Namco Bandai Games certainly isn't setting any speed records in releasing MotoGP 4 in the United States. The game was released more than a year ago in Japan and Europe, but race fans in North America have been kept waiting. The reward for that patience is added support for eight-player online racing, which is certainly an important and appreciated feature. However, the game does show its age in other areas, like the out-of-date roster and somewhat bland presentation. More importantly though, the racing is as enjoyable as ever, and with a respectable offering of features and options, MotoGP 4 is a good choice for race fans who are ready for a few more laps around a very familiar track.
The single-player MotoGP 4 experience is divided into several different modes. There's the requisite arcade mode and time-trial mode found in every other racing game, as well as a challenge mode, legends mode, and season play. There are three different classes to choose from in the arcade, time trial, and season race modes: 125cc, 250cc, and MotoGP. As the displacement of the engines increases, the bikes get heavier and more powerful, making them more difficult to control. As a result, the 125cc and 250cc classes not only add a bit of variety, but they also make good training grounds for the MotoGP circuit. The bikes in each class handle very differently. The 125cc bikes are nimble and fairly easy to ride, while the MotoGP bikes require much more precise braking and control to keep on the tarmac.
Season mode returns with more courses and riders than in the previous MotoGP games. After you choose your difficulty, lap count, and other settings, you can choose a rider or create your own and participate in a 16-race season. Before each race you can run practice laps and qualifying laps, which are helpful for memorizing each and every turn of a track. You earn points based on how you place in the actual race, and those points are tallied over the course of the season, and the rider with the most points at the end of the season is the champion. You'll get a message from your mechanic every couple of races telling you that he wants you to try out some new parts that the team has been working on. At this point you can attempt a parts test, and if you pass you get to keep the upgraded parts. The tests are all straightforward, requiring you to reach a certain speed in a short distance, come to a stop within a specified zone, complete a slalom course as quickly as possible, and so on. If you fail the test, you don't get the parts. But don't worry, because you'll get a chance at several tests throughout each season, and while the upgraded parts are helpful, they aren't absolutely necessary. Even though you can earn new parts, the actual tuning of the bikes in career mode is limited to adjusting a handful of sliders for general attributes like braking and acceleration.
The challenges return in MotoGP 4. There are 125 challenges in all, and while some are self-contained events that require you to meet certain objectives as quickly as possible, others are related to your performance in other game modes. When you complete a challenge you're awarded a bronze, silver, or gold medal depending on your performance. You might have to take first on a certain track, beat one of the top-ranked riders, or win a championship in each of the three classes. The specific focus of each challenge makes it a bit more interesting than your average race, and if nothing else, they add plenty of replay value to the game, since it will take you a lot of time and skill to collect each of the three medals for all of the challenges. Doing so will earn you GP points, which can be spent to unlock new riders, bikes, and tracks
The different modes offer a few different ways to play the game, but for further flexibility you can fully customize the controls and handling characteristics of the motorcycles. Not only can you assign commands as you see fit, but you can also toggle settings that drastically change the way the motorcycles handle on the track. You can turn on brake assist, which will automatically slow you down to keep you on the track. You can essentially hold the accelerator down the entire time when you use this feature, and as long as you turn at the right time you'll never crash or even leave the track. It isn't quite as useful as it sounds, because the brake assist tends to play it very safe, which means that in most races you'll have a hard time taking first using brake assist. Conversely, you can turn on sim mode, which puts everything in your control and makes for a much more difficult, but finely tuned racing experience. Sim mode requires you to use your brakes individually, shift your weight appropriately, and use a feather-touch on the throttle. These control features make it a very customizable game that you can play as a simple arcade-style racer or a very technical motorcycle racing sim. The choice is yours.
While the motorcycle controls are flexible, the artificial intelligence in the game is anything but. Computer-controlled characters aren't very forgiving, and they provide a decent challenge even on the easiest difficulty setting. If you race poorly, your opponents won't slow down to let you catch up, which means that if you make even a slight mistake, you'll have to fight hard to regain your position. But even though the AI provides a challenge, it just feels very rigid, as your opponents keep the same line throughout the entire race. You'll rarely see an opponent stray from that line, even if it means riding right into your rear tire. When you do make contact with another rider, you'll usually just bounce off like a bumper car.
The most important new addition to the MotoGP series this year is online play, which allows for eight-player races on any of the tracks in any of the three classes. Finding a game is relatively easy, as you're just plunked down in a lobby where you can browse available sessions and choose one to your liking. Unfortunately there's no matchmaking features, which makes choosing a match something of a crap shoot. If you want to play it safe you can create your own session and set the track, number of laps, bike class, collisions, bots, and whether or not you want to allow tuned bikes. In our experience the online play was smooth and lag-free, and the greatest shortcoming of what is otherwise a very welcome addition to the series is the fact that races are limited to eight riders. Racing against seven riders just doesn't quite measure up when you're used to going up against a pack of 20 in a season race.
The presentation in MotoGP 4 is functional, but it feels dated. The interface is dull and gray, the music is muted and generic, and the tracks, while authentic, don't look especially eye-catching. The backgrounds are grainy and flat, and if you look closely you'll see some unsightly seams and flickering textures on the track surfaces. The riders and bikes look and sound good for the most part, especially during the races. From certain angles, though, you'll notice that the bike tires aren't anywhere close to round. You also don't get much of a sense of speed from the game. Part of the reason for that is that most of the tracks don't provide a lot of room for you to really open up the throttle. But even when you do reach speeds of 200 miles per hour or more it doesn't feel especially exciting. For the most part you wouldn't even know you were going any faster than usual if it weren't for the high-pitched whine of the engine. At least the frame rate is able to keep pace though, and it remains solid throughout the game.
MotoGP 4 is a late entry into a very crowded field of racing games for the PlayStation 2. The core gameplay is still as fun and flexible as ever, and the addition of online play is a welcome, if very tardy, one. Despite being slightly out-of-date, MotoGP 4 is still a good way to get your racing fix.