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. MotoGP 08 is Capcom's series debut on the PC (as well as 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 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 than in last year's PS2 debut, 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 having a fine time 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, 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.
As with the console game, up to 12 players can hop online to race in the PC version of MotoGP 08. Actually getting online is confusing, and neither the game manual nor the game itself does a particularly good job of explaining the process (you need to fill out a form on the game's loading menu). Still, once you're online, network performance is decent--even if the lack of features leave you wanting. You can only run races one at a time--there's no option for 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.
The game's system requirements are modest, and on the Intel 2.13 GHz machine we ran the game on, the frame rate was solid throughout. That said, the game has its graphical high and low points. Best of all is a thrilling sense of speed (especially on such long, straights tracks as Shanghai and Mugello) that really puts you in the seat of the rider. Unfortunately, decent speed doesn't make up for certain tracks that are simply a bore--with plain backgrounds and sometimes grainy asphalt textures that aren't impressive. New details, such as the night race at Losail, and the brand new Indianapolis GP track set at the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway are great additions to the game. 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.
A slightly more approachable learning curve coupled with a great deal of challenge means that MotoGP 08 provides enough to keep you 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 next-gen consoles and the PC, 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.