Between Tekken Tag Tournament and Ridge Racer V, Namco clearly has one of the strongest PlayStation 2 lineups of all the Sony third-party developers. But on the day that Sony's next-generation console appeared and disappeared from store shelves nationwide, Namco had on sale a third, lesser-known game that deserved more attention than it had received. That game is the impressive MotoGP, the home conversion of Namco's 500GP. Originally released in Japanese arcades a few years ago, 500GP ran on Namco's aging System-22 hardware and let up to two players ride some of the world's fastest motorcycles on a variety of racetracks. While it was a competent racing game, 500GP did little to separate itself from the competition and soon faded into obscurity. So it's somewhat surprising to find that MotoGP for the PlayStation 2 isn't just a simple attempt by a publisher to cash in on the buying sprees that accompany a system launch, but is a worthwhile game that can stand on its own merits. It's apparent that Namco has taken the time to perfect this racing franchise, as MotoGP now boasts significantly updated graphics, enhanced controls, and a slew of new gameplay options that truly make it a game that PlayStation 2 owners should seriously consider adding to their libraries.
MotoGP features real bikes, actual racetracks, and the same factory teams that race in Dorna's FIM Road Racing World Championship Grand Prix circuit, or simply GP for short. The list of bike manufacturers include Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, and Aprilia; and some of the world's best teams, like Repsol Honda, are represented in the game. The bikes vary in their top speed, acceleration, braking distance, and handling characteristics, but only slightly. You'll be hard pressed to find any real difference from bike to bike, other than each one's appearance. You can choose to race any of MotoGP's five racetracks and 12 bikes from the outset, or you can opt to start a full-length season and gradually earn your way to the higher courses. In this mode, you choose from a limited number of teams and race the five tracks as you would in the real GP circuit. You're allowed one practice session per track in order to properly gauge the track, one qualifying round to determine your standing on the grid, and then the actual race. You're awarded points based on your overall performance in each race, and depending on how you did in the season, your team will either extend your contract or release you to another team. After three seasons (five on the highest difficulty setting), the rider with the most points is crowned the champ.
If you don't have the patience to endure one season of racing, much less five, you can race against computer-controlled riders on the team and track of your choice in MotoGP's arcade setting or test your mettle against the clock in the game's time trial mode. Here, you pick a bike and track, set the number of laps you wish to race, and then attempt to set a track record by racing a ghost image of your own fastest lap. If that's still not enough, MotoGP also includes a versus mode that lets you and a friend race against each other via split-screen.
But while MotoGP might sound like every other racing game in recent memory, its appeal is its ability to take what's essentially a standard arcade-like game and infuse it with just enough simulation aspects to fool you into thinking that you're capable of handling its seemingly realistic physics. In reality, MotoGP is a very simple game with only a few controls and a very straightforward physics model. Controls are limited to steering, accelerating, braking, and, should you opt for a manual transmission, shifting - the computer takes care of the rest. At first, you'll find that most of the motorcycles are extremely skittish and that controlling them involves a lot of continuous thumb work with the analog stick and a constant finger tap dance on the gas and brake buttons. You'll quickly come to realize that a delicate touch isn't quite as necessary as you'd thought, and while you can't be as heavy-handed with the controls as in typical racing games, you're given much more room for error than you'd have in a true simulator. For instance, the computer will unobtrusively govern your engine speed while you're in a tight turn - even if you're applying full throttle - to prevent you from wiping out. After a while, riding these powerful two-wheeled machines becomes second-nature to you - you'll start worrying less about controlling them and start focusing on overtaking the last rider in front of you or finding the best line on each track. Yet, every now and then, as you grow a little too confident of your newly acquired racing skills, your bike might suffer a loss of adhesion during a corner or end up tumbling end over end if you brake too late - simply MotoGP's way of keeping you constantly alert.
Of course, there's also the option of turning on a "simulation" setting, which further exaggerates the effects of realism. With this mode turned on, your bike becomes much more temperamental, and you'll be prone to a lot more crashes and initial frustration. Basically, this setting makes the bikes handle less like cars and more like, well, bikes. Too much throttle while cornering will cause your rear tire to slip out from under you, while too much braking during a turn will lock up your front wheel - either scenario results in a frustrating crash. To help you out, the dual shock controller will actually telegraph loss of adhesion by slightly vibrating before you lose control, giving you the chance to correct your trajectory. And for true race aficionados, MotoGP gives you the option of tweaking four different settings, which include the final gear ratio, the suspension, brakes, and acceleration value of your bike.
The game further enhances the sense of realism by providing some of the best graphics seen in a racing game to date. The bike models are all rendered with a high number of polygons; and the sponsor stickers that litter each motorcycle, while plain, are very crisp and easily discernable at a distance. Even the bike's brake rotors and calipers are clearly visible. Each of the five racetracks - Jerez, Paul Ricard, Suzuka, Motegi, and Donington - all resemble their real-world counterparts almost exactly. The asphalt on each course is marred with countless tire tracks and skid marks, which, aside from being a nice touch, serve to display that circuit's best driving line. Peripheral objects such as trees, bridges, and grandstands are all quite impressive as well, even though you'll rarely have the chance to appreciate their detail as you fly around the track. Even more notable are MotoGP's replays, which use a combination of trackside angles, bike-mounted cameras, and helicopter cams to present the action of your last race in a truly amazing format. Several effects are used to relay a realistic feel to these replays, including cameras that shake when bikes whiz by them, heat waves and mirages on the asphalt, and even cameras that intentionally have trouble tracking your bike as you weave in and out of corners. It's unfortunate that the level of detail found in the replays didn't make its way into the actual gameplay. But, really, the only evident problem with MotoGP's graphics is that each of the bike's wheels is plainly shaped like an octagon. Namco should have taken more care in making them appear to be round.
MotoGP does have its fair share of problems, though. With only five tracks, the game can get repetitive relatively quickly. To remedy its lack of replay value, Namco included a challenge mode, which gives you 50 goals of varying difficulty that you can choose to accomplish. These range from finishing first on the hardest difficulty to racing between two points on a track within a set amount of time. Successful completion of each challenge will unlock things such as pictures of actual GP riders and races, more bikes and teams, and mirrored versions of the game's five racetracks. While this mode adds an interesting twist to an otherwise straightforward racing game, Namco should have included more tracks to unlock, as five of the GP circuit's 16 tracks is simply not enough. Also, while the sound effects, such as the bike's exhaust notes and crowd noise, are quite good, the selection of techno music is a little bland, and it leaves us wondering why a soundtrack of the same quality as those in Namco's Ridge Racer series wasn't included.
Despite these minor shortcomings, it's certainly refreshing to see a licensed racing game like MotoGP find the sweet spot between appealing to casual gamers and more enthusiast-minded racing fans. Its pleasing graphics and amazing replays are sure to please technophiles, and while it doesn't have as many tracks or as much replay value as we'd like, MotoGP definitely deserves a spot on your shelf.