Who knew racing on two wheels would be so tough? In my video game career I have put in literally thousands of hours into racing games, from classics to the realistic simulators of today. But never have I had so much trouble getting used to a game. I'm not afraid to admit that it took me more than a few races before I even came close to a respectable finish, let alone taking home the gold. I just couldn't wrap my head around the way this game controlled, and my frustration really colored my opinion of this game. But a few hours into the game I started to get the hang of it and discovered, much to my surprise, that when I'm not slamming my head against the wall in frustration, I'm having a reasonably good time with Capcom's Moto GP 09/10.
If I sound a bit reluctant, it's because I am. I hesitate to recommend this game too strongly if only because I suspect a lot of traditional racing fans will have the same problems I did. There's a strange psychology that goes into learning a racing game. When it comes to cars and other four-wheeled vehicles I don't mind slamming up against the wall. I know that doing this will result in me leaving a funny dent in my virtual car or I can just back out and keep my head in the race. But crashing into a wall isn't nearly as fun when it means your virtual rider goes flying to the ground and you have to wait several seconds to restart. Things only get worse when you realize that you can fall off your bike for ridiculously simple mistakes. This all led to me really hating my time with this game right from the get go.
But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself. Moto GP 09/10 is an attempt to make a Forza 3-style game out of two-wheel motorbikes. There's certainly nothing wrong with that plan, since Forza 3 was one of the very best games for the Xbox 360 last year. This game gives you the robust career mode you expect, a way to customize your vehicle and a nice collection of famous race courses. The similarities don't end there, the game even offers the same green race line that is the default in Forza 3. Plus, it doesn't hurt that the game looks as good as it does. But no matter how many similar ingredients Monumental Games throws in, Moto GP 09/10 is nowhere near as good as Forza 3.
The meat and potatoes of this racer is the Career Mode, which takes you on a two year journey from just another guy to being the top racer in the world. I know, you've heard that story before, but the game does an excellent job of giving you options to play around with and ways to upgrade your standing. The first thing you need to do is name your racer and your race team. Then you'll need to buy some staff, maybe a publicist or an engineer. After you've competed in a few races you can start working on researching better bike parts. You are also able to pick up a few sponsors, who will give you money for just coming in above a certain place.
All this is impressive and really got me in the mood to micro-manage my race team (appropriately named "We Won't Win"). Maybe it's because I've played so many racing games over the years or maybe I have too much hubris, but I fully expected to jump into a race and do reasonably well. I'm not sure I expected to come in first, but I definitely didn't expect to get 15th (out of 20, let's not make it any worse than it is). There I was, sitting at the finish line utterly embarrassed by my poor performance.
The nice thing is, the game still gave me credit for at least trying. I earned a few points that took me up to level 2. Now I could choose a better bike and a more experienced staff. The next race went better. I may not have come in first (or even third), but I was at least in the single digits this time around. As soon as I realized that the game doesn't expect me to always come in first, I started to have a lot more fun.There are a couple of ways that the game tries to ease you into the difficulty. Most courses have a practice mode for you to run, getting feel of track and how to handle each corner. After you race that, you can check out the Qualifying Run, which will give you better placement depending on how well you perform. Both of these modes are built around teaching you the course before the actual race. Better still, running the practice and qualifying laps give you extra experience points, giving you a higher overall standing. The only trade off is that you'll spend 15 minutes on one track before moving on to something else.
The actual gameplay isn't bad, but it's easy to see how a neophyte (like myself) could get caught up early on. The game is heavily reliant on tucking your body into the bike, which makes you go faster. This is done easily enough by holding the "A" button, but it understandably makes it harder to corner. Cornering is already difficult, especially when compared to other racing games. You have to be a lot more exact in your turns or you'll slide off into the grass. In this game the outer areas are not your friend, they will send you tumbling forward and take you straight to the back of the pack. I cannot even begin to count how many times I went from third to twentieth just because I took one corner too wide.
It doesn't help any that even on the easiest difficulty the computer opponents are unfairly aggressive. This is not one of those racing games where a few drivers stay purposely slow and all you do is dodge them, this is a game where the AI actively stays involve and wants to win. That doesn't mean you can't catch back up if you fall down, but they definitely make it challenging right from the start. Because of their aggressive driving, the real key to winning the races is to be reliant on the tuck button, which really started to annoy me as I got better at taking corners and avoiding other racers.
If you're the type of gamers who is looking for a real challenge, then all of my complaints won't make a difference either way. There's nothing about the gameplay that makes it specifically bad, especially when compared to other realistic motorcycle games. It's just that for me and my preference, I prefer the game to be a little more forgiving. There's far too much of a learning curve early on and I suspect that alone will drive people away from what turns out to be a fun racing game.
One thing I do like about the career mode is that from time to time it will toss out a challenge mid-race. It will give you another biker to pass or intimidate. It will tell you to hit your max speed at some point in the next thirty seconds. In another challenge it will test your average speed. All of these things add up to points, which ultimately makes the game easier to play and ultimately more rewarding.
On top of the lengthy career mode, Moto GP 09/10 gives you a slightly more accessible (and entertaining) Arcade Mode. Here you not only race against a pack of tough opponents, but you will also need to deal with a nasty countdown clock. You start with a set amount of time and when that reaches zero it's game over. Your task is to slipstream behind other bikers, drive the proper lines and make it to checkpoint gates in order to earn a few extra seconds. In this mode the handling is a lot more forgiving and the always-present clock really gives you incentive to go all out from beginning to end. This mode still has some of the same problems as the career mode, but at least it's a fun alternative when you're not spending your time fuming over a missed corner.There are a few other modes worth mentioning, but most of them are the traditional modes you would expect from this type of racing game. You get a Time Trial Mode, which has you racing against the clock. There's also a Championship Mode, which allows you to create your own championship and race against the computer (and friends). The game supports split screen multiplayer, which is rarely seen in modern racing games.
Of course, the real reason many racing fans will play this game is for the multiplayer online modes. Here is where Moto GP 09/10 really shines. The game supports up to twenty players (though I wasn't able to find a room with that many people) and allows the group to vote on everything from the next track to the weather conditions. Because I'm racing against real people, I didn't feel like I was always being outclassed by the computer. Oh sure, I rarely came in first online (there are clearly people online that have put more time into this game), but at least I had fun losing to a real person. It's a shame you don't have more customization options when playing online, but that's a minor gripe.
Despite my lingering reservations Moto GP 09/10 is not a bad game. In fact, once you get the hang of it, the game is remarkably fun. My problem is that it took me far too long before I stopped hating the game and started having a good time. I'm not saying that a game needs to instantly hook you, but the steep learning curve could have been handled in a more organic way. I definitely like what they've done to the career mode and with a few tweaks I can see the next game (presumably Moto GP 11/12) being a real contender. As it is, this game won't make you forget about Forza 3, but it is a nice detour for anybody looking for a change of pace.