After the delayed start and condensed motorsport championships of 2020 it’s with some relief to fans that despite local restrictions there’s racing getting underway. Maybe not overly smoothly when it comes to F1 with Australia being cancelled, but the bikers seem to have been a little luckier… at least with the opening rounds. The MotoGP 21 season got underway as planned at the end of March, and not long after it peeled away from the lights, Milestone’s latest instalment of the game series hit the track as well. They’ve been in deep with this for quite a while now, and it probably won’t be the last time that we say they’re the masters of bike racing games. From dirt based through to very serious road racers, you can rely on them to deliver on the experience, and now they’ve got an entirely new iteration of hardware to showcase their skills. It’s fair to say we’ll know what the content of the game will be, it is the 8th time Milestone have brought us the officially licensed game after all; what we’re looking forward to seeing is what they can do with more horsepower.
Let’s get the basics out of the way: MotoGP 21 is the full accompaniment to the 2021 FIM world championship, and includes all 20 tracks that were provisionally planned. Currently, Argentina and USA are up in the air in real life, but at least you can tackle them in game. It also features every team and rider across MotoGP, Moto2 and Moto3, and includes historical bikes, riders and circuits as well. There’s quite a lot of content across the whole category to get stuck into, and coupling it with the expansive career mode means you can enjoy hours of high speed action. Not much has changed in career mode if you were familiar with last year’s game – pick a category, select a team that looks as if it’ll give you the best balance for achievable rewards, and head off around the first of many races. Getting to this in the new game takes a little while longer than usual though. This time out the dev team have decided that maybe a tutorial to teach you to ride these twitchy monsters is a good idea. Rejoice newbies, finally there’s a way to learn how to ride a MotoGP contender and put up a bit of a fight.
The tutorial integrates well with the difficulty settings, essentially sending you out for a section of a track to figure out accelerating, braking and cornering before flashing up the configurable options. Do you want auto-braking? The only correct answer there is no, no and thrice no, by the way. Should there be joint braking? What type of cornering markers do you like? How easy should the AI be? There’s quite a lot to play with, and always an option to go back into the basic tutorials to see what difference it makes. Before heading into a championship it’s nice to get a feel for the machines and what it’s going to be like in anger. With basic and advanced tutorials it doesn’t feel quite as steep a learning curve as newcomers would have found in the past, and even regular players can appreciate the reminder and intro to some of the options. It also manages something pretty unique – it makes you feel completely inadequate during the final test. Pitted against a teammate it’s time for a lap of the Algarve and usually this is spent languishing some 10 seconds behind. It’s tough, and sets the tone for how the racing is going to go.
Having recovered some dignity after being schooled during what is supposed to be easing you in gently, the core game mode is career, and here it’s possible to start from the bottom and work your way up through the ranks. Moto3 is relatively slow paced and where it’s possible to learn all the required skills with a more forgiving bike; Moto2 is a step up in speed and requires more finesse to keep the rear under control; and MotoGP is the pinnacle. Oddly, and welcomed to be sure, the MotoGP class seems to be much easier to control and race with here. There’s a stability and feel for the grip that gives a confidence that I thought missing before. In fact, it’s shifted to such an extent that the Moto2’s seem the hardest to keep on the track. All of the classes share one common element though, and that’s the demand on precision. The AI is punishing even on the lower settings, so missing a line into a corner leaves the door wide open for them to zip through, and it’s massively obvious how much time is lost for poor racing line adherence. Practice is the only way to improve, and whilst there is plenty of time allocated to it in a race weekend, at times MotoGP 21 seems a bit stubborn about helping you learn.
As before, the career contains targets in each race weekend to achieve and earn research points, one of which is track mastery. Regardless of which track indicators are selected (racing line or corner markers), the racing line is shown so that it can be followed to get the track use right. Like last year, it’s at times completely useless for learning the correct braking point because by the time you see you’re told you’re going too fast it’s too late to do anything about it. Switching to the corner markers gives a more reliable braking marker, though that’s fixed regardless of speed and track conditions, but no guide on where to position your front wheel. It’s like there’s been a decision to make it more accessible to those just getting into the genre, though still wanting to add some pain to the process. If you’re a world class rider with hundreds of laps of experience on all the circuits then you’ll need neither of these, yet an option to have them both on for the average Joe would help with familiarisation no end. The track limits are pretty keen too, even when set to tolerant, so it can be lap after invalidated lap before you finally work some of the corners out. Break too many limits in the race and you’ll have to serve the new long lap penalty, so prey you’ve worked out which corner that’s on. Assuming the AI hasn’t cut a corner and knocked you off your bike of course. That happens a lot.
Fortunately rewind is there to save the day, and a tap of a shoulder button let’s you try again from any spills. The hardcore among players will opt for the “run back to bike” setting which is much more authentic, but less likely to see decent race results, especially on a wet track. Staying upright isn’t a problem in a straight line, and traction is usually pretty good. Leaning and managing the throttle and brakes though… therein lies the skill. In this it’s possibly where PS5 players will have the biggest advantage. The DualSense adapative triggers are superb. Crank up the strength and vibration settings and you can feel every moment that the rear tyre starts to slip. The triggers lose the push back and you know you’re about to go spectacularly arse over tit unless you back off and ease the pressure back on. It’s a brilliant feeling and so intuitive that you can see the improvement in performance almost immediately. It’s likely that I had a better time of the full fat race bikes in MotoGP 21 because it was so easy to tell where the grip was and where I needed to be careful. I can’t stress how much of a difference these make to the enjoyment of racing. It’s like it all clicks and the cornering becomes more fluid with more time gained, and higher qualifying and race positions start to appear. There’s the physical satisfaction of the controls that leads to the emotional one of getting better. Don’t expect to 100% stay planted on the track, those braking points will still catch you out, but it’s easier to accept when you’re not sliding everywhere.
Doing well in the events and hitting the development targets means cash and research points which you pile back into the team to improve the staff and create performance upgrades. The team management light touch stuff is decent with noticeable improvements happening, though it’s possible to ignore this if it’s not your bag. Skipping parts of the race weekend is back too, where at the start of each there are toggles to decide which sessions to include or not. I really like this idea for being able to play through full seasons without forcing playing each part. It’s great for those with limited time and enough knowledge of the tracks to jump straight into the main event. On the flip side for those not ofay with the mechanics of a motorcycle, the guided engineering is back for setup, so you can answer a few questions and it’ll make the necessary setup changes. Of course there’s the manual option if you know what you want straight off, but discussing it with a race engineer feels good. The only criticism here is that the questions feel mostly the same – is it understeering or oversteering? – there’s no dialogue tree to say “why can’t I slow the damn thing down!?“. Be successful and in theory your manager will find you better offers at bigger teams, and it’s up to you whether you want to keep forging your own path or not.
Outside the career mode MotoGP 21 isn’t short of things to do with single race weekends and time trials, each of which can involve a few classic venues (like Laguna Seca) or taking some bikes from the last 20 years for a spin. Then there’s the customisation options where create-a-sticker returns so you can really express yourself on your leathers and farings. There’s a multiplayer offering as well, though I can’t say it’s been the most stable. Finding races and opponents isn’t too tricky with Milestone simplifying it as much as possible, and once in a race there didn’t seem to be any lag, but I can’t say what the end of an event was like. Each one I tried dropped out about half way through the last lap, so I never saw the chequered flag. This included when I was in the lead, so it’s not a time out issue on the racers end. Very strange, and quite off putting. Still it gives a bit of a chance to watch the absolutely stunning visuals, and enjoy the reflections on a wet track. With a massive amount of detail on the bikes themselves, as well as the surface of the courses, it’s a beautiful sight with HDR switched on, and runs smoothly at 60 fps too. There’s never too much of a wait for loading sessions either with the SSD’s getting taken advantage of on the next gen machines.
I’ll admit that on first boot of MotoGP 21 I was thinking it looked like more of the same, and that didn’t dissipate that much when the tutorial AI whipped me, and the game got stuck on the screen settings box (seriously, there was no back option, it took a full reboot to get back to the game). Even in the first few races on some familiar tracks I was experiencing the same feelings as 12 months prior – this is a decent game, just too hardcore. Then the adaptive triggers came into their own and it transformed how it handled. It might be more of a psychological thing, yet I genuinely started to ride better and understand how to get the lap times down. I was still fighting with the AI in the races, though where that would have been them swamping me and disappearing off before, now I was holding my own and taking places off them. It’s a palpable sense of achievement that’s come from the right machinery and practice, pretty much like the real life sport… without the tarmac scrapes, broken bones and totally fearless attitudes, obviously. I can’t speak for the other versions, but if you’ve a PS5 and are in the least bit interested in the MotoGP 21 season, this is a great game to play.
A PS5 review copy of MotoGP 21 was provided by Milestone’s PR team, and the game is available now on PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, PC and Switch for around £45 depending on platform.