Two Wheeler Mayhem

In a world where practically every other sports title has an EA logo stamped on it someplace, it?s nice to see some other companies, big or small, get at least a small slice of the sports game pie. Granted, publisher THQ already has a few things going for it in this area in the case of MotoGP 3: Ultimate Racing Technology. It?s an established franchise (this edition of MotoGP is the third in the series), and created for a section of the sports game market that EA has all but abandoned ? the realistic racing simulation. For die-hard fans of the realistic racing simulation, especially for fans of previous installments of MotoGP, the third iteration of this series won?t disappoint. But for those who are new or less experienced with simulation racing, or for those fans of MotoGP that want something really new, exciting, and innovative, MotoGP 3 will more than likely come up a bit short.

Although the subgenre of the realistic driving simulation is hardly new, and MotoGP is an established game franchise, the area it explores is one that hasn?t been covered thoroughly in racing games ? the realm of motorcycle racing. The vast majority of realistic driving simulators out there commercially are focused on specific types of cars. Thusly, motorcycle racing games occupy a comfortable little niche in the racing game market, with titles such as the MotoGP series dominating shelf space. Motorcycle racing, when translated to game format, introduces its own challenges that set it apart from its four-wheeled counterparts ? there are scores of extra factors to take in, such as rider position on the bike, front and rear brakes, and, of course, the fine art of keeping your bike on two wheels, as opposed to keeping a car on all four. So, those who are used to car-based simulations have a bit to adjust to, while those who are relatively new to realistic racing simulations in general will have a huge, difficult learning curve to traverse. Unfortunately, the presentation of the learning curve is one area, and a vital area, where MotoGP 3 falters, getting a bad start right off the line.

The physics of motorcycle racing are handled quite realistically in MotoGP 3, and thus those who are more familiar with the series will pick up how the game works in very little time. The rest of us, however, are stuck with a set of confusing and cumbersome tutorials, and a user interface that leaves no room for user-friendliness when it comes to us newbies. The tutorials are vague, describing how a real motorcycle racer would do the things in the tutorial in real life, but offering no clear and concise equivalent for a novice commanding a racer with the Xbox controller. The opening screens of each tutorial are further confounded by a voiceover introduction, which, while more detailed, doesn?t sync up with the text on the screen. In the actual playable sections of each tutorial, they are further plagued by lack of feedback to the player. The ghost bike at the beginning of each tutorial is supposed to demonstrate how to complete it, but again, without an explanation involving the controller itself, we are only left to guess how we are to accomplish what the ghost does. And some of the tutorials aren?t explicit enough as to what you?re supposed to do, and whether or not you?ve done it right. In the first tutorial on throttle control, what?s to prevent one from just mashing the gas button right at the start and breezing through the tutorial (even blasting into a road sign), as you still get ?Tutorial Passed?? Also, unfortunately, unlike other four-wheeled simulations (such as Forza Motorsport), in-game aid is sadly lacking. One feature that allowed newbie players to get into Forza Motorsport was the suggested racing line feature in game, which displayed the suggested line for players to follow, which changed colors from green to yellow to red to reflect how fast one should go on any particular point on the line, which helps new players immensely with adapting to the more realistic physics. No such feature appears in MotoGP 3, sadly, even though the subject of a racing line is the subject of one of the tutorials. Instead, the in-game cornering help comes in the form of a rather useless road sign that appears on the top of your screen describing the curve ahead. The sign is supposed to glow bright red if you?re approaching your turn too fast, but it turns bright red far too late, and sometimes at really weird intervals (like turning red when you?re already inside the turn negotiating it), giving a player no solid advice on how to handle a turn. So therefore, for new players, the only way to truly get used to MotoGP 3?s realistic and unforgiving physics is to experiment in the game and find out for on your own how to play, and that may require more patience than many non-simulation players may be willing to give.

Once one is comfortable with the setup, however few (for fans) or many (for the rest of us) tries that takes, the experience with MotoGP 3 can be rewarding. There is certainly no shortage of stuff to do, bikes to race, and tracks to race on, once you get the hang of how to play. The bulk of the single player consists of two career types. One is called Grand Prix, which consists entirely of tracks directly modeled from the professional motorcycle racing tracks of the real world, with a racing structure that?s pretty faithful to its real life counterpart, with practice runs, qualifying laps (both of which can be bypassed, at the cost of starting near the back of the pack), and a similar scoring system. The other, and surprisingly more newbie-friendly, career mode is called Extreme (yes, I groaned too), consisting of fictitious tracks running through city streets, obviously trying to capture the feel of ?underground? racing. Extreme is structured similar to GP, but with fewer competitors (10 as opposed to the 20+ of GP), the option to purchase new bikes and bike upgrades between races, and, as mentioned earlier, tracks that are easier for newer players to race on. Both modes have you start from scratch with a rider that you generate, customize the look of (with the usual limited palette of color and clip-art options), and assign points to in four areas: cornering, braking, top speed, and acceleration. Finishing races in either career mode earns you points to improve your rider in these four areas. There are also time trial and single race modes. For any of these, the number of tracks is quite large, from 16 tracks made from scratch for the Extreme career, to the 16 real life-based official GP tracks. With dozens of new bikes, and new riders to ride them, to unlock as you improve your seed (your overall ranking that improves as you play), those who are crazy enough to unlock everything a game has to offer (which I?m assuming includes the die-hard fans of the MotoGP series) will be playing this game for a long time. Adding to this replay value is Xbox Live functionality, which allows one to compete with one?s own custom rider (or any of the pre-fab ones) against large numbers of people online, over 20 for the GP races, and plenty of scoring and arrangement options to at least keep ways of measuring competition fresh, if not the core racing gameplay experience.

But those fans who are looking for something new and exciting with this iteration of the MotoGP series most likely would be a mite disappointed, as the biggest change, the Extreme mode, isn?t much different from GP mode. It only changes the locales and the amount of racers. It has almost exactly the same racing structure (practice, qualify, and race), the same point structure, and the same objective (get the most points by the end of the series), with nothing like style points to help things along. Upgrading bikes in this mode consists only of purchasing set stages of upgrades for one of five areas, with none of the added complexity of sponsorship that other high quality simulation racing games (such as, again, Forza Motorsport) with a tuning element have. Fine tuning bikes for performance is limited to an overly simplistic menu-driven interface with limited options (pretty much only changing tires, hardness of suspension and brakes, gear ratios, and other minor things), with no visible means of gauging effects (no graphs for example) other than the vague on-screen text. In the actual race, AI is often inconsistent. At the lowest difficulty level, your competitors simply let you breeze by uncontested (unless you really screw up), and at the highest they become completely unforgiving, seemingly making no mistakes, and even deliberately colliding with you on occasion (something no real motorcycle racer would ever do).

The disappointment will continue with the bland, run-of-the-mill graphics that haven?t changed much since the original. The graphics appear dated by today?s standards, having not changed much from the original MotoGP. While the animation proceeds at a good 60 frames per second with almost no slowdown, my guess is that it?s able to do so because there isn?t much to render. While the bikes (the focus of this whole game) are exquisitely detailed, the riders themselves look somewhat unrefined, appearing chunky in some spots, like the shoulders, for instance. While one is going too fast to get a close look at the environments most of the time, they don?t look all that impressive when you get a chance to see them. Places like the stands and various buildings on a GP racetrack are reasonably done (the people in the stands are 2D, but you don?t really notice). The buildings and other parts of the city street Extreme tracks usually look convincingly detailed, but some sections also suffer from blockiness, with many textures looking like they were just stamped on, a few buildings just looking like cubes up close, as well as some glitches. The description of the game mentions a ?powerful lighting and particle effects engine,? but if it?s there, I don?t see much evidence of it as there just aren?t that many shadows to see ? period. Those shadows that are present aren?t very detailed, looking like dark blobs most of the time. Cloudy days look almost exactly the same as sunny days, and for some night tracks in Extreme mode, the street lights don?t do anything impressive (just light spots on the track), and I don?t see any headlights being used on the bikes (they could be, but I sure don?t notice them). For particles, the most I see is tire smoke, and a piddling amount of blocky sand particles when one squeals one?s wheels in the sand traps. Crashes in grassy or sandy areas kick up far less dust and debris than they should. A blurring effect attempts to replicate the feeling of high speed, but more often than not it obscures the track ahead so much you really can?t see what?s coming up. At least the animations for wiping out are well done. I winced every time I wiped out, simply from seeing what happened to my rider. Forgettable and annoying music tracks (with some repetitive techno and some poorly done attempts at punk), the sounds of each bike being almost the same (real racing bikes would vary widely in pitch and tone), and lack of bass for either, don?t help things along.

MotoGP 3 is a game designed pretty much exclusively for die-hard fans of the series that like MotoGP so much that more of the same would be just fine for them. Although that?s fine for them, the rest of us are left with a game too difficult to learn for newbies, too little off-the-track detail for fans of other high quality racing simulations, and too much of the same for those MotoGP players who are tired of the same old thing. If future MotoGPs follow this route, die-hard fans will shrink in number.

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