There was only one Xbox Live launch title that really stood out for us, despite a couple of other exciting titles, and that was Climax Brighton's MotoGP Online demo. By shipping with the Starter Kit, it not only got the guaranteed audience it deserved, but also inspired plenty of sales of the original game. Not a bad strategy.
Unfortunately MotoGP 2 was never going to find itself in the same position, but by rights this should be a measure greater than its illustrious predecessor - a game that came close to earning top marks from us before it even went online - and therefore one of the best games on the system. Pass the leather underwear, someone!
Although MotoGP is probably most fondly remembered for its online multiplayer, anybody who was spurred into buying the full game will attest to the quality of its single player offerings too, and MotoGP 2 is very much the same, appealing as both a simulation and an arcade title. As a simulation, it's not exactly Gran Turismo in its scope for purchasing and winning real bikes, and GT-equivalent bike porn, but it is modelled on the 2002 MotoGP season, and each race weekend offers various track-specific challenges to earn attribute points for your custom bike and rider, as well as practice, qualifying and race sessions (with three points to the winner, two to second place and one for third). Success here ungreys and unlocks latter difficulty levels and other trinkets listed in the massive "Extras" menu.
Creating a custom rider and bike remains as entertaining as it was in the first game, with nine bikes, nine leathers, and plenty of colour/number/logo combinations, and you can spread 18 initial attribute points across cornering, braking, acceleration and top speed meters, before stepping out onto the training circuit - should you wish - to earn more attribute points by completing practice tasks; navigating hairpins, pulling wheelies and endos, powersliding and slaloming successfully, etc.
If playing for the sim stakes isn't your thing though, you might fancy the more arcadey Stunt Mode, which awards points for - surprise, surprise - stunts, as well as clearing track sections in set times. Other game modes include the requisite Quick Race and Time Trial modes, as well as High Scores, which unlocks various 2002 MotoGP and bike stunt highlight videos.
Big pad, small pad
Once you get the hang of it, actually riding the bike is just as rewarding as it once was, with realistic enough physics that have you considering the timing and wisdom of overtaking manoeuvres far more than any four-wheeled racer we can remember, not least of all because of the fragility of your rider, who can go tumbling in spectacular fashion with the slightest brush of the shoulder at high speed. If anything, MotoGP 2 - like its predecessor - is a bit too unforgiving on occasion, demanding an almost perfect race on anything but the lowest difficulty setting, throwing you off-guard with adverse weather conditions from time to time and even penalising you for time spent in the sand or gravel.
But we persevered, as you should, because the optimum control scheme was and remains unlike anything offered elsewhere. The implementation of front and rear brakes on separate shoulder buttons and the two thumbsticks for steering and acceleration respectively is great, allowing for delicate control of the bike round corners, and the game even keeps the more traditional A for acceleration and B for braking scheme if you can't get your head round it.
However, a lot of people no doubt make use of that Manual option that we regularly ignore, and with gear shifting bound to the white and black buttons, playing MotoGP 2 on a Controller S is actually rather difficult. If you've still got the nasty original juggernaught of a pad then you're probably OK, as it allows you to simply move your thumb upward and right from the accelerator to change gear, but otherwise you might have problems. It shouldn't be enough to send you packing, but it could send you into the sand rather more than you'd like...
Of course, subtle control wouldn't be much use if the graphics were like watching that Lego-based White Stripes music video, but like modes and controls, the second MotoGP retains its predecessor's exceptional presentation, from the detailed track descriptions (with flybys and historical voiceovers) to tyre skid marks and vapour trails all over the shop. As before, riders shift in their seats with each turn and as you hold the left stick forward and back, offering a good visual indication of whether you're likely to wheelie or endo at any given moment, and the rider visuals are very organic on the whole - particularly as they surf the concrete and gravel at high speeds post-crash.
It's also clear after a few reckless laps that the crash visuals have been given particular attention between games, with riders flying over the handle bars, scratch marks appearing on the bikes and all sorts of twisting and contorting once the poor shmucks have been unseated. Although Climax stopped short of throwing in the bone-cracking sound effects of games like UT2003, you can see it all bubbling under the surface, often whilst the impressive weather effects dribble all over the surface of the camera.
Other impressive effects include the returning motion blur and subtle speed lines, tiny details like sky reflections on the bike chassis, a sort of hyperspace-esque visual effect that your rider carves out of the track onscreen ahead when he hits top speed. And this time there are seemingly more visual modes to unlock, alongside the usual toon, embossed, sketch modes and so on. Which certainly beats concept art in the added extra stakes.
Unfortunately though, the soundtrack side of the game still doesn't live up to the rest of it. 5.1 surround sound means you'll always have a good idea of where the pack is revving loudly and authentically around you, which is very welcome given their propensity for nudging you off the track, but all the while you're sitting there listening to gothic elevator music. Hurrah for custom soundtrack options, we say.
Live and kickstarting
It occurs to us that some of you, specifically those of you to whom the words "new tracks" and "better crashes" are little more than the currency of public relations, are probably starting to wonder what's actually changed, and it's a fair question. Arguably, the biggest change to MotoGP 2 is the level of Xbox Live integration in this version. Instead of just hacking the two previous iterations together, Climax has built the service in from the ground up. When you create a new profile, you can use your gamertag; when you subsequently fire up the game, it logs you in automatically if the connection is present; and on the whole, this is the first game we've seen where Live feels like a seamless component, and not just a separate excursion hidden behind a raft of login screens.
Naturally there are options for those who haven't coughed up for Xbox Live (and with 50,000 or so users in Europe compared to a far greater installed base, that's plenty), with four-player split-screen and sixteen-player System Link options, and of course there are several different gametypes besides racing. Tag divides the course into segments and whoever comes first in each "owns" that part (this reminds us of Virgin's Downforce), Monopolisation has you gaining points for setting new times for each segment, King of the Corner is a sort of Domination gametype with points for maintaining possession of each segment, and Winner Takes All is about capturing the other players' segments by outpacing them. Our favourite of these was probably Winner Takes All, which can go on for a while, but in all fairness we preferred the straight racing options, which is why we spent more time online than not.
And as far as Live users are concerned, it's business as usual, with Quick Match, Optimatch and Create a Match options, and a reasonable amount of games going on - even during business hours when we tried it out. Certainly the new tracks and improved crashes make for a more exciting online game, but it isn't so new that old hands will struggle to adapt.
Ahead of the pack
Sadly though, it's difficult to recommend MotoGP 2 with the same gusto we offered its predecessor. There are more tracks, bonuses, slightly improved graphics and so on here, but despite the obvious polish, the game almost feels like it's been rushed out, with Live integration more significant than new features. This feels more like MotoGP Complete than MotoGP 2. That's not to say that you won't play this for yonks and yonks. The problem is more that you may already have done.
MotoGP 2 is unarguably fantastic, offering one of the most complete online and offline racing games we've seen, and inspiring far more interest in us than a hundred half-baked four-wheelers. However if you're buying Live anew, then you're probably best advised to go for MotoGP on the Xbox Classics label along with your full price Starter Kit. MotoGP 2's core market is more likely to be those who own the Starter Kit, love the MotoGP Online demo and want something more.
Oh, and if you haven't got any of that crap and transfer bytes via horse-drawn carriage, then MotoGP 2 is an exceptional single player and offline multiplayer racer in any event, that you would be better off buying than not.