Ah, motorcycling. The fine art of putting a bit of throbbing metal between your legs and risking life and limb by driving it roughly across tarmac and through chicane. It's a noble sport, assuming you don't fall off awkwardly and sprain your ankle, and for the first time that I can remember, it has a very clear leading light in the world of gaming: Climax Brighton's Moto GP.
Moto GP is thoroughly good, from the colour and texture of the tarmac right through to the unlockable extras crammed onto the expansive Xbox DVD. However, the biggest triumph of all is the unorthodox control method. Although you can pick up the pad and simply paste down the A button to accelerate, screeching to a wince-making halt five feet in front of a corner as you grapple with the brakes, our favourite method uses the left analogue stick for banking and adjusting the rider position, the right stick for throttle concerns, and the left and right triggers for the rear and front brakes respectively. Apart from choosing a camera angle at the start of the race - with elevated third person perspectives, a cockpit view and a suicidal nose-of-the-bike horror movie to pick from - the control system really does come down to two sticks and two triggers.
The reason this control system is so ingenious is that the whole thing is completely incremental. Want to carefully ease on the rear brake into a corner? You can do that. Want to slam your front brake on and try and flip the bike for a laugh? Yep, that's here. Want to waggle the stick left and right and randomly apply each brake furiously to see how much damage you can do in a packed corner? A little masochistic perhaps, but yes, it's possible. Effectively, you can control each aspect of the bike in the same way that you could a proper, real-life motorcycle.
Things to make and see
As with the control method, the graphics engine has been designed specifically to cater to the power of Xbox, and it does that with aplomb. Road surfaces are realistically textured, and the term 'draw distance' is virtually exempt from inclusion in this review, because the only things that 'pop up' throughout Moto GP are the corners of your mouth as you grin excitedly. Bikes and riders are also very detailed, with all sorts of damage skins for each, while competitors raise their fists if you give them a prang. The screen blurs slightly around you in the third person views to enhance the sense of speed, little tyre-tread trails are left in the mud if you falter off the track, and spectacular dynamic crashes are another visual highlight. Weather effects are resplendent as well, with water splashing and refracting realistically on the camera.
Like every truly great racing game, Moto GP wins by offering the best of everything. Graphics and control method wrap up a large percentage of the game, but the overall presentation matches the quality in other departments. The menus are comfortable to navigate and use, with none of the bizarre jerkiness that seems to have recently crept into more extravagant interfaces. Little touches like movies of Moto GP races in the background add an intangible touch of class to the rest of the game.
And the section dedicated to creating your own rider isn't just intricate - it's RPG intricate. If you want to spend time making your own championship rider, you will find a wealth of bike, clothing and helmet designs to choose from, and you can pick your own combination of colours to match the rider too. You can go at it from either end, designing the bike colour scheme first and then either matching the colour scheme to your outfit or coming up with a completely new one, or starting with the rider and then working on the bike. Other baubles include writing and numbering, and you can unlock more bikes, clothing and helmets the more challenges you conquer.
Big heap challenge!
Once you've collected yourself, you can take your rider through the training section to get him ready for the Grand Prix circuit. Training is rather like Gran Turismo's license tests, with lots of small tasks to complete in cornering, braking, top speed and acceleration categories, and bronze, silver and gold medals to compete for. If you opt for our preferred control scheme, build your rider and then take him through the Training mode bit by bit, you will find that the whole game opens up for you in the sense that, although you're still a rookie, you can give the other rookies a run for their money instead of a run for their gravel rights.
Fortunately though, Moto GP is a racing simulation and not a driving challenge a la Project Gotham Racing. The Grand Prix Motorcycle Racing circuit consists of ten real-world tracks from its real-world counterpart, and all of the bikes and riders from last year's season, with the option to be them or race against them. Races feature as many as 19 other riders on track on every skill level except rookie, and unlike in Formula 1, you get spectacular collisions and a trackful of eager competition instead of a lethargic one-by-one leapfrog across 70 laps.
AI riders are prone to making the same mistakes as you (which is useful, because at first you will make mistakes), and bunch up as they scramble to get ahead of one another, racing competitively and not spreading out evenly. Grand Prix mode is a tough challenge, and you can throw it all away in a split-second twist of the wrong brake trigger, but you can also race perfectly and collect the gold. It may be hard but it's a perfectly weighted learning curve, and it's extremely satisfying to place first. Perhaps the secret is that it doesn't feel as random as other racers.
Success on the track is difficult to attain at first, but plugging away is something that comes naturally after a while, and the first time that you place in the top five on Champion difficulty is like conquering Everest. It's not as though you're racing for nothing either, with unlockable bonuses like the vaunted wireframe, cel-shading and pencil-sketch display modes amongst other features. You won't unlock everything right away though. Ten tracks might seem like a scant few compared to some of today's racers, but you won't think that when you're scraping your way around every corner trying to find the best line to unlock every last extra.
Rounding out the package is an excellent multiplayer mode, which sacrifices almost none of the single player detail in providing up to four players with a split-screen race. Even with only a quarter of the image to yourself the game is smooth with the same total of 20 riders in the thick of things as usual. If you can find enough people with their own machines, you can even take advantage of the LAN option for up to 16 players, and although we didn't get to try this one out, it clearly wasn't an afterthought, with rider names appearing above their respective heads and practically the whole game available for sparring.
Moto GP is an excellent example of a racing game. In fact, it's the best game about motorbikes I've ever encountered. It made me want to play it, luring me in with authentic, proven track designs from the real world of Moto GP, great graphics and a peculiar control system to master, not to mention the promise of extravagant bonuses to uncover if I played it long enough. The sense of speed is dazzling, it's an extremely well produced package, and the experience is almost worth owning an Xbox for completely by itself.