Aimed at biking aficionados (and aficionadas - you can fiddle with the rider's leather you know), Tourist Trophy is meant as a counterpoint to Polyphony Digital's exhaustive Gran Turismo series. The set-up is immediately familiar - a series of "licence tests" to familiarise yourself with the concepts, a garage area where you can house and tune all the bikes you've acquired, and an enormous range of races in a variety of locations. The idea is to reapply Polyphony's renowned attention to detail, and biking fans sick of lightweight simulators are understandably excited.
They may very well enjoy themselves. Compared to MotoGP - one of the most celebrated series around - it's vicious. MotoGP knocks you over quite a lot, but you can generally see why you went over. Maybe you've gone too fast into a corner, or you're going too fast across the gravel, or you're powersliding a bit longer than you should be, or you're driving into somebody doing a handstand - that sort of thing. It's frustrating, but you know what you did wrong. Tourist Trophy doesn't care whether you understand why you've fallen over. It slaps you on the wrist every time you try to let your hair down. Make no mistake - this is a game where concentration is a must, and without the requisite biking experience only the dedicated need apply.
And while those of you who've been waiting for this sort of challenge can happily run off and buy it, the rest of us are left here wondering what the hell to make of it. For us, it exposes the flaws in the GT concept at every turn. And Tourist Trophy isn't without its own problems either.
We might as well start with the licence tests, since the game does. In many respects they're next to useless - overly easy to begin with, and full of instruction that goes right over my head. I understand the words, and the descriptions, but the basic problem I have is not that I can't find the optimum line through a hairpin, it's that I don't understand why I keep falling over, or what I have to do to be allowed to go fast through, well, anything; it's that on the occasions I do succeed, I can't really tell what I did differently.
Gran Turismo is frequently berated for assuming an incredible level of ignorance in the player, and then failing to offer practical advice anyway by giving you a radically different car for every test. But where GT did these things, it almost didn't matter - and you could forgive it to a certain extent, because aiming for the gold medals was moreish. Tourist Trophy does these things and, from my perspective, it does matter. I've had tons of fun with MotoGP and I still struggle with Tourist Trophy after countless hours. So, depending on your level of biking experience, the game either fails to teach or, if you do get it, simply repeats GT's haphazard approach and gets damned with the same faint praise. Some sort of beginner's course would have been invaluable, rather than expecting you to pick it up the hard way - and if that sounds like whinging, bear in mind that Tourist Trophy asks a lot more of you than either of the rival MotoGP series.
Things don't really improve when you graduate and start trying to win bikes. Tourist Trophy adopts a different strategy to GT. Instead of earning money and then investing it in vehicles and upgrades, the idea is to take part in 'challenges' to earn the full complement of bikes from each of the (mostly Japanese) manufacturers. Some of them are only available when you complete the more advanced licence tests, and naturally there's a steady curve of difficulty the higher you pitch yourself.
Appropriately, this new approach isn't so much reinventing the wheel as lopping a couple of wheels off. You can no longer perform large-scale upgrades to your vehicles, for example - if they're crap, you've very limited options to improve them. You can change the front and rear spring rate, preload, shock absorbance, the brake balance and tyre compound, your exhaust type and gear ratio, but that's it. GT's tuning options wouldn't fit in a single paragraph, let alone a sentence. Absurdly, much more time appears to have been spent allowing you to change the rider's clothes and riding style - how he leans and so forth - even though it makes precious little difference to race performance.
More importantly, it's much harder to acquire bikes than it was cars. Because you can't just go off and mine certain completable areas for cash; you have to complete these challenges or you can't have the bike. They take the form of a one-on-one race against another biker, starting behind him, and the goal is to spend ten seconds ahead of him or finish the race first. The problem arises because some of them are much meaner than others, and because even the slightest mistake - one tumble on the second lap, or a couple of seconds scooting through the dirt - results in instant failure. In a game that does the opposite of GT and assumes improbable competence, it's not a great fit. There are whole sets of races I simply can't try because I'm fed up of failing a particular challenge. This sort of carrot dangled from a stick works as an occasional side-quest in racing games; demanding it every time is too punishing.
The races themselves aren't exactly enthralling either, although at least here the game resets you to the track (near instantly) when you fall. Many of the tracks are simply lifted from Gran Turismo (I realise GT is quite exhaustive, but surely there were better ways of doing this), but more painful is the initial lack of speed and the predictable AI. MotoGP is ludicrously quick, and offers a wide viewing angle. Tourist Trophy is much closer in third-person, but only starts to move quickly after a few hours of toiling around on scooters and weaker bikes. TT's braking and acceleration is sluggish throughout, leaving you with plenty of time to sit there and calculate just how many seconds you've given away to the man in front as he zooms out of the corner ahead of you. Or to note that he doggedly sticks to the racing line and rarely demonstrates any knowledge of your presence. There's a real feeling of dampness to every encounter, too - as though you're hugging a canal boat. The weight just feels wrong.
The result is a game that doesn't really offer motorbike enthusiasts the same attention to detail that petrolheaded car nuts get out of GT, and takes hours and hours for the rest of us to warm to. What's most annoying isn't that it's hard to start with, or makes no attempt to accommodate the rest of us; it's that where it contradicts GT, it does so to its own detriment. GT isn't a realistic driving game - it's an illusion that benefits from things like the lack of cars exploding and overturning on a whim, set on a curve that teaches you how to handle monstrous machines gradually. TT sets off in the other direction at a speed the game can only dream of; it starts you off on scooters, which are awful, and which fall over just at glacial pace as real bikes do at breakneck, and kicks you back to the start simply for wanting to unlock new toys.
For a very long time I found very little satisfaction playing it. It's telling that the main thing I feel like applauding is the way that the camera doesn't lean left and right every time you turn. Motorbike devotees may very take to it a lot more quickly, and for those that do there's a great deal of content to unlock and a high-end game every bit as enamouring as GT's - but even they would have to admit Tourist Trophy cuts corners, poorly, in a way that bikes demonstrably can't.