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MotoGP '06

Torque to the hand!

My understanding of the noble motorbike lurks somewhere between my understanding of owls (ast-hoot-ly observant) and my understanding of gravel (WHERE DID IT COME FROM HOW WHY ETC): I've never owned it, I don't know who makes it or how or why, but I'm capable of distinguishing it from its friends. Yes readers - I know - it's got all the makings of the Surely I'm Not The Best Person To Review This intro. But wait! I'm really quite good at MotoGP '06! And I love it to bits! So either this is a complete failure, or it's that rarest of things: a niche game with genuinely broad appeal. Stop paging down to the score.

No, really, stop paging down to the score. You're going to have to be patient. Otherwise you might struggle with the game proper. And that would be a real shame. So slow down. Pace a bit. Stroll around the drive-way. WAIT! What's that noise? AAARHH GRAVEL RUN.

This here MotoGP's handling model comes across as a further refinement of the excellent mechanics that made up the three Xbox games. You can brake at the front and back of the bike independently, make your choice of analogue or digital acceleration, and move around in the saddle to make that critical difference to top-speed, deceleration and cornering. GP '06 also retains the slightly odd power-slide move, accessed by nudging the back brake or double-tapping accelerate, allowing you to say pooh to the tightening of a corner by trying to zoom out of it instead of braking.

And, as I say, bike virgins will take a while to adjust to all of this. Approaching a corner requires more planning than that wise decision you made to tarmac over the scary stones outside. Not only do you need to brake heavily and then power out of the turns, but you've nowhere near as much time to find the right line as you would in a car, and if you mess it up then you're either going to collide violently with the barrier and fly off, losing several seconds, or you're going to snake around like an oil tanker. Full of gravel.

You can customise helmet designs and put them all over the place.

It's worth putting the time in though. Because, as the MotoGP fans yawning their way through the basics will happily tell you once they're done throwing weird, scary, unnatural congregations of domestic stone at my face, there's really very little else that comes this close to simulating a motorbike.

So to paragraph six and a more pointed thought: MotoGP '06 is a bit harsher than it used to be. I didn't spend as long with GP3 as I did with its predecessors, admittedly, but even so it feels like there's a bit more frailty to the rider this time. That'll upset a few people, I expect, but someone with an eye for the smaller details of control should have no trouble picking it up. The tutorial only covers the very basics, but Rookie difficulty allows plenty of room to foul up without costing you races, and an associated mode instils the subtler disciplines under the successful guise of a PGR-style ladder of challenges. Yes you'll spend a lot of time in the gravel (noo!), but after a couple of hours in the saddle, whether you're learning the ropes or returning to them after a break, you're more than capable of stepping up to Pro championships.

What's more, should you need time to get used to any of the MotoGP season tracks, there's plenty of room to do that across practice and qualifying sessions prior to the race proper. That said, this reviewer hasn't touched a bike game in months and didn't have much need for either until the Champion difficulty - at which point a solid pole and a steady line through corners proved an absolute must. With so many points of entry though, it's hard to imagine MotoGP '06 frustrating you for too long. And if you're still glowering, mumbling things about how only a numpty would need time to learn such brilliant and widely known circuits, you're the sort of person who'll appreciate that GP '06 includes full 2005 and 2006 season data too.

The GP tracks are quite tricky, but Extreme is the ideal way to warm up.

It's not just about racing around Laguna Seca and Donnington either. As with MotoGP 3, there's a street-biking mode called Extreme, with a bespoke track to complement each of the licensed game's 17. The idea here was to highlight the excitement that swells around each GP, where bikers often group together and put on displays, by offering a range of street races loosely drawing upon features of each track's surrounding area. The result is probably the best bit of the game, with street bike riders in jeans zooming around wider tracks in several engine categories. Extreme's undoubtedly an easier ride to start with too, notably in that you can power-slide much further without falling off, and asks less technical questions of your biking skill. You might call it MotoGP's arcade mode.

Then there are the Challenges - also welcome. A bit like PGR3's non-race offerings, they're about hammering away at a task until you've drawn the most speed from a particular sequence of corners, outpaced a rival over a lap's distance and danced through chicanes like a metallic ballerina. As well as building up your technical skills and being a genuinely useful diversion from the slog of championships, they also add a few more experience points to the total you build up elsewhere.

Experience points allow you to refine your bike's stats in key areas of cornering, braking, acceleration and top speed, and they're global attributes rather than bike-specific. Not only does this help you build up, but it offers a simpler way to tweak settings if you fancy attacking some time trial circuits. MotoGP's always been happy to let you customise individual bikes - and you can still manipulate gear ratios, wheelbase, suspension and tyre compounds - but by moving your points into different areas you can make another difference. This kind of duality of approachability and biking depth is dead handy, and as far as those of you with a mission to absolutely cane the hell out of GP '06 go, it means another layer of expertise to acquire.