It’s not the first or last game this year we’ll see that’s based on a sporting championship that won’t be following the usual event pattern, but that means there’s at least some outlet for those missing the real life action. MotoGP 20 is the latest instalment in the officially licensed FIM series and hits its scheduled release even though the runners and riders haven’t put knee to tarmac in anger yet. When they should have visited four countries so far and be well on the way to working who will be in contention for this year’s title, the only way to experience the thrills and many spills is virtually. With Milestone at the helm again and refining what they delivered in 2019, is this a worthy substitute to seeing the actual racers risking it all for the glory of the win?
Arguably, the MotoGP series couldn’t be in safer hands than it is with Milestone. Not only have they developed the official titles over the last seven years, they’ve put out more bike games than you can shake a stick at. With a pedigree in two wheeled handling models and the continual iteration to match the license expectations, there’s a lot riding on MotoGP 20… and it comes with a lot of promise. There’s the full roster of teams and riders, all the tracks including the new Finland GP, an update to the neural AI, Moto2 and Moto3 classes for a full career progressing through the ranks, historic race scenarios, and the promise of more to come when the proper season gets underway (including MotoE). It would be a challenge to do any more with the license in one game, so get ready to put in the hours and the laps.
Taking a leaf or two out of the recent F1 games book, the career mode is where the meat of the game is. Picking a division is crucial depending on skill level, with Moto3 offering the most accessible journey from nobody to world champion. These are 250cc bikes that don’t have the neck snapping torque, deadly straight line speed, or knife edge handling of their bigger brothers. It makes them perfect for learning the tracks and getting to grips with the systems in play. If you know what you’re doing and can tame the beasts then there’s the option for jumping straight into the full fat MotoGP 20 season and taking those out for a spin; though largely the season approach is the same regardless of category. Pick the speed, pick a manager, then pick a team – each having their own unique expectations for the year – and then jump into the calendar.
The time side of the calendar is well managed as the weeks when there aren’t scheduled MotoGP 20 races are still productive. With R&D available to improve the machinery, investing points during these in-between weeks can yield big results later, and resource can be assigned to get the jobs done faster. Really though it’s about the race weekends and that’s where anyone who’s buying in to this game is going to be. Before starting the weekend proper, there’s full control over each of the sessions, and most can be flicked on and off depending on how much work you want to put in, including a quick button press for racing only. Not that I’d recommend that. To get the most out of the career you’re going to want to head to the practices and use them as development time to earn more R&D points. Objectives are set to learn the track, simulate race pace and try low fuel runs, each adding benefit to how you’re likely to perform that weekend. It’s invaluable for beginners and will lead to a lot of setup changes whilst chasing the target times.
For those that aren’t expert bike mechanics, MotoGP 20 has an engineer on hand that will change the setup depending on how they’re told things are going. If there’s a lack of response in corners, low speeds on straights, or even wobbling under braking, the team mechanic will dial in the right settings and tell you what they’ve done so you’ve an idea what to look for when dabbling in the future. Equally there’s an option to just save it and use it again later at another track. As well as the physical changes, there are several electronic adjustments that can be made on the fly during a lap, such as traction control and engine braking, so tweaks to handling can be done as and when the race conditions change. These definitely help in controlling what’s happening under the rider, and there’s a joy in managing the traction as dry lines start to appear on wet circuits, yet it’s the physics mode that’s going to determine whether you make it through a corner without high-siding it.
Available at any point during a race weekend, the handling physics can be changed to suit how you need the bike to feel, and how easy it is to throw around. There’s assisted, normal and pro, and each radically changes how much emphasis is placed on the control and management of throttle, brake and weight transfer. Alongside this there are options for the racing line style, assisted braking, joint brakes so that front and rear are pulled together, and manual vs automatic starts. There’s actually a lot that helps newcomers get to understand how racing motorcycles differs from other forms of motorsport without being flung off every twenty seconds. In case that does happen, or you make a very silly move, there’s an unlimited rewind function to let you try continually until you get it right. The aim is to never use it to prove you’ve mastered the handling, but it’s always going to come in handy.
The last piece of MotoGP 20’s racing puzzle is the AI, and there’s a lot mentioned about how the neural learning has taught them about tire wear and fuel management. I can’t specifically vouch for that in game because of their other trait – being ridiculously hard to beat. Even on the easiest setting the AI can leave you standing and that’s where the drawback to all the diligent work Milestone have done raises its head. Whilst this is a game to simulate a real world sport, the majority of those likely to pick it up are not going to be hardcore gamers, or maybe even bike riders, and I’d have expected some element of “arcade” support to make it fun for those just wanting to feel like Stoner or Marquez. The options are there in the handling and AI setting, but it just doesn’t really work together. Either your opponents are able to hit speeds you can only dream of, or the physics assist takes too much control of the ride and you can’t get close to the racing line. Even an automatic start where you just have to hold the revs can see you lose 10 places when the lights change. It’s frustrating and disappointing.
The AI inconsistency flows over to the single event and historic races too, and jumping between modes without any respite from being left at the back of the pack gets disheartening. The historic parts are meant to be a showcase of the best of the best’s moments, yet the very first “easy” challenge saw Valentino Rossi fail to get within 10 seconds per lap of the leader when he was supposed to be fighting for the podium. Winning these events earns currency that can be used to open more up, and in theory it’s a great way to keep things action focused without needing to spend a couple of hours on a race weekend. Unfortunately it’s had the opposite effect for me and I’ve spent more time doing laps, learning courses and tuning for each specifically. That, or playing with photo mode because the game does look very nice. HDR, options of performance or graphical modes, and decent audio that doesn’t get too bee-like with the engine notes make MotoGP 20 a nice game to show off.
I have questioned if it simply is my racing skill that’s to blame in MotoGP 20 for my frustration in the way things play out, and it not being down to some unseen programmers hand. That was put to bed when racing around Le Mans. With the AI on super easy, a 3 second lead on the last lap, and a comfortable feel for the track itself I was on for a win… as well as the feeling that I’d finally got the knack of it. With three corners to go the entire pack caught up and I ended up in 4th. I’ve had other events where the race day times were 2 seconds a lap faster than anything the AI had done in practice or qualifying, and resulted in relegating me to fighting at the back and not at all feeling like a replication of the real life sport. It’s a shame because the structure, content and customisation is so accessible and interesting that it begs the question on why there’s such a steep difficulty that will be a barrier to entry for many of the sports fans.
A PS4 review copy of MotoGP 20 was provided by Milestone’s PR team and the game is out now for around £45 depending on your desired platform.