We check out THQ's motorcycle racer for the Xbox.
Though the actual sport of motorcycle racing may not be as popular in the United States as it is in other countries, motorcycle games have almost always been a staple of the racing genre since Hang-On appeared in the arcades years ago. However, motorcycle racing games have made substantial leaps since those days, because developers have gradually learned how to integrate physics and other features that allow for a more realistic driving experience. THQ's MotoGP--not to be confused with Namco's series of the same name--will attempt to continue heading toward the goal of delivering the most complete and entertaining motorcycle racing games to date. It has all the basic features you would expect from a racing game, but it also has a number of secondary features that should let the game appeal to both the hard-core motorcycle racing crowd and the casual fan who likes a good racing game.
There are several different gameplay modes to choose from in MotoGP, and while one of these modes enables you to jump right into a race, you'll probably find that it's a much wiser choice to head into the training portion of the game first--unless, of course, you already have a good feel for how to race a motorcycle. In the training mode, there are four categories to choose from--cornering, braking, top speed, and acceleration--each of which has five separate challenges that become increasingly difficult. The least difficult of these initial five challenges is the first acceleration test, which requires you to perform a wheelie along a certain portion of the track. If you successfully complete this challenge, then you move on to a slightly more difficult acceleration challenge, in which you have to speed up around a circular track and stop within a designated area. In general, the other tests are much more difficult. For example, in the braking test, you'll have to speed toward a small barrier, hit your rear brake, pop the back end of your motorcycle in the air, and perform a 180-degree turn. It's pretty difficult, and you'll need to spend time learning how the motorcycle functions and getting a feel for how it controls.
The other modes in the game include the aforementioned quick race mode, in which you select a rider, a track, and then go race. The arcade championship mode has a unique twist on the typical beat-the-clock arcade race because your performance is also based on the number of points acquired. Like in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater or other trick-oriented games, you'll be rewarded points based on your actions out on the track, so if you overtake an opponent, you'll receive points. If you overtake a series of five or six riders, then you are basically executing a combination and will be rewarded even more points. In addition, if you execute a wheelie, you'll receive points based on how long you hold it. It's an interesting mode because in a way, you have to reach a balance between showing off and focusing on the race--if you perform too many flashy moves, like a wheelie, then you're chances of finishing a race before time runs out is slightly reduced.
As entertaining as the arcade and training modes may be, the real focus of the game is on the grand prix mode. In this mode, you'll go through a series of 10 tracks--Suzuka, Jerez, Le Mans, Mugello, Assen, Donington, Sachsenrig, Brno, Valencia, and Phillip Island--spread out over several different countries. You'll even receive a lesson about the country hosting the race in a brief full-motion video sequence describing some of that country's culture. But unfortunately, the main goal here isn't to learn--it's to place as high as possible at the end of each race so that you have a better chance of ultimately winning the championship. The grand prix is also where you'll unlock tracks that can be used in other modes.
The remaining modes are time trial and multiplayer. Like any other time trial mode, its basic purpose is to let you get a rolling start on the track and try to set new lap records as well as track records. The multiplayer mode lets you take on a friend via a split-screen mode or by linking two systems together. We had a little trouble getting this mode to run, but there's no reason to think that these types of problems won't be fixed before the game's release.
While the modes should offer an engaging experience for players, the actual gameplay in MotoGP is a little difficult to grasp for veterans and novices alike. The left and right triggers on the Xbox controller are for the rear and front brake, respectively, while the face buttons control acceleration and general braking. A key part of the gameplay is learning where to position your bike on the track so that when you go into a turn, you need as little braking as possible. This is much more difficult than it sounds, and initially you'll find yourself leaving the tarmac and going up on the grass into the surrounding areas. In addition, the braking seems to be a little sensitive in comparison with other motorcycle games, so you'll have to get accustomed to just tapping the button ever so slightly--otherwise, you'll be overtaken much faster. Turning has some similar quirks in that it doesn't really feel like you're using an analog stick. The rider onscreen never really shifts his weight smoothly from one side of the bike to the other, unless you're incredibly focused on how you're moving the analog stick. You'll eventually get used to it, but it will certainly pose a challenge for most people.
One of the key differences between THQ's MotoGP and other racing games is that when you hit top speed, you'll receive a turbo boost that will shoot you past the majority of the other bikes out on the track. But like in the arcade mode, you have to decide how long you want to maintain top speed because you run a higher risk of running into a wall the longer you use the boost.
The graphics in the game are quite well done. All the riders and bikes are nicely detailed--the riders look as though they're actually wearing leather, and you can even see the small imperfections on the tires of the bike. The environments look solid as well, but what will really grab your eye are some of the weather effects. When it rains, and you're in either the first-person camera angle or the front-bumper camera angle, droplets of water hit and streak across the screen. Other bikes kick up a constant stream of mist when they're out in front of you, and even an occasional bolt of lightning also flashes off in the distance. When the sun is shining, you'll get to see a slight reflective effect--similar to the one in Gran Turismo 3--that shows all the little bumps and indentations in the track. The animation in the game, particularly the crash animation, is pretty well done, and you'll see a variety of reactions from the riders depending on certain situations.
THQ's MotoGP should have plenty to offer to just about any racing game fan. The game includes the standard assortment of race modes, the ability to import your own soundtrack, as well as an incredibly challenging training mode that really puts your skills to the test. But there are still some issues with the controls in the game, including a seemingly oversensitive brake system and a jittery analog stick function, but hopefully these problems will be resolved before the game's release in May.
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