Rightly or wrongly - let's assume wrongly - I've always assumed that the simulation end of the racing market is the equivalent of breaking out the many-sided dice and little lead figurines; that it's an intimidating yet intensely rewarding wonderland designed exclusively for the kind of mind that revels in the tweaking of stats and the exploitation of complex details. That would make a superbike sim roughly analogous with a pen-and-paper RPG set within a fictional universe created by Derrida.
Previous SBK games seem to have fitted into that (possibly entirely imagined) template: likable and largely accomplished - apart from some occasionally rather oddball physics - they've been a little dry for the more general audience. Why not, eh? They're sims, after all, so crash junctions and blue shells were hardly going to slot in particularly soundlessly, and, besides, Milan-based developer Milestone seems to have a fairly solid understanding of its fans and what they're after.
With this year's instalment, SBK X, however, the developer is stretching itself somewhat. With the game's engine finally where the design team wants it to be, they're trying to open the experience up a little, with a full-on sim career campaign for their traditional audience - a first in itself - and an arcade mode that will hopefully bring in a new crowd.
Let's look at the simulation side first. In terms of physics, the main tweaks are visible in the suspension and brakes. Brakes are a little hard to judge at the moment, as the current build has a couple of major bugs in this area - I should probably point out that this is hardly unexpected in early preview code, and by no means anything to worry about for when the game is released - but if the suspension is anything to go by, the team's time has been well spent.
Even in SBK 09 the bikes could feel a little stiff as they moved around the track, but here there's a real springiness as you shift your weight back and forth. It's hardly the caricatured physics of something like Trials HD, but it adds an extra element of strategy to your race, and helps with the - first time I've ever used this word, and I feel slightly dirty - verisimilitude. (Actually, seeing as my own superbike career was cruelly cut short due to a muddle of drugs allegations and industrial espionage, I'm clearly in no position to say just how real it feels, but it feels like it feels real, and that's the important thing.)
Other improvements include what Milestone is referring to as the "evolving track": with a new weather system implemented, if it's raining over the course of each event then the well-travelled area around the racing line will gradually dry, giving players able to stick within it much greater purchase between tyre and road. Equally, if it's sunny as the laps mount up then rubber will be laid down on the corners where bikes have been braking, providing extra grip and a neat visual cue to timings if you're racing unaided.
The damage modelling has received additional tweaks - as well as impacting braking and handling as your tyres are ground down, it also looks fairly nice, with all manner of dings and scrapes appearing on your bike. But that's a small change compared to the delights of the all-new career mode, which allows you to customise your rider, accept job offers and move between teams as your reputation either improves or plummets.
Milestone's even laid on a nice 3D office for you to manage your campaign through, with lots of room on the shelves for trinkets, and a hot secretary to take your calls. Also, as the game is being made in Italy, you'll be able unlock a range of trophies you can use when you head off to punch the president in the face. (This last bit probably isn't true, so you'll have to stick with the scale model of Milan Cathedral you're already using.)
As for the arcade side, Milestone has rebuilt the physics engine from the ground up, and it shows. There's a streamlined career mode available - transition between leagues is notably quicker, apparently - and the controls have been redesigned for simplicity, with a single brake replacing front and rear options, and a tuck button - essentially a speed boost which comes with reduced manoeuvrability - replacing the more complex business of weight distribution.
Milestone's currently deciding whether to allow the evolving track into this portion of the game, but even without it it's a pleasure to play: it's much harder to fall off - although I managed it - and the more direct handling makes the tilty-turny pleasures of bike racing far more accessible. That said, it's not simply an easier version of the sim campaign - rather, it feels like an entirely different kind of challenge, replacing tactics with a welcome twitchiness.
Graphically, it can be clear at times that Milestone is working with a relatively small budget, but it's working extremely hard. Along with 3D crowds and trees, SBK X has much improved skyboxes - vivid and dramatic vistas to race beneath. On the open spaces of Portimao with the rain tipping down and the clouds gathering, it's a very stylish game, while effects like motion blur isolate racers from the background nicely, making the moment-to-moment experience much easier to read.
A first-person view - currently only included in the sim campaign - brings the sharper turns of Monza to life in a brilliantly queasy manner, and if you can handle racing from this perspective, you'll certainly feel a genuine sense of the sport's delightful dangers coming across. The developer is also promising never to dip below 30 frames per second.
With 14 tracks, at least 80 bikes, and online multiplayer topping out at 16 players, Milestone is offering a generous chunk of game across its two distinct modes. If you'd expected another largely incremental update to the series in the manner of previous instalments, then SBK X may well be a pleasant surprise - the fruits of a small team thinking big; of a somewhat niche sport itching to net itself a wider audience.
SBK X is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in Q2 2010.