Motocross fans pining for an accurate game recreation of their favourite motorsport have had it tough in recent years. THQ’s popular MX vs. ATV series has been dead and buried for years (although it’s being revived this summer in the form of MX. Vs ATV Supercross), and Microsoft’s genre-defining Motocross Madness is all but a distant memory, despite last year’s fumbled attempt to kick-start it on XBLA. It was by no means a bad game: it was a jolly good ride, in fact, but it was sickeningly-sugar-coated thanks to its creepy big-headed Xbox Avatar riders.
And yet despite the family-friendly facing, Motocross Madness’ cutesy riders were a fearless bunch who had little regard for their own safety – none of them even wore a helmet. While a fun game in its own right, it wasn’t exactly a realistic depiction of motocross, a gruelling, physically-demanding form of motorsport where riders are lucky to complete a race with all their bones intact.
The passionate biker heads at Milestone seemed like the perfect outfit to develop a truly authentic motocross game; a team that is well-versed with niche bike racing games having developed the long-running SBK and MotoGP series. But even they managed to stumble spectacularly: MUD: FIM Motocross was a complete stick in the, err, mud, an obvious nod to Codemasters’ DiRT not only in name, but also in its Americanised aggressive attitude. Motocross fanatics were ultimately left cold.
Fortunately, Milestone have got back on their toppled bike and learnt their lesson. MXGP: The Official Motocross Videogame couldn’t be more different to MUD in both style and execution, and is in every way the answer to morose motocross fan’s prayers.
The clue is in the not-so-subtle title: brandishing its ‘Official Motocross Videogame’ badge means there’s a lengthy list of licensed content that will mean absolutely nothing to you unless you’re a dedicated motocross follower. There are no less than 60 official teams and riders from the real life MX1 and MX2 classes, from Italy’s star rider Antonio Cairoli (as a seven-times world champion, he’s effectively the motocross equivalent to Michael Schumacher) and David Philippaerts (another former Italian world champion), to seasoned riders such as Davide Guarneri and Alessandro Lupino.
Likewise, all the rules and locations from the 2013 championship calendar are present and correct. All-in-all, there are 14 tracks in MXGP, which are said to be 1:1 accurate according to Milestone, as a result of their extensive on-site research and collaboration with the real riders to accurately convey the look, feel and ambience of each course. However, despite Milestone’s conformity to the license, there are still three locations missing from the real world championship which may disappoint its loyal followers.
As with Milestone’s current crop of console titles, MXGP adopts a more authentic approach as you have probably gathered by now. Gone is MUD’s stylised presentation, cartoony comic book-esque riders, over-forgiving physics and a licensed, pummelling punk rock soundtrack that could easily pass as an EA Trax B-side album, replaced with a sophisticated sheen that’s pleasingly true to life.
In terms of presentation and structure, if you’ve played any of Milestone’s recent racing titles, you’ll know exactly what to expect. Slick live action montages introduce you to the real world locations, adding an air of authenticity to remind you that you’re playing a game based on a licensed motorsport, while the career mode is pure Milestone paint-by-numbers.
Once again, you’ll spend the career mode in a now all-too-familiar office environment lobby, starting out as a Wildcard rider looking to attract sponsorship on the road to becoming a champion. You can customise your rider’s helmet, choose from a selection of stock photographs which are actually derived from developer mug shots (hello Irvin!), and participate in full race weekends. While you can opt out of qualifying sessions and just stick to races if you prefer, bear in mind you still have to complete two races in the same location which can become repetitive, especially as some races can last a long time, which may become a drag for some. Initially, you start out with the slower MX2 class before progressing to the more challenging MX1 speed machines.
Meanwhile, social feeds relay comments from your fictional fanbase and rival riders who react to your current standing in the championship – beating them will earn you additional fans – and the ‘MXGP Mag’ keeps you informed of the overall race standings, giving some much-needed context to the whole process in the wake of commentaries or video supplements. It adds a modicum of soul to what is an otherwise lifeless regime at times.
As you progress, negotiate new contracts and rank up, you’ll unlock a range of helmets, bikes and photographs of the real life MXGP. It’s all good fan-service, and is indicative of Milestone’s passion for a motorsport that’s woefully underexposed in the UK.
Riding physics are undoubtedly MXGP’s strong suit, and Milestone is certainly on top form here. MXGP’s handling model is deep and complex, yet intuitive, leaning closer to simulation than arcade in the same vein as MotoGP ‘13. In stark contrast to MUD, MXGP implements a dual stick control scheme that should now be standard for bike racing games, allowing you to adjust the angle of the bike and the rider weight independently with delicate dabs of the left and right stick simultaneously.
It works wonderfully well in practice – you always feel like your inputs are directly affecting the bike; you’ll instinctively lean into corners to gain speed and adjust your momentum to land jumps. There’s a very tangible feeling of connection between bike and terrain in MXGP which few bike racing games manage to achieve, and yet Milestone manage to improve in each successive game. Some of the real riders were directly involved with influencing the nuances of the handling in order to achieve authenticity, and it certainly shows. Negiotating the uneven terrain requires a technical approach that contrasts heavily with the high speed thrills of MotoGP (motocross bikes average about 30 – 40mph in real life), but it’s fun and rewarding when you get the balancing act just right.
As with MotoGP ’13, there are three different handling models catering for varyingskill levels: Base, Medium and Pro. Base handling provides plenty of stability and also has the benefit of joint brakes, so you don’t have to worry about falling off at every corner. It’s an ideal learning curve for novice riders, but the lack of risk does rob you of exhilaration.
Dial up the difficulty, and prepare yourself for an almighty challenge – not only do you have to manage independent front and rear brakes, but you’ll spend more of your time on the dirt than on your bike. Over-eager acceleration will lead to an unrecoverable wheelie, resulting in your hapless rider falling flat on their face.
Falling off is a common occurrence in MXGP, so don’t be too despondent. Take a tumble however, and the ragdoll physics seem comically exaggerated – try not to laugh after witnessing your hapless rider flopping about during a bail. Honestly, they look as if they don’t have a single bone in their bodies. It’s a similar story in the pre and post-race cut scenes, too, where the rider’s arms bend unnaturally in peculiar places. Because you can tell when a rider has taken a few knocks when their arms no longer bend correctly.
Oddly, Milestone’s traditional rewind function (a feature they pioneered in SCAR wayyy before Codemasters did with Grid, as they love to point out) is nowhere to be found so there’s no recovering from mistakes, although the game teleports you back to the track swiftly.
To achieve the fastest times in MXGP, you need to master the art of a technique known as ‘Scrubbing’. Point both analogue sticks in the direction you want to Scrub, and your rider will curl the bike in mid-air to minimise the time spent in the air, thus shaving off vital seconds. Timing is crucial, and you’ll inevitably overshoot off the track at first, but it’s oh-so-satisfying to pull off, and makes for some good photo opportunities with the game’s easy-to-use photo mode.
There’s certainly enough challenge for enthusiasts to relish, then, but also plenty of stabilisers for novice riders. Crucially, MXGP is fun to play no matter what setting you apply.
Unfortunately, MXGP suffers from the same pitfalls that have plagued Milestone’s recent titles. The graphics, for example, are inconsistent. Riders and bikes are well-detailed, but the trackside features fare less well with pixellated trees and low resolution grass textures, and while the draw distance captures the scale of the tracks well, there are a few nasty instances of unwanted texture pop-in on the PS3 version that mar the illusion.
Some of the gormless team character models also look terrifyingly-zombie-like. The worst culprit by a mile, however, goes to the ghoulish Monster Energy girl that greets you at the start of every race, a crude character model that has all the detail of a PS1 spectator. They may have taken the time to motion capture her (a first for a videogame, apparently – if that even is an achievement to shout about), but they seemingly forgot to texture her, which wouldn’t be a problem if we didn’t have to endure a close-up of her frightening face at the start of every race.
Likewise, the engine sounds leave a lot to be desired – the weedy, monotonous murmurs grate after a few laps, other riders on the track are muted and there’s no in-game music to drown them out and pump up the action if you’re that way inclined.
Then there’s the AI, which is arguably the game’s biggest flaw. The opponents you race against rarely seem to pose much of a challenge, no matter how much you dial up the difficulty. Once you’ve sailed past them, they never seem to be able to keep up, making for a lonely racing experience at times.
Having said that, MXGP’s dynamic terrain deformation is surprisingly advanced for a last-gen title, and is genuinely impressive to behold. It simulates the wear and tear of the track, as your tyres carve a path in accordance to the varying ground-types. It’s not just for show, though; it has a profound effect on handling as well as your racing line, so your approach for a corner may be drastically different to the last lap when its previously flat surface suddenly becomes a banked slope.
There are other neat little touches, too: I particularly like how your rider’s racing overalls rustle in the wind, giving a great impression of speed. Your rider also gets gradually grubbier, accumulating dirt throughout the course of the race.
The complexity of the aforementioned deformation probably explains why sacrifices had to be made in the visual department – and why there are only 16 bikes per race instead of 24, as in the real life championship. MotoGP ’13 had full 24 grid races after all, so it’s disappointing not to see MXGP follow suit.
Indeed, while Milestone are to be commended for what they’ve achieved on the platform, it’s hard not to shake off the feeling that MXGP is saddled somewhat by the ageing PS3 hardware. It’s all down to a matter of timing, unfortunately, as it clearly started development not long before the PS4 was handed out to developers. Thankfully, this should be a thing of the past now, as MotoGP ’14, Milestone’s next title, will be riding on PS4. It’s curiously absent on Xbox One, however, which has yet to be explained.
Rounding off the package is a predictable array of game modes: you have the standard Quick Race, Tournament and Time Trial modes, as well as an obligatory online multiplayer for up to 12 players where you can play quick-fire single races or participate in a complete championship if you can keep enough players invested. Be prepared for a tough fight however, as the current community have clearly been puting the hours in and proceeded to annhiliate me race after race, Meanwhile, an online leaderboard records your best times and compares them around the world, just to temper your competitive nature further.
Overall, MXGP is another solid, if unspectacular entry in Milestone’s eclectic, ever-expanding set of specialist motorsport racing games. It’s a shame the dated last-gen tech holds it back, but if this is the start of a new series, then the MXGP license is in safe hands indeed, as Milestone’s admiration for the sport shines through once again. If so, we wholeheartedly look forward to its next-gen transition where it should reach its full potential.
Until then, Motocross fans: this is your game.