After snagging the official MotoGP license from THQ in 2007, Capcom released MotoGP 07 on the PlayStation 2; a promising, if far too difficult, rebirth of a game license that had previously thrived in the hands of developer Climax and publisher THQ. With this year's MotoGP 08, Capcom and developer Milestone have brought the series to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. While the game likely won't create a new generation of virtual racing fans, those who have some two-wheeled gaming experience will find a demanding driving model and plenty of stiff competition to keep them busy.
There aren't any surprises in MotoGP 08's list of game modes--you've got the standard list of single-player modes you'd expect from a racing game: Single Race, Time Trial, Championship, Challenge mode, and so on. The highlight on the single-player menu is the Career mode, which gives you a chance to create a rider from scratch and work your way up through three bike racing series (125cc, 250cc, and, the pinnacle, MotoGP). As you enter races, any points you score by placing high enough in the final results will earn you attribute upgrade points you can apply to one of four aspects of your particular bike: top speed, acceleration, braking, and traction. You can then take your souped-up bike online and enter the competition in online racing events against up to 11 other online riders.
While Career mode is certainly the best single-player mode in the game, it has its quirks. First of all, your career ends after five years regardless of how many series championships you've won. Second, once you've selected from the game's various AI and handling difficulty levels, you can't change them for the entirety of your career. This is especially frustrating once you've maxed out your bike and can basically smoke the easy or medium-level AI opponents. It would have been more user-friendly to give players the chance to tweak options in between seasons to keep up the challenge.
This lack of career option flexibility is a shame because MotoGP 08 is all about the challenge. While the learning curve is a bit gentler this time around, even an experienced MotoGP vet will find some challenge at the default difficulty level. If you bump that up to hard or champion level, you'll face cunning, hard-charging AI opponents that won't give you an inch; you'll be fighting for every position and loving every minute of it (except when you're cursing out loud at your own lack of skill).
Fans of motorcycle racing games will relish the game's bike physics, which are excellent. There are three handling settings to choose from: easy, advanced, and simulation. With a little track time, MotoGP vets will likely be able to settle in at the advanced handling level with little trouble, but throughout every race you run in the game, the emphasis on the racing line and careful acceleration out of corners is a hallmark of the game. The advanced handling setting is touchy enough; when riding in the simulation setting, even the slightest error on the throttle while deep in a turn will result in a spill. When running against the upper-tier AI opponents, any mistake you make is magnified by their unyielding aggression, and you'll find yourself in yo-yo battles for position at nearly every corner on the track.
While the feel of the bikes in MotoGP 08 is just right, the riding model is not without its problems. The developers have chosen to downplay the consequences of contact between riders. While it is possible to be knocked off your bike by an opponent (and only slightly more difficult to dismount him with some dirty driving), more often than not, you can run into a rider ahead of you with little consequence. In fact, once you've gotten used it, you can actually use this to your advantage by using a rider ahead of you as some extra braking when approaching a corner too fast. The tracks, too, have their quirks. For example, in some corners, the game will penalize you for cutting corners by instantly slowing your bike down to a crawl. It's a fine idea in theory, but its implementation is inconsistent; with enough experience, you'll know exactly which corners you can take advantage of and which you'll need to play straight.
Up to 12 players can hop online to race in both the 360 and PS3 versions of MotoGP 08. While online performance in both games is good, the lack of features may leave you wanting. You can only run races one at a time--there's no option for a virtual championships where players can run multiple races for points--and can only bring your Career mode bike into a race if the host allows it. Even when using custom bikes, however, there's not much in the way of customization; you're stuck with the actual team leathers and bike paint schemes, as well as a series of unique helmets from which you can choose. In an era of customization in such games as Forza 2 and Midnight Club: Los Angeles, next year's MotoGP game simply must have more options for making your rider appear unique.
MotoGP 08's graphics are solid, with the high point being a thrilling sense of speed (especially on such long, straights tracks as Shanghai and Mugello). That fine pace is offset a bit by some occasionally spotty frame rate issue on the PlayStation 3 version of the game, as well as certain tracks that are simply a bore--it's not much to look at the plain backgrounds and sometimes grainy asphalt textures. That said, MotoGP series fans will be happy with the new details, such as the night race at Losail, and the brand new Indianapolis GP track set at the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The hardcore fans will also find a lot to like with the game's audio presentation; not only is there a big difference among the 125cc, 250cc, and MotoGP bike engines, but individual constructor bikes have an engine sound all their own--one that series fans will likely instantly recognize.
A slightly more approachable learning curve coupled with a great deal of challenge means that MotoGP 08 provides enough to keep motorcycle fans busy for months to come while not being as punishing on new players as the previous game in the series. Now that the series has moved to the Xbox 360 and PS3, the real work begins. Next year's game must primarily make sure that it has the same suite of offline and online features that players have come to expect from modern racing games. There's a lot to like in MotoGP 08's meat-and-potatoes approach to two-wheeled racing; here's hoping that next year's game offers a more extended menu.