Last year was a vintage year for MotoGP. All eyes were on Marc Márquez, a young and tremendously talented rider who instantly made a name for himself when he blitzed the competition with ten consecutive race wins. It was an astonishing achievement that would be mightily impressive for a returning champion, let alone a 21 year old rider starting the second year of his MotoGP career.
Likewise, Milestone’s MotoGP game series made its first foray onto current-gen consoles (well, on PS4 at least) with MotoGP 14, which proved to be a positive step forward for the series that built on the foundations of its predecessor with improved visuals, refined riding physics and a slew of new game modes.
In contrast, this year has been business as usual, as MotoGP veterans Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo reclaimed their dominance. Similarly, this year’s MotoGP game is in danger of falling into the same trap. As Milestone reach the difficult third entry in the series since reclaiming the MotoGP license in 2013, contractual obligations make this yearly sequel susceptible to incremental updates rather than revolutionary new features.
What also doesn’t help is that Milestone is still the leading developer of bike racing games having also released their new IP Ride earlier this year; a game that wasn’t short in ambition, boasting over 100 licensed bikes and selling itself as the Gran Turismo of bike games, but sloppy execution caused it to stumble. It wouldn’t be surprising, then, to see Milestone become complacent with MotoGP 15 – let’s face it, with virtually no competition, there’s little incentive to improve and innovate an annual series like MotoGP.
Can MotoGP 15 set itself apart from the annual sequel slump?
Old with the New
On first glance, playing MotoGP 15 reveals a prevailing sense of déjà vu to anyone who played last year’s entry: the presentation is virtually identical, with the same-old menus and yet another interactive motorhome acting as your career hub. I’m pretty sure the live action track prelude videos were recycled from last year’s game, too.
Worse still, the lengthy loading times that have plagued Milestone's recent games are also back with a vengeance – expect to endure several agonising loading screens and skip through unnecessary menus by the time you actually get to start a race. Why Milestone, why?
Such long loading times would be more acceptable if MotoGP 15 was a looker, but it isn’t. Put MotoGP 14 and 15 side by side, and you’ll notice some marginal differences: track-side trees now look more like trees thanks to improved 3D models, and the YEBIS 2 lighting engine from MotoGP 14 has been tweaked. The changes are subtle, but the lighting is more refined and natural-looking, making MotoGP 15 look more realistic than its predecessor, although the visuals can sometimes look too washed out. Rain and spray effects also look more convincing, but this often comes at a cost to the performance.
It comes as no surprise, then, to find that MotoGP 15 is saddled with a 30fps limit. Milestone say that achieving 60fps is problematic because the current hardware struggles to handle large grids plus the added strain of rendering rider animations. But when you see Project CARS and Forza Motorsport 6 running at a smooth 60fps with huge grids, dazzling weather effects and complicated physics engines without a hitch, the excuses start to wane.
The bike and rider models look stunning as ever – zooming in up close reveals staggering levels of detail on the rider's overalls and bike mechanics, which are also fully animated with visibly working components. Unfortunately, the same still can’t be said for the decidedly empty environments, which are marred with grainy grass textures, ugly tree models and tracks that look too pristine to represent well-worn racing circuits.
You simply don’t get that vital race day atmosphere that gives motorsport such a momentous sense of occasion: where are the soaring helicopters, whaling horns and cheering crowds? Instead we once again get static cut and paste cardboard crowds that would have looked embarassing on last-gen platforms, and yet they were animated in the Ride and the MXGP PS4 port. There is at least pre and post-race commentary delivered by MotoGP’s real life commentator, but having some live commentary reacting to the race or even some pit crew chatter would have livened up the races and made the experience more immersive.
MotoGP 15’s uninspiring visuals are particularly noticeable when you pit it against Codemasters’ F1 2015, which debuted exclusively on current-gen formats with a shiny new engine. Given the difference in budget between them, it’s an unfair comparison, perhaps, but then the two companies have a history of comparing notes – Milestone’s interactive pit paddocks unashamedly mimic Codemasters’ design, but the rewind system found in every Codemasters game since RACE Driver GRiD originated in a Milestone game. It also doesn’t help that F1 2015 and MotoGP 15 were originally released just one week apart.
Still, Codemasters recognised the need to cater for the current-gen crowd and belatedly ceased future development for the outdated PS3 and Xbox 360 so they could pour all their resources into their new EGO engine. MotoGP 15, on the other hand, arrives on all past and present formats – for the first time in the series, that also includes Xbox One. The improvements made to F1 2015 highlights the need for MotoGP series to have a visual makeover as it still lacks the graphical gloss you’d expect from a current-gen game. You can’t help but feel that continuing to make MotoGP a multiplatform series is holding Milestone back.
But while MotoGP has gained a format with Xbox One, it’s also lost one – this is the first time the series hasn’t wheelied onto Sony’s long suffering PlayStation Vita handheld. It's sad to see Milestone finally let go of Sony’s poor portable paperweight as for a long time they were the last remaining racing game developer to support the format. At this point however Sony have essentially laid the Vita to rest, so you can't really blame them for abandoning the format if it isn't going to sell.
While F1 2015’s paltry package has received widespread criticism, the same can’t be said for MotoGP 15. Like F1 2015, not only do you get access to this year’s teams and riders, but also last year’s as bonus content. Unlike F1 2015 however, MotoGP 15 represents the full progression of MotoGP classes, from the entry-level Moto 3 and 2 tiers to the monstrously powerful MotoGP bikes. It also has a wealth of fan-pleasing features that effectively utilise the license beyond a barebones career mode – yes, we’re still looking at you F1 2015.
A licensed motorsport game should connect to its core fanbase, and MotoGP 15’s Real Events mode does exactly that by letting you re-enact key highlights from last year’s season chronicling memorable moments such as Marc Marquez’s incredible rise to glory in which he snatched first place from Rossi only two laps before the end of the first race. The expanded set also includes events from MotoGP's illustrious history, featuring the twitchy two-stroke bikes. The Real Events are well presented, using live action footage of the actual event before it’s recreated in-game, and a smart use of the license, but, like many aspects of MotoGP 15, the execution is identical to last year’s game.
Speaking of game modes, the strange Safety Car mode introduced in MotoGP 14, in which you drove hot laps in a BMW M3 safety car, hasn’t returned, although we can’t say we miss it. It was a bizarre inclusion, to say the least – what could have been a fun novelty was hampered by horrific car handling.
Replacing it is the superior Beat the Time mode, which challenges you to beat a lap time set by an official rider on each track in a specific bike, gradually unlocking tougher challenges as you progress. You know a game is scraping the barrel when one of its new touted features is a glorified time trial mode, but it’s an extra challenge that will keep hardcore MotoGP riders occupied.
It’s in the career mode that you’ll discover MotoGP 15’s headline new feature, however. Finish the introductory few wildcard races to attract new sponsors, and you’ll be invited to create your own private team.
Essentially, this borrows from Ride’s bike customisation, but without the detailed tuning options – you can adjust the liveries, add decals and earn credits to buy faster bikes, but you can’t fit any after-market parts. Data packs can also be acquired to upgrade parts, but they’re mostly redundant since you’ll gain better performance increases from buying new team bikes.
Curiously, you still can’t play as a female rider, despite the option to select one as your profile avatar. It’s an especially baffling oversight when you can play as a female rider in Ride. Rider customisation doesn’t fare much better either, as there’s still no ability to customise your face other than preset photos that were clearly sourced from developer mugshots.
Private teams add a welcome element of personalisation, eliminating the need to keep switching teams which makes the career mode feel fresh, but it’s an entirely superficial change – you’re still aiming to complete sponsorship objectives just as you would when riding with licensed teams. And while bike customisation may be a first for the MotoGP series, it’s not exactly revolutionary since it’s a recurring new feature in every new Milestone game. Featuring bike and rider customisation is still a novelty in a licensed motorsport game however, allowing MotoGP 15 to stray from the stringent structures found in similar games that have to adhere to the championship regulations.
Access to official riders is also restricted by a frustrating leveling system: in some cases, you need to have reached over level 50, or sometimes even level 60, to access your favourite riders, yet you can often ride as their teammate without restriction. Making you grind for hours to play as some of the classic riders makes sense, but preventing you from accessing the 2015 roster in a game that’s supposed to represent this year’s season is an odd design decision.
On the track, MotoGP 15’s AI opponents are fiercely competitive, yet permanently passive – none of the riders display any human personality whatsoever, racing in droves and resolutely adhering to the racing line. Granted, a slight tap can spell disaster, so you can’t blame them for veering on the side of caution. They do at least give you a challenge – even on medium difficulty, I struggled to finish above 15th place in most of my early races, so finishing on the podium does give you a sense of victory. It doesn’t exactly set your pulse racing though, which is far from the white knuckle experience you’d imagine competing in a MotoGP race to be.
Instead, the real thrill comes from controlling the bikes: taming the rear as it squirms under heavy braking and methodically applying the front and rear brakes to turn in tighter, narrowly missing your rivals as you lean into the corner and kissing the apex as you weave past them with barely any room to spare feels fantastic. MotoGP 15 effectively simulates the nuances of each bike, given the limitations of a controller. The motion captured rider animations also look natural – you can make out your rider twisting the throttle with the same amount of pressure as your controller input. Sadly, crew animations look stiff and robotic by comparison, as do the bail animations when you inevitably fall off your bike which still leave a lot to be desired.
There’s a very tangible difference between the bike classes: Moto3 bikes are slow and subdued whereas MotoGP bikes are fast and feisty, requiring precise inputs to prevent you from falling off. The bikes feel weightier than before, and there’s a greater emphasis on fine-tuning your rider’s position to maintain the balance of the bike. Like in real life, reading the bike and biker’s body language is key – you’ll soon learn to lift the left analogue stick to lean your rider back under braking if you don’t want to fall off at every corner. If anything, the bikes are perhaps too weighty – braking distances are noticeably longer, and they are often slow to turn in thanks to some potent understeer.
The added depth in MotoGP 15’s handling leans closer to simulation than any Milestone game before it. Purists who always ride without the aid of stabilisers will lap up the challenge, but there’s consequently a steeper learning curve for newcomers, especially if you predominately play car racing games. Thankfully, there are a plethora of preset physics models and assists you can apply to ease you in such as activating auto dual brakes, so you can trial and error the different options to find your skill level – with some fine-tuning, it's possible to make MotoGP 15 as accessible or challenging as you desire.
With so many racing games making significant strides in audio design, it’s disappointing to find that Milestone hasn’t improved this area. Indeed, MotoGP 15’s exhaust notes have a very artificial quality to them: Moto3 bikes sound like wasps while MotoGP bikes sound like listless lawn mowers.
The online multiplayer, which supports up to 12 players, benefits from a new Split Time mode, where the player who gains the fastest time in set sectors of track is declared the winner, which makes for some intense competition. Likewise, the new Sprint Season mode is suitably fast paced and plays a lot like the online championships found in FIFA games, requiring you to achieve a certain number of points after a small number of races to be promoted – it’s a shame these modes didn’t make it in the offline game. Overall, MotoGP 15’s online is pleasingly comprehensive, with an abundance of race setup options and some solid netcode with minimal lag.
Since release, it's fair to say MotoGP 15 hasn’t been very well supported by Milestone. To date, only one patch update has been released for the PS4, despite users still complaining of experiencing the same save data corruption glitch that plagued Ride as well as the longstanding leaderboard glitch that seems to affect every MotoGP game. Milestone’s games could generally do with more frequent game updates – as Evolution and Slightly Mad Studios have proved with DriveClub and Project CARS, community communication is crucial when a game has issues that need addressing.
A few notable new features and subtle improvements can’t prevent MotoGP 15 from being a quintessential annual sports sequel loaded with incremental updates – it’s hard not to expect a more substantial update from a series that's now in its third game and firmly established on current consoles. Despite delivering plenty of fan service and improving on the lackluster Ride, MotoGP 15 is a serviceable sequel that fails to go that extra mile to move the series forward.
With so much emphasis on authenticity, the MotoGP game series is starting to lose its sense of fun – remember when you could play as Pac Man in Namco’s MotoGP games?