The leader of the pack.
Grand Prix motorcycle racing is interesting to watch on TV...for about five seconds. After all, when you’re flipping through channels and come across a guy in bright orange leather hanging an inch above the ground while hauling ass at three hundred miles per hour, you pause. “Will he crash?” you wonder. “If one of the riders spit into the wind, could it freeze in mid-air and blow another rider’s head off?”
But after five bloodless seconds of pristine turning, incredible driving and few exploding heads, we usually change the channel in favor of World’s Deadliest Police Chases or Seinfeld reruns. The fact is, we only dimly appreciate the balls it takes to fling an 800cc bike around a track, and frankly we’d rather watch a show about nothing.
So for MotoGP to make sense to us unwashed masses, we need to be able to take the accelerator into our own hands, then ram into a wall, bounce off flailing and get run over by the rider behind us. That’s where THQ and Climax’s MotoGP 06 comes into play; it does little to boost our televised MotoGP threshold, but the game itself is fun and playable for hours.
It’s also the latest in a short line of excellent motorcycle racers developed by Climax, and the first on a next-gen platform. As is the trend with the initial run of next-gen sports titles, MotoGP 06 is almost identical to its Xbox predecessor, MotoGP 3. Aside from a couple new bikes and courses, MotoGP 06 enters the 360 lists with better graphics, an unstable framerate, and a hefty price tag. It's still a great game, but then again, so is the cheaper Xbox version.
You begin with a short tutorial that presumes to teach you how the controls work, but fails miserably, simply telling you to do things, not how. Fortunately, you don’t need to pass this test to earn your license. The controls, which primarily use the two analog sticks, are instantly accessible and immediately likable.
The left stick makes your rider lean while the right stick accelerates and brakes. That’s all you need to know to start racing. The analog sticks are very sensitive, though, so you won’t just hop on a bike and start winning races. Matters are slightly complicated by front and rear wheel brakes and manual gear shifting. Rear-wheel braking, which governs power slides, is smoothly handled with the L trigger, while the bumpers shift gears. Even at its most nuanced, the control scheme is elegant and never confusing.
You’ll come to grips with it quickly enough in Career mode. Where the tutorial is obtuse and irritating, Career mode is open and easy to dive right into, albeit a little bit backwards. You just pick a starting bike, dress your rider, choose a difficulty and dive right into the Grand Prix circuit. You begin as the hundredth seed; every time you win a race you move up a spot. To prepare, you can run unlimited practice laps, tackle challenges or qualify. You don’t see practice laps in every racing game and their inclusion here makes up somewhat for the bad tutorial.
The challenges usually isolate a particularly nasty piece of a given track and make you finish it within a certain time or above a certain velocity. Each one completed rewards you with an attribute point to spend on your rider, but all are so difficult and tedious they’re hardly worth it.
Once you attempt all the races in the Grand Prix circuit, you unlock Extreme mode. This is weird, because the Extreme tracks and bikes are much more forgiving and much more fun than their Grand Prix counterparts, and would have provided a much better introduction to MotoGP 06. But to get to the easy stuff, you have to wade through seventeen tough, Grand Prix races. This isn’t a deal-breaker, it just doesn’t make sense.
Unlike Grand Prix mode, which is official MotoGP racing, Extreme mode has you riding in legalized street races in cities around the world. You still compete for a seed, but you’re also racing for cash. You begin in the 600cc class then move into the 1000cc and 1200cc classes when you can afford bikes of that caliber. The tracks themselves are much more colorful and exciting than those in Grand Prix and the bikes can handle power slides better for faster, more forgiving rides.
While the game makes the mistake of offering the accessible material after the tougher stuff, MotoGP 06 does something revolutionary with its online and offline modes. Your seed (or rank) determines what bikes and riders you have access to, and it’s the same both online and off. This means you can go about unlocking all of the game’s content any way you want, either by winning ranked online races or offline races at high difficulties. This is impressive stuff, but it was even more impressive when it was introduced in MotoGP 3 for the Xbox.
The offline races are certainly fun, but the static A.I. of the CPU racers isn’t nearly as interesting as the erratic intelligence of human competition. Online you’ll find quick matches, ranked matches, player matches and tons of options allowing players to compete in whatever kinds of races they wish. You can also system link up to sixteen players for LAN party racing, while four players can compete via split-screen. Seeing a nasty crash wipe out four friends who then carom all over the street is almost as fun as running over one of them afterward, although sadly, they suffer no ill effects.
MotoGP 06 occasiolnally does, though. If too many riders are on screen at once, the framerate crashes like Ben Roethlisberger. The same thing happens during several of the game’s hairpin turns and chicanes. These framerate fender benders take you out of the moment and seem genuinely retarded in a game based on speed. The same goes for the super-sized loading times that ironically begin every high-speed race. MotoGP 06 is not a well oiled machine, as the tracks look great in the Extreme levels and a little dull in Grand Prix.
The audio, however, is equally boring no matter where you’re racing. You’d think a motorcycle race would be a great venue for some crazy, screaming rock or ultra-icy techno, but instead you get generic engine effects and understated, single-sample loops. My kingdom for a car stereo.
Then again, weak audio is a small price to pay for some high-quality motorcycle racing goodness, and if that were the only price you had to pay, this game would be a must-have for the 360. It’s not, though; MotoGP 06 costs $60 but suffers from some hitches that weren’t present in MotoGP 3, a mostly identical but far less expensive game. Still, MotoGP 06 is a cool new bike for your Xbox 360, and an even better used one.