But they only have two wheels!
I can safely say that racing games are amongst my favorite genres, but it is usually car games that I play. I am unsure as to whether it’s because those are my preference or that decent bike racing games are few and far between. The SBK series of games from Black Bean is changing that. The officially licensed game of the World Superbike Championship featuring all the teams, bikes and riders from the 2010 championship not only looks great, but actually gives you the feeling that you are riding a high powered racing bike and that it could all go horribly wrong at any second. It’s also one of the first racing games that I have found myself really enjoying that involves vehicles with less than four wheels.
The game is spilt firstly into three modes; multiplayer being pretty self explanatory where you can go online and challenge the rest of the world with your racing skills, arcade which is ideal for the player looking for a quick blast around a track without risk of crashing or coming off their bike every other lap. This mode is so forgiving that you can basically cut corners and ride over the grass without really worrying to much about coming a cropper. This mode also has a boost button included, giving the game more of an arcade feel and more of an appeal to players who are not necessarily after the in depth play of Simulation mode. Arcade mode also has a story mode which gives it a bit more depth than just choosing a bike and track and then racing. The story acts as a simplified career mode with the player moving through the three classes of bikes as they progress.
But for those looking for something a bit more realistic, both in game play and handling, the place to be is the simulation mode which includes a career mode, single races, time trial and more. But the career mode is what I have been playing for the purposes of this review and what fun it is.
Before starting to play you must set up the difficulty of the game and this not only determines the AI difficulty, but how realistic the game play is, taking into account options such as tire wear, realistic handling, bike and rider health, offering enough options to set the game up to your own personal preferences, making it as easy or as tough for yourself as you like. You start your career in the Superstock 1000 and you are given eight seasons to progress your career through the three classes and make your way to the Superbike big leagues, with the ultimate goal of becoming champion.
You start your career by creating your custom character, choosing not only name and looks but also riding style with a choice of five, each made famous by certain big names in the sport. You then head to the first of many race weekends, keeping the game as realistic as they can. There are many different sessions over a weekend, allowing the player plenty of time to learn the track and get their bikes settings right for each circuit, starting with an initial practice session followed by qualifying, another practice, a warm up and then the race itself. Of course each of these can be skipped if you choose to do so, but it is nice to be given so much time in a career mode to become acclimatized to the track and weather conditions and prepare your bike for it. As you would expect for a simulation, many aspects of your bike can be tinkered with during these sessions from suspension, gearing, and even down to the bikes chain. But if changing these parts fills you with worry that you may mess up the handling of the bike, there is an easier way to do this by talking to your mechanic in the pit area and choosing from a list of responses to questions he asks pertaining to where you would like to improve the bike. Are you having trouble applying power coming out of the turns? Then using the response to the question the mechanic will change the bikes setup to something that should help with your problem, before you line up for an action packed race.
The racing itself is a real edgy affair. You really do get a sense of the speed that these bikes can reach and the feeling that any careless riding could well end in disaster. The bike handling is very good as you roar towards a turn and get on the breaks. In a straight line you slow down perfectly, but break at speed on a bend and you can find yourself wrestling with the bike to keep it upright and the same can be said for when you apply power out of the turns to much and your rear wheel spins and begins to slide from under the bike, forcing you to let up on the throttle and steady the bike before powering away again. This becomes even more of a job as you get further into a race and you have to deal with your tires wearing and you begin to lose more traction. You find yourself making decisions during the closing laps of races. Do you keep up your speed ensuring your position or ride more cautiously to keep from throwing it all away?
So, as if you did not have enough to cope with dealing with the bikes handling, a really nice touch is that you also have to pay attention to the track and I do not mean avoiding other bikes, although that is also recommended as hitting them is not a good idea. What I mean is the feature which is being called “evolving track”, the tarmac itself. At the start of a race weekend the circuit is completely clean, but as bikes run on it over the practice and race sessions, the surface changes depending on where the bikes are racing, laying down rubber on the racing line and braking points and these lines can both be used not only to show you the best racing line, but the rubber on the track gives better traction for braking and acceleration. These changing track conditions also apply for wet weather races. As you can imagine riding the bikes in the rain is even more challenging than in the dry. But again, as the bikes race on their line the tarmac dries out making it beneficial for the player and other riders to stick to the dry areas and leaving it down to the player to decide whether or not it’s worth risking straying onto wet areas for an overtake maneuver.
The only problem with the game play I have encountered so far, is that the game has frozen up for a few seconds at random moments and it has always been when I am turning into a bend. Although it is annoying, it is only a small problem and the fact that it only happens once in a blue moon means it can easily be overlooked.
On the visual side of things, it’s mostly good with both the bikes and the riders well represented. They look both sharp and realistic no matter how many bikes are on the screen at one time. The tracks themselves, although at some points could still do with a little work, are a huge improvement on previous games in the series. The crowds of spectators and track surrounding items such as trees, race marshals and structures are all three dimensional objects now, rather than flat cardboard cut outs as they were in earlier incarnations of the game, giving it a much more realistic and fleshed out feeling. The single problem I have noticed with the game’s visuals is that occasionally from certain angles the bikes seem to be floating over the track, rather than riding on it. Not by much mind you, only a few millimeters and you normally only notice it on other bikes not your own. Again, like the rare freezing up issue, it is not a game breaking problem as you really only notice this if you are actively looking for it. Other than this small issue the game on the whole looks pretty good all round, even when you are traveling at break neck speed around a track.
The games sound also is pretty spot on, with each make of bike having it’s own distinctive engine sound, which you really do notice when you roll into a turn in a pack of five or six different bikes. That coupled with the screeching tires as they slide from under the bike, what else is there? Well there is the ambient sound which include some nice crowd cheering, helicopters flying around the track during the races and even at one track, which must be near an airport, there was a constant stream of low flying airliners over the track. All these little touches and sounds add to the ambiance of the tracks.
So with the choice of bike racing games available being relatively small, we at least can be grateful that this one at is a pretty well put together package. With an in-depth simulation type game or, for the more casual gamers around, a decently put together arcade mode, fans of both styles of game get something to really enjoy. With all the good points in the game far outweighing the one or two negative points, all of which can easily be overlooked, SBK X is definitely worth a look if you are a fan of either the sport or of racing games in general.