course before the actual event. It makes for a nice PR soundbite, of course, but all this really proves is that they've produced an accurate model of the course - which is only to be expected.
You get six play modes to choose from, though the distinction between them can be slim. Instant Action, for instance, drops you straight into a race with no messing about. Quick Race, on the other hand, at least lets you choose the track and team. Time Attack is self explanatory, while Race Weekend and Championship are where you go for the full SBK experience. These involve multiple practice and qualifying laps, essential for those who want to tweak and tune their bike before risking their leaderboard position, but also skippable if you're in a rush. The options available here are commendable in their scope - you can even dictate the weight of your rider if you want to get really technical - but there's also an engineer who will automatically tune your bike to best suit the task ahead.
Not quite as expected are the numerous standalone challenges, which range from stunts such as skids, wheelies and stoppies, to dedicated scenarios like winning a race on a damaged bike, surviving with no brakes, or racing in torrential rain. Not the sort of thing that will provide long-term amusement, but a welcome distraction all the same. There's also multiplayer, although obviously we weren't able to actually test that against live opponents for the moment. The options for creating online races seem basic, though, with nothing to rival MotoGP's pink slip races where you risk losing your personalised bike. You'll also find the usual unlockables, with videos of SBK races a nice offering for fans. There are pictures of umbrella girls as well, if you're that sort of person.
On the track is where it matters though, and it's here that SBK comes up short when compared to MotoGP. It's visually passable, with no obvious screen-tearing and a smooth frame-rate, but the backgrounds are suffering from some alarming pop-up at the moment. The character models don't exactly impress either. They look okay while on the bikes, but switching camera angles in the replays reveals digitised faces of real racers rather crudely pasted into the crash helmets and some awkward animation. Trackside details are limited, and the moments when you catch a glance of the rigid stick figure crowds do tend to take you out of the game a little.
The physics are also of variable quality. The sense of speed is impressive when hammering down a straight, but the bikes seem to lack weight on the corners while impacts lack substance. Tweaking the realism settings seems to help this a little, but the Arcade setting still handles too much like a simulation while the Simulation setting is still a lot more forgiving than the precision of MotoGP. At this stage, it's neither one nor the other. I'm afraid the AI doesn't exactly impress either, with riders quickly forming a queue along the racing line and barely reacting to your presence, even as you nudge their back tire or jostle past them. The sensation of thundering alongside some of the biggest names in the sport simply isn't there yet.
It's always hard to gauge the potential of the end product from unfinished preview code, but there's enough here that doesn't feel quite right to suggest Black Bean have got a busy time ahead making it race-ready. The car racing genre may have room for the likes of PGR, Burnout and Gran Turismo to co-exist, but even though SBK and MotoGP are different disciplines, as far as gaming is concerned there's no room for second-place bike games. There's clearly a lot of work to be done before SBK '08 is ready to mount a serious challenge for the console biking trophy.
SBK 08: Superbike World Championship is due out on Xbox 360, PS2, PC and PSP on 20th June, and on PS3 in Q3.