UK REVIEW--The latest entry in the official FIM World Superbike Championship series delivers graphical and handling improvements while retaining the same core experience of last year's SBK X: Superbike World Championship. All of the bikes, riders, and circuits from the 2011 World Superbike season are included, alongside 17 classic riders in the new Legends class. With the brand-new SBK Tour in addition to a good Career mode, SBK 2011 has plenty of content to satisfy motorcycle racing fans, as well as fans of racing games in general.
In Career mode you must create a rider with the game's somewhat limited character creator, choosing a name, face, riding style, and helmet before starting out in the first World Superbike support class, Superstock 1000. Each race weekend you complete earns you reputation points, doled out according to your qualifying performance, your completion of the team's objectives for race position, and your finish relative to that of your championship rival. As you gain reputation points, better teams will be interested in hiring you, letting you progress to the Supersport class and eventually the World Superbike Championship. In both concept and execution, Career mode is very similar to the one offered in last year's SBK game. Though last year's Career mode was very enjoyable, it's still a shame this area hasn't been expanded upon. If you played SBK X, you might find that working through the lower classes to reach the best bikes and most challenging opposition isn't quite as satisfying when you do the same thing again in SBK 2011.
Thankfully, once you're actually on the track, the tweaked handling makes racing a joy. The exaggerated sliding present in previous SBK games has been toned down and made more manageable, which makes it a little easier to push your bike closer to the limit, especially when exiting corners. You're now more likely to fall off when making contact with other riders, and the AI is more prone to making occasional mistakes. The effect of pushing your rider's weight forward in full simulation mode has also been improved, providing a more realistic performance benefit, rather than behaving like a boost button. On the other hand, it's still a bit too easy to ride the bike in wet conditions, with few noticeable differences to riding in the dry except for longer braking distances. The choice of assists has also been reduced, making it unclear which ones are activated at a particular time. SBK 2011 offers only three options for assists: low, medium, or full simulation. Previous games in the series have let you individually turn off various assists, such as braking help or a visual racing line. In the 2011 version, the individual choices are limited to two basic assists: automatic gears and automatic rider weight shifting. This is a puzzling change because it limits your ability to customize the handling to your own abilities. That said, though there is less choice in how the bike handles, it's still possible to adapt to increasing the level of realism without too much frustration since the jumps between each level are not severe.
One of the best ways to enjoy the terrific bike handling is by playing the new SBK Tour mode. This is a challenge mode, offering specific goals to complete using different track and bike combinations. You complete each challenge by taking on two sets of goals. Successfully completing the basic objectives completes the challenge, while beating the more difficult ones at the same time "storms" that particular challenge. Tasks range from the basic, such as beating a lap time, to the highly challenging, such as beating a lap time in the wet while doing wheelies for a total of 30 seconds. SBK Tour is great fun, offering a compelling change of pace from Career mode and helping you to understand what it takes to push the bike in difficult situations, such as sliding for 40 seconds around two laps of the extremely fast Assen circuit in the rain. You also unlock most of the game's extra content in this mode, such as new helmets, a new circuit, and the Legend riders.
The Legends are perhaps the most exciting part of the game for motorcycle fans. There are 17 riders and bikes from the last decade, a golden age for World Superbike racing. They include famous names like Carl Fogarty, Aaron Slight, Pierfrancesco Chili, Troy Bayliss, and Neil Hodgson. Seeing these classic competitors in HD for the first time is thrilling. You can relive great battles, such as the ones between Fogarty, Slight, and Chili, or try completely new ones with championship winners from different years racing with the machines on which they won their titles. The developers have smartly chosen not to limit the use of the Legends to single races, letting you participate in race weekends or a full championship season using these unlockable bikes and riders. However, due to significant changes in modern racing rules, you can't use the Legends to compete against the bikes and riders from the 2011 season.
In addition to the huge amount of single-player content, SBK 2011 supports up to 16 players online in championships and single races. Experience earned competing online raises your online rider level, up to a possible level 100. However, this is purely a number next to your name in lobbies and doesn't affect the game in any meaningful way. Hosts can choose to include qualifying sessions before races and also tweak other options, such as laps, damage, and weather. They can also choose to force every player to use a specific simulation level. This isn't properly shown on the list of lobbies when searching for a game, so it can sometimes be a shock when you start racing only to find that the handling is either too easy or too difficult for your taste. This is the only major hitch, though, in an otherwise solid online mode that runs well with little lag.
The graphics and presentation have been improved in a number of ways. The animated menus set in a race circuit paddock in SBK X have been replaced by a traditional menu system, which is less visually striking but more user-friendly. In races, the bike modeling is more detailed, and the frame rate never dips. Textures are also sharper, and shadows are more detailed, though trackside detail is still lacking in a few places. Trees have the cardboard cutout look commonly found in much older racing games. There is also an occasional lack of attention to detail in the circuit designs. Some tracks are too narrow, or too wide in one or two cases, compared to their real-life equivalents. British racing fans will notice a glaring mistake in the background at Silverstone, where there appears to be a huge mountain range. Sound design, on the other hand, is superb, with convincing engine noises.
SBK 2011 is a great racing game that offers a huge quantity of content sure to satisfy fans of the World Superbike Championship, as well as anyone else who enjoys racing games. Career mode has not moved on much from last year, but the introduction of the SBK Tour challenges and the thrill of seeing your favorite Legends add to the core racing experience in a highly compelling way. There is a little way to go before SBK has the production values of its four-wheeled racer rivals, but this is still one of the best motorcycle games around.