Sierra Sports' Professional Bull Rider is a very good simulation of an amazing sport. It's thoroughly authentic, from its beautifully motion-captured riding sequences to the tutorial narration by bull-riding greats Ty Murray and Tuff Hedeman and color commentary by PBR announcer Justin McKee. There's no banjo-pluckin', yee-hawin', or tobacco-spittin', and the only bull in the game is a big mean critter that moves with astonishing realism and bucks like hell. Simply put, Professional Bull Rider looks great, sounds great, and plays pretty durn well too.
That's right, Professional Bull Rider plays well. It might seem like a simple arcade action game, especially if you stick to nothing but the quick-ride option, which lets you play as long as you want as either the bull or the cowboy. However, the gameplay is surprisingly complex. The controls are simple and responsive; all you need to use are four directional keys and two function keys on a keyboard, or you can use a joystick or gamepad. Playing as the bull isn't tremendously complex; you use the four directional controls to buck to the front or rear, or twist to either side, and the two function keys to execute hops and more powerful versions of the other maneuvers (which drain more of your stamina than normal), all in order to toss that pesky cowboy off your back.
Playing as the cowboy is far more difficult; you must use your controller to lean into the same direction as the bull's buck in order to maintain your balance, and you must make judicious use of the grip button, which drains stamina, and the spur button, which earns more points from the judges but is dangerous unless your cowboy is completely centered and upright. As in the actual sport, one missed guess will usually send you flying off the bull's back. Actually figuring out how to play as the cowboy is challenging and often frustrating; it's harder than it might seem at first and requires a great deal of patience to master, especially since the camera is fixed at a more or less head-on horizontal view during rides. As such, when riding a frantically twisting bull, it's often hard to remember which is right and which is left, in spite of the sometimes-helpful color commentary. And if you pause for just a moment to try to figure out which is which, chances are you'll be sent sprawling. However, once you get your sense of direction down pat and figure out the visual cues for each kind of buck, playing the cowboy becomes an exciting eight-second guessing game that's largely based on anticipation and to a lesser extent, luck - just like the real thing. And after you've attained some skill with both the cowboy and bull, you'll be ready to leave the practice pen and compete in single-player career mode or in the head-to-head, cowboy-vs.-bull multiplayer mode.
Nevertheless, you'll discover one of the most impressive things about Professional Bull Rider even before you being to master its gameplay. And that's how accurately it portrays its subject, from the sizable roster of real PBR riders and bulls, to the not-so-subtle plethora of ads for cowboy-related products. After playing even a few rounds or watching any of a number of included FMV sequences, you'll witness moments during rides that are truly astounding; yet each is lent a gritty, realistic feel, thanks to the up-close, in-the-ring camera angles that are the hallmark of the actual TV broadcasts of the sport. And don't be fooled by the absurd writing on the game's box: Though Professional Bull Rider stars hall-of-famer Tuff Hedeman and Ty Murray, "7-Time World Champion and All-Around Cowboy," these two gentleman don't swagger, exaggerate their accents, or put on any sort of show for your amusement. They instead narrate the tutorials by themselves, as themselves, presenting riding tips and knowledgeable descriptions of tricks for cowboys and bulls in a manner that's both down-to-earth and quietly dignified.
Once you get past the options and menu screens, you'll dive into the ring as a cowboy or a bucking bronco. Either way, you're in for a visual treat. If you let your eyes wander, you'll notice that the polygonal bulltenders and the bitmapped crowds are completely static and look quite bad - you may even wonder where in the heck the rodeo clowns are, since there aren't any in the actual gameplay arena. But you won't let your eyes wander. You'll be focusing squarely on the eager bull and the poised cowboy, who fly out of the gate with conviction as soon as the nod is given. Both the bull and cowboy are superbly animated and move so quickly and so realistically that it'll be impossible to take your eyes off either. And should your rider get bucked off a particularly ornery bull that manages to trample or charge him, your cowboy will either get caught up under the bull's hooves and stomped, slammed unceremoniously into the dirt, or flung high into the air, sometimes smack-dab into the fence. No time or trouble was spared in making such situations look exquisitely excruciating. Calamities like these will definitely go over well with fans of the "ooh, that's gotta hurt" sports moment.
Professional Bull Rider looks realistic and sounds about as convincing. The angry snorts of the bull in the pen are a perfect setup for that brutally meaty thud when it crashes into the hapless cowboy that just got bucked off. And all that bucking and twisting sounds even better thanks to the expert commentary by PBR caller Justin McKee. Though some of Mr. McKee's calls get a bit repetitive in certain situations, the commentary is quite good overall and helps make Professional Bull Rider feel less like a sit-down computer game and more like a live televised rodeo.
Professional Bull Rider is an offbeat but nonetheless great sports game that successfully treads the line between orthodox simulation and arcade action, thanks to its simple, responsive controls, realistic gameplay, and excellent animation - and it comes at a low, low price too. Some players may grow weary of pulling off the same bull and cowboy moves again and again after playing for some time, but Professional Bull Rider's got enough eight-second bursts of excitement to make it last for at least a little while.