There are certain pursuits that, if you aren’t willing to put in the time and spend the money to do right, you have no business doing them. Flying a plane, for instance, or racing a big scary vehicle. Thankfully, the world of video games has got an entire genre devoted to letting us live out our thrill seeking fantasy without spending the hundreds of thousands of dollars and suffering the inevitable crippling injuries. That genre is called Simulation, and today we are looking at SBK X, a motorcycle racing simulator for the PS3 that illustrates beyond a shadow of a doubt why I should never, EVER, sit down on a motorcycle.
There was a time when a simulator put all of its focus on physics, leaving graphics as an after thought. Those days are long gone. Now producing a simulator requires you to pour as much attention into visuals as you do into coefficient of sliding friction and the like. No where is this more important than in a motorcycle simulator like SBK X. Properly depicting the racer is vital to properly playing the game.
Unlike a car, where the machine is massive and completely encloses the driver, in bike racing the rider is clearly visible, and their posture and position has a massive effect on the handling of the vehicle. The makers of SBK X have made certain to include a visual cue for every little aspect of the rider’s interaction with the bike. Right from the start of the race, you can see the motion of the rider’s arm as he revs the engine. Gear changes are signaled with a flash of fire at the tailpipe. When you lose control, you can see the wheel waggle and skid as it gets away from you. There are different weather conditions, and when the rain dumps some water on the track, the slick sections of track are visibly more wet.
As good as that sounds, so far, that was all just the necessary stuff. What really makes this game shine is the little touches, the graphics for graphics sake. The tracks themselves are gorgeous and detailed, as are the bikes and riders. There is a semi-detailed create-a-rider, and along with picking out a helmet and face, you are able to pick a nickname, which gets printed on the back of your suit. If you go off the track on a turn (and you will), your tires will dig out a gouge in the gravel that will still be there the next time you go hurtling off. As you pick up speed, the is a subtle but effective increase in vibration and motion blur around you. When you are nearing your top speed, it doesn’t just feel fast, it feels DANGEROUS.
The HUD is detailed, keeping you apprised of all of the relevant race data, including the obvious stuff like lap time, position, and a mini-map. It also includes info like rpms, which I did not have the spare brain power to process, and a little pop up to let you know when people overtake each other. Much as all of this data is useful to a skilled racer, what I appreciated most about the HUD was that it wasn’t distracting, allowing me to keep all of my feeble attention on the road that my face was destined to be sliding across.
SBK X has three distinct modes. The primary one is simulator. Anyone who has played a racing sim knows that it is about as different from a racing game as a pocket calculator is from a graphing calculator, but we’ll get into the nuts and bolts that are a forgone conclusion in such games in a minute. First I’d like to go over the detail they crammed into the game before you even plop your butt on a bike. Simulation Mode allows you to start a career, which requires that you create a rider. There are numerous strictly graphical options, like visor color, but some of the settings have a role in gameplay. One of them is height, and another has to do with how you carry your weight on the turns. There are many options, running from a suicidally close posture that keeps your knee and elbow practically scraping the ground to a ones that keep a more respectful distance between face and asphalt. All are based on actual drivers, and all have bearing on how you play.
Once you are in the career, the detail only gets thicker. You are depicted in an office, fielding memos that assign you rivals and offer up new components to test. Got a new set of brakes that need testing? To do so properly you’re going to need to go light on them to see if they have better stopping power with less utilization. You sign contracts, which have durations and specific expectations. It really makes racing feel more like a full time job. When race day roles around, you are sent to the shop with your bike and your crew, along with a conspicuous timer in the corner. You have one hour, real time, to tweak and test your bike before race time. That means if you want to change the tuning and equipment, it is going to cost you warm-up time, both from browsing the options and having simulated labor times elapse. It really serves to make every single race seem important.
Fans of car sims like Forza or Gran Turismo will recognize a lot of the available options when it comes to tuning. You can tweak suspension and timing and a hundred other things I don’t understand. You can also tweak things you don’t find on a car, like “chain tension.” Lucky for me and my dearth of vehicular knowledge, your engineer is essentially a character. He offers up options on preset configurations, and even explains the pros and cons of each. I wisely took his advice, and once he’d eaten fifteen minutes, I took the bike out on the track, where I learned that there is a significant difference between car racing and bike racing.
A bike has half as many wheels as a car. One might suppose, then, that it is half as complex to operate. Not so. In a car, the only things you need to worry about are a steering wheel, a couple of pedals, and maybe a shifter. That makes for a pretty simple transition to a controller. For a bike, a few more buttons are necessary. There is a whole analog stick devoted to shifting your weight, or instance, and separate buttons for front and rear break. All of the controls are remap-able, and that’s good news, because you’ll be using them all pretty darn frequently, so you’ll want them where you can find them. Something as simple as turning becomes a multistage process that you have to plan well in advance, since failing to have your body leaned far enough in when the turn comes will result in you continuing off into the countryside.
Therein lies the key about simulators. They are complex, and they are HARD. I spent forty five minutes of the aforementioned hour practicing on a wet track, and it wasn’t until the closing minutes that I actually made it all the way around once without falling. Then, when I finally had the feel for the track, it was time for the race, and guess what? The sun came out and the track was dry, and thus an entirely different animal. After three tries, I managed to pull a 27th place finish in a 28 man race. And all I did was RACE. With creative use of the weigh shift and braking, you can do wheelies and stoppies to score extra points with the crowd. The game is difficult. Like all sims, it has a learning curve like a brick wall. If you expected anything less, you’ve never played a simulator before.
The good news for us less hardcore players is that there is a dumbed down “Arcade” mode. It is still tough, but it does everything short of put training wheels on your bike, and makes it much more accessible. A racing line is drawn on the track, shifting in color to let you know when to brake and when to accelerate. There are no tuning options, and there is no risk of falling off of your bike. Rather than each race being an epic thing you need to agonize over, your “Story” is plotted out into individual races with three tiers of goals, each of which rewards you with a certain number of “Reputation Points”. The different goals can range from simply finishing in 11th, 10th, or “9th or better” to finishing a race X number of seconds ahead of a rival. Earning points unlocks different races, and also earns you new unlockables, including pictures and such.
Whether you play the hardcore simulation mode or the relatively simple arcade, you always have a quick race option to get you into the action without having to muck around with the respective Career and Story modes. I have really only scratched the surface in terms of details and options, but there simply isn’t room to record all of the depth this game has to offer. There is multiplayer as well, but a review of that will have to wait for a later time.
As usual, I don’t have much to say here. The soundtrack is the sort of adrenaline pumping fare you would expect, and the roar and rev of big, beefy engines sounds just about perfect to me. I also became intimately familiar with the screech of tires that let me know that I was about to lose control yet again.
Whether you choose Sim Career or Arcade Story, the results are roughly the same. You start off as fresh meat, joining your first team and trying to earn your way to the top. There are faces, and there is text, but don’t expect much in the way of drama.
SBK X is a game that really shows off the complexity of motorcycle racing. Simulation Mode will put your skills to the test, while Arcade mode will let you play around. It will be difficult, frustratingly difficult for some, but that’s simply because bike racing is difficult, and this game is a deep and accurate depiction. If you are a hardcore, dyed in the wool superbike racing aficionado, this is absolutely the game for you.
8.2 / 10. A thorough, authentic superbike simulator with something to offer players of all skill levels.