Motorcycle racing is, without a doubt, a sport for the brave or the insane. To precariously balance on a heavy piece of metal at ludicrous speeds, leaning into the bitumen with your precious, fragile head only centimetres off the ground when taking corners -- it's definitely pack a spare pair of undies type of stuff.
It's strange, then, that MotoGP4, the latest in Namco's PlayStation racing series, turned out to be so, well, bland. While the actual racing provides some thrills, the entire feel of the game -- from its staid presentation to its uninvolving campaign mode -- is so strangely lacklustre that only motorcycle racing fans will surely persevere.
But there is certainly plenty to love in MotoGP4 for fans of the sport. Not only does the game allow you to compete in a full season of MotoGP class (the elite level of racing), it now also has seasons for 125CC and 250CC classes. The game allows you to guide a racer up from the entry level 125CC days, then improve the bike up into the 250CC class before taking out the world championship in MotoGP class.
MotoGP4 also lets you to race against (and race as) some of the motorcycle world's top names, including all 70 current grand prix riders (such as Valentino Rossi and Max Biaggi) and some legends from the past (like Australia's Mick Doohan). All of the official MotoGP circuits for 2004 are replicated, such as the 4.5km Phillip Island track in Victoria.
As well as racing a MotoGP season, players can also race in arcade mode, time trials and special challenges, of which there are 150 ranging from beating certain racing identities on a specific course to completing a lap within an allocated time. Most of your time, however, will be spent in the season mode.
The actual racing itself is handled well, with players being presented a range of difficulty options which can either make the game ludicrously easy for beginners or a serious challenge for experts. On the easier settings, the racing physics on MotoGP4 are very forgiving -- you can ride your racer off the track and into grass and still stay upright, while even very heavy knocks against other riders will result in only a slight bump. There's even an option for the game to take control of your braking for you, which is particularly handy for those who have difficulty with figuring out appropriate braking distances. All you need to do is keep you're the accelerator pressed down, take the right line into and out of a corner and the game regulates your speed.
Turn on the settings to full simulation, however, and it becomes a more accurate test of skill. Leave the track at any practically any speed and you'll tumble off your bike. The same goes if you take a leaning corner too slowly, or accelerate too quickly in a high powered bike. Strangely, however, high speed bumps against other racers won't necessarily see you hit the bitumen, even if you're both traveling around a corner.
Whatever setting you choose, racing in MotoGP4 can be quite exciting, particularly in the full races where you're pitted against 20 other motorcycles at the same time. The wide open nature of the tracks, however, means there's oddly little sense of speed. Perhaps the greatest thrill can be achieved by switching views into a first person helmet mode instead of behind your bike -- this gives you a great perspective, particularly when zooming around a corner (though it's strange that you don't see your bike).
While your time on the track can be enjoyable, everything else tying MotoGP4 together feels completely devoid of any personality. The menus, for instance, are serviceable rather than appealing. Instead of voiceovers, MotoG 4 employs rather bland text boxes to give out information, such as in the training mode (a new addition to the series) and with its explanatory boxes about the MotoGP tour. It feels like the presentation from a 16-bit game, where voiceovers on game cartridges were practically unheard of.
The game is also structured in a way that makes it a bit of a chore to keep participating in races. Most modern racing games, such as Gran Turismo 4 and Forza Motorsport, compel you to keep playing, as every race won and every credit earned opens up new tracks, new vehicles and new upgrades. MotoGP4, while containing plenty of unlockables and other extras that can be bought by in-game winnings, doesn't have the same addictive feel, with only incremental gains made with every race.
The main plus on the presentation side is MotoGP4's graphics, which render all of the bikes and tracks in a realistic fashion. It's not to the photo realism level of GT4 or Forza, but MotoGP4 is undeniably pretty. Music doesn't fare as well, however, with generic rock riffs being the order of the day.
Fans of the sport will be glued to MotoGP4 thanks to its in-depth season mode and tonnes of unlockables. Casual gamers, while appreciating the ease at which you can control a bike hurtling down a track, will probably not be as swept up thanks to the dull presentation.
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