Roaring down the road at 190mph takes bravery, but doing it on two wheels powered by a 170-horsepower engine takes a special kind of courage. You have to lean your motorcycle so hard into turns that you're barely hovering off the pavement. You pray that you don't accelerate too hard out of a turn, causing your bike to slip, suddenly regain grip, and then smack you headfirst into the pavement. For world-class superbike riders, these thrills are commonplace. And the speed, danger, and daring of world-class motorcycle racing have been captured superbly in Superbike 2001, the latest entry in EA Sports' series of motorcycle sims.
Created by Italian developer Milestone Studios, Superbike 2001 is a fully featured, licensed simulation. All 13 circuits from the 2000 SBK Superbike World Championship season are represented in the game, as are all the factory riders and bikes from seven manufacturers: Ducati, Aprilia, Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki, Yamaha, and now Bimota. The 2001 edition also adds the Oschersleben, Imola, and Valencia circuits. Milestone has taken pains to faithfully re-create the superbike scene, from the unique scenery along each track, to the umbrella girls shading the riders on the starting grid, to the smallest logos of actual sponsors on the riders' leathers. However, this is only the beginning of the game's attention to realism and authenticity.
The motorcycles featured in the game are incredibly fast and powerful, and the sophisticated physics model faithfully re-creates the way riders need to subtly and accurately balance forces to keep from flying off their bikes. Lean a little too hard, and your bike will skid out from under you, flipping across the track. Forget to sit up as you're slowing for a turn, and you'll likely overshoot and barrel headlong into a gravel trap. Subtlety and accuracy are a must for a successful race. However, there are a few physics flaws in the game, such as when the bikes sometimes seem to slightly overlap before a collision is registered. Fortunately, this is a small fault that doesn't adversely affect gameplay once you get used to it. The game's damage modeling is also very forgiving, but then again it's more fun to race than sit out with a crashed bike.
On the "real" difficulty level, expect to pop wheelies when you don't want to, oversteer with pavement-pounding results, and generally make a fool of yourself the first few times out. At its most advanced levels, Superbike 2001 is the Grand Prix Legends of motorcycle racing games: It's unforgiving in its realism and richly rewarding in the long term. But unlike in Grand Prix Legends, the difficulty level in Superbike 2001 is much more fully scalable, so even complete rookies can enjoy the game by using simplified settings. For instance, you can turn on automatic transmission, extra brake power, and acceleration assistance, along with visual indicators that warn you of upcoming turns and the need to brake. On top of that, you can choose to display the optimal racing line as a broken yellow stripe on the track. There's also an optional ideal-speed indicator, which has a moving bar showing whether you're riding too slowly, too fast, or just right for the area of the track you're on. In a welcome addition to the series, there's now a full training mode that lets you practice solo for as long as you like on each track, while tweaking your bike setup. You can pause to listen to an audio primer on how to take each turn as the camera pans through it.
Most aspects of Superbike 2001 are highly configurable. The visually appealing menu system is highly navigable, and it lets you easily make quick changes in graphics detail levels, sound, and controller setup. Rider, bike, and track selections are also simple, and you can view detailed stats on all of these. Had EA Sports waited a little longer to release the game, the designers probably would have been able to include stats for the entire season instead of just part of it. Fortunately, this exclusion doesn't hurt gameplay, though it might annoy hard-core racing fans. For such fans, the game offers detailed configuration options for bike steering geometry, suspension, gear settings, and tire types. These all have a noticeable effect on handling, so it can be a lot of fun to tweak your bike for each course and for different weather conditions. You can even view telemetry readouts during replays to help with your setups, although there's no explanation in the skimpy manual of how to use the data.
When you're ready to race, you can choose from three basic race options and get under way. Quick start gets you right into the action without any fuss. Single race can be configured as a full race weekend and includes practice laps, qualifying laps, superpole, and two races. Championship mode lets you play out a full season that covers 13 race weekends over all the tracks. For each race, you can configure the number of laps, number of computer-controlled riders, weather conditions (including impressive rain effects), and computer riders' skill level.
When you first get on the track, chances are you'll be so impressed with the stunning graphics that you'll probably forget to accelerate when the lights go green. Milestone has actually improved on the superlative graphics of Superbike 2000. The highly detailed bike and rider models, coupled with nearly photo-realistic skies and tracks, are amazingly convincing. Little details like smoking tires and clouds of dust when riders leave the track make the game look even better. The fluid, motion-captured animations of the riders add to the realism, as you can see riders shifting their bodies into turns and flailing wildly in bad crashes. When viewing the action in one of the third-person camera modes, or using the fully featured VCR-style replay control panel after a race, you'll often feel like you're watching a televised race. In fact, the game offers optional screen overlays akin to the times and standings you'd see on a typical TV race broadcast.
Switch to one of the four first-person camera modes, and the sense of speed and danger becomes even more intense. Trees, grandstands, and skid marks all move by in a blur as you rocket down the track. Since your virtual racer's head is down low, your view of the upcoming track sections is limited, and that adds to the excitement and challenge. Hard turns are almost a leap of faith as your head hovers only a few feet off the ground while your bike leans perilously low. It's in these turns that you'll usually witness the spectacular, bone-jarring crashes in the game: You'll find yourself cringing and be reminded just how dangerous - and exciting - superbike racing is. Unfortunately, there's a downside to the beautiful graphics. They require a rather powerful system to run at high resolutions with the highest detail settings and a full complement of 25 riders. However, these elements are all scalable, and the lower settings still look great.
Unlike the graphics, the sound and music didn't receive the same lavish treatment, although they're still good. Each bike has its own distinctive whine, yet the engines are muted compared to their real-world counterparts. On the other hand, skidding, sliding into gravel traps, and crashing into other bikes all sound appropriate. However, the techno-style music in the menu screens and intro movie doesn't add much to the mood, and the optional TV announcer commentary during races is also disappointing. You can't fault the announcer's enthusiasm, but his comments are mostly limited to calling out that a particular brand of bike has crashed.
Fortunately, the computer-controlled riders are a lot more impressive than the commentary about them. They will literally leave you in the dust until you've practiced quite a bit. They race strong lines and make very few mistakes, but with practice and aggression, you can out-brake and pass them. Along with the customizable realism and difficulty settings, this solid artificial intelligence provides a great deal of replay value. Still, you can race against other humans for even more challenges. There's a split-screen mode that lets two players race each other on the same computer, but unfortunately, this isn't very manageable on most computer monitors, which are often quite small compared to your average TV used for split-screen console games. You can play on a network and over the Internet as well, but you don't get a server browser - only a box to enter the IP address of your opponent's machine. This setup is serviceable but hardly ideal.
Despite its relatively minor problems, Superbike 2001 succeeds - often brilliantly - on many levels. On the easiest difficulty settings, it's very accessible without becoming a totally watered-down arcade game. On the realistic settings, with all the different options in effect, it provides a deep simulation for the hard-core simulation player or superbike fan. Superbike 2001's visuals are also impressive enough that they will keep you coming back for more - it features some of the most realistic graphics you'll find in any PC game to date. Superbike 2001 is often quite difficult on the harder settings and may frustrate those with little patience or those more used to the auto racing games that dominate the genre - but once you give it a real chance, you'll see how great this serious treatment of motorcycle racing really is.