SBK Superbike World Championship Review (Xbox 360)
Xbox gamers haven’t had a hard time uncovering decent motorcycle racing games over the past few years. The MotoGP series was one of the first to grace the fledgling Xbox Live service, and it provided me with many hours of fun online competition.
As subsequent releases came down the pipeline, less about the titles felt fresh and new to me. Each new version of MotoGP felt familiar, and I found myself losing interest earlier than expected. Couple that with the fact that THQ changed the developers of the MotoGP series, which some would say affected the quality level, and you have the perfect time for Superbike World Championship (SBK) to move in and challenge for a spot in the marketplace.
The graphics in SBK are a decidedly mixed bag of highs and lows. The rider and bike models are very well done, especially while in the great helmet camera view, where you can see the tank and the rider’s gloves working the handlebars as you navigate the tracks. Each rider’s leathers look great, and the bike liveries are the real stars of the show.
However, when you start to look around at things other than the bikes, the graphics start to lose a bit of their luster. Pavement textures are not appalling, but they are certainly not gorgeous. The track-side objects and models are authentic, but you won’t see crowds milling about or any kind of indication that a major race is going on (other than all the bikes on the track, obviously). The majority of the time you won’t be staring at a grandstand for more than a fraction of a second, so it’s not a huge issue.
In racing games like SBK, your focus is purely on the track and riders in front of you and nowhere else. So with the track visuals looking average, a lot of gamers might have an underwhelming first impression of the game.
Sound and Presentation
The presentation is a little sparse. The front-end menus aren’t exactly awe-inspiring, and the overall production values feel adequate, but not revolutionary in any way. Also, while the menus are obviously just a way to get into a race, they do hammer home the same "drab" feeling that I got when looking around while on the track.
In the audio department, however, the bikes sound fantastic. Each model sounds different, so you can tell the throaty roar of a Ducati coming up on you as opposed to a Yamaha. The appropriate skids and thuds accompany the inevitable spills that you will take, and it’s fitting that the best part of the entire sound package is the engine sounds. Those are what you hear 90 percent of the time, anyway.
Thankfully, the presentation package takes a backseat to the on-track action in SBK. I have to put a disclaimer here, though, and get this out of the way right up front: This game is a hardcore simulation that caters to the gamers that know what will happen when they alter the inclination angle and trail of the steering column, as well as compression damping, chain tension ratio, etc.
If that sounds intimidating, that’s because it is. I’m a guy that can find my way around a garage in a game fairly easily, but there are settings upon settings buried in the "garage" menus in SBK. The strange part is that those menus really made me appreciate the bike setup process more. I was able to use the absolutely fantastic "recommended configuration" setups (which differ from team to team, which I’ll get into a bit later) to find a baseline and adjust from there. With time, and a lot of practice and destroyed machinery, I really learned to appreciate the underlying physics engine in this title.
To get that seat time, you have a number of gameplay modes to choose from, most of which are required components in a racing title today. There is a fairly sparse tutorial that throws you on a track and has you complete corners and laps without crashing, which is harder than it sounds at first, but gamers who have become accustomed to the deep challenge tutorials built into MotoGP will find this tutorial somewhat lacking.
That’s because there is a separate "challenges" mode in SBK that ranges from ridiculously easy to absurdly difficult, and completing one challenge unlocks the next. It’s a nice diversion from the actual racing, and it certainly helps the player come to grips with the unflinchingly tough difficulty that you will experience when all the rider's aids are off, but it’s not something that most gamers will come back to more than a handful of times.
You also have the obligatory Instant Action and Quick Race modes (the difference being the former chooses everything from team to track for you, and the latter allowing you to configure your settings prior to heading to the track), as well as Time Attack sessions for the perfectionist. I enjoy Time Attack modes in almost any game, as it is a great way to find out where you are weak or dominant on a particular track.
But the real challenge in SBK (as with most racing games) comes from the Championship mode. This allows you to race an entire championship season as any of the riders from the 2008 Superbike World Championship season. What makes this mode so much fun is that each team has a different ability level, so your rider choice is actually somewhat of a handicap that you can set at the start of a season.
Each team is rated in three areas: experience, knowledge and reliability. Choosing to ride as Max Biaggi or Noriyuki Haga provides you with a solid team that can give you dependable, fast bikes, as well as a setup that’s close to the best you can get when using the team engineer.
Prior to any session, you can have a technical meeting with your engineers, who will break down each setting on the vehicle, and explain what the changes will do to the handling. It’s a very impressive little section of the garage, and it's all the more impressive when you ride for a slower team without as much knowledge, because you will spend most of race chasing the entire pack on a barely competitive ride.
If you decide that you are out of your league when it comes to setting bikes up, you can always go with the "optimal" setup, which is only as good as the experience level of your team. On the better teams, you’ll have bikes that handle sublimely, whereas on some of the lesser outfits (a handy rating section shows you where each team rests as far as quality level goes), you’ll end up with unstable or sluggish rides. It’s a nice feature, and one that gamers with less time on their hands will appreciate.
But in the end, it all comes back to the quality of the racing model. If you have a wonderful setup engine that cannot turn a lap around the track, it’s all for nothing. SBK has one of the most believable motorcycle physics engines around. With all of the riding aids set to on -- the "basic" riding model is the default -- the events feel a bit like point-and-shoot affairs. You have very little risk of locking up brakes, low-siding or having any problems outside of running off the track. Just point it in the right direction and squeeze the throttle to fly around.
Once you start turning some of those aids off, however, things change drastically. Suddenly the bike doesn’t stop as quickly (braking is multiplied by 25 percent or 50 percent with the powered brake aid set to on), launching from the line is much tougher to do at a competitive speed without spinning the rear tire, etc. You even need to worry about whether your rider balances on the seat automatically or manually. This is in addition to the traditional automatic/manual transmission options, as well as tire wear, damage to both the rider and motorcycle and even the "advanced physics" that help create a weightier bike model.
When you start fiddling with options, you discover that you can really tailor the handling model to your abilities. Personally, I’m horrid at manual transmissions in motorcycle or Formula One games (I cannot shift three hundred times per race), but when the game was set to automatic, I would frequently lose the bike when an unexpected gear change would occur. I settled into advanced physics, but was aided by a slightly overpowered brake and automatic rider control.
What that all means is that you can find any balance of help versus realism that you want in SBK. It bears reiterating that by "help," I mean just that. It will not make you faster or turn the game into a current-generation version of Sega’s classic Hang-On, but it will at least let you get around the track without eating pavement every third corner. That way you can put some real practice time in before you hop in with the artificial intelligence (AI).
And that is where the few warts in SBK reside. The AI riders are ruthlessly quick on the harder difficulty levels, and have no problem plowing a wheel into you if you are even slightly off the line. Any fan of motorcycle racing games on a console knows what I’m talking about. You come into a corner a little bit too hot because the AI is riding up your tailpipe, and you adjust just in time to catch the bike a lane too high. Before you can really correct yourself, you’re cutting back down to the inside and the AI rider doesn’t have the human touch to back off a bit. Instead, you get his front wheel inserted under your rear-side panel, and you go for a ride.
I would not mention something like this without it being a pretty common affair. I have raced in the MotoGP games for years, and Superbike 2000 and 2001 were some of my favorite games on PC. However, it got to a point where I really wasn’t a fan of running around the AI in packs, because with as much difficulty as I had keeping the bike with the rubber side down, having an AI rider punt me for the slightest bobble was not something I enjoyed. So be forewarned that you will probably curse Biaggi or Bayliss a few times before your time with SBK has come to an end.
But that’s not meant to scare you away, either. When you find a balance that gives you an incredibly realistic feeling machine, coupled with AI that will probably have a difficulty level that suits most gamers, you will have a blast playing SBK.
In a championship season, you have the full event schedule, including free practices, qualifying practice sessions, Superpole (where every rider gets a chance at one flying lap to take the pole) and both race sessions per event.
As you go through a season, you’ll find that you start to develop rivalries with other riders. In addition, some sessions your setup feels out to lunch, and so you'll really have to work to get that bike competitive. It’s a testament to a game’s design when I want to run and re-run laps, just tinkering with setups to hopefully shave a second off my times. Progressing from race to race in a season felt extremely rewarding, as I pushed from mid-pack rider to a podium finisher.
The final frontier for most motorcycle-gaming veterans on the Xbox 360 is the online arena. To be frank, my experience with SBK has been almost nonexistent. Multiple times I tried to find ANY matches online, be they ranked or unranked, quick matches or any combination of settings, yet I still failed to find races the majority of the time. It saddens me that such a great sim has so few people playing it.
It may not be a known commodity like MotoGP, but it’s every bit as fun to race in SBK, and after seeing MotoGP grow a bit stale in recent years, I would even say SBK is more enjoyable. Maybe it’s because I didn’t get a copy of SBK until a month after the game released, so the "new game smell" wore off for everyone else online, but I actually delayed writing this review several times hoping to have enough experiences online to have something to tell.
The few times that I DID find a race online, I encountered the expected performance issues. Each race will be measured by its most laggy participant, and, in general, SBK racing shares a worldwide fan base (although not nearly as big as MotoGP), so you’ll probably run against several riders from across the pond. Connections will vary, as will your experiences when you actually do find a race.
When I sat back to think about how I would rate this title, I struggled a bit. What is its target demographic? What would the "average gamers" think when they picked it up and played it? And could I recommend it to people who don’t like motorcycle racing? In those respects, it’s tough to say SBK is a smashing success. I cannot envision the typical PGR4 racer having an enormous amount of fun with SBK. There aren’t enough recoverable crashes, and while the sense of speed is there, it’s a "calculated" speed. In other words, there is less flying around while barely in control of your bike.
But then I think about being a developer on this kind of a title. SBK is unabashedly a hardcore simulation, as stated before. The developers didn’t care about the PGR4 crowd. They wanted to steal some thunder from the sagging MotoGP series, and I think they succeeded wholeheartedly with this release. It improves in the garage area in every way. The handling engine is more realistic. The helmet camera is wonderful, and the bikes sound great.
The only negative I really have with the actual gameplay is an AI package that seems to be made up of a bunch of SBK versions of NASCAR’s Kyle Busch. They will pass you no matter what, and you have to be on your guard at all times when racing around other bikes.
So that’s what you’ll have to ask yourself. Are you a "casual" gamer that wants to be able to dive into a game and fly around haphazardly, and pull out come-from-behind wins in the final corners? If so, you probably won’t find a lot to like here.
But if you’re in my shoes, and you're the type of gamer who likes a calculated racer (as well as an incredible learning curve), then you will find motorcycle nirvana with SBK. I can say with certainty that it is my favorite motorcycle game on the Xbox 360. A game that has uncompromising realism and makes no apologies about how difficult it is gets my vote every time.
With a little more polish in the AI routines and some reworking of the graphical presentation and interface, SBK 09 could be an all-time great. As it stands, though, this iteration is no slouch.
Graphics: Excellent riders, mediocre track-side visuals. The entire look is a bit fuzzy and won’t win any best-of-show awards. When looking at the bikes around you (which you’ll frequently be doing), it’s definitely acceptable.
Sound: Bike sounds are a treat. In a game where you spend hours upon hours listening to the whiny RPMs being turned by the engines, that’s a big deal. Trust me.
On the Track: Best in the business. The engine can be tailored to allow a trained chimpanzee to point the bike in the right direction and go, or make a seasoned veteran struggle to just keep the bike upright.
Entertainment Value: If you’re into tweaking setups and turning endless amounts of laps, this one’s right up your alley. I had a heck of a time with SBK, and I didn’t really think I would.
Learning Curve: Moderate to huge. If you leave all of the aids on, it’s really not too difficult. But when you start turning them off, it ramps up significantly.
Online: Almost absent. I haven’t had success finding consistent races outside of a session or two. It’s probably the most disappointing experience for me in the whole game, which is more attributed to the lack of players than it is the quality of the gameplay.
Score: 8.0 (Very Good)