Once again, we find ourselves talking about the legendary Italian studio Milestone, who are responsible for several licensed videogames about famous racing categories, regardless of the amount of wheels the rides have. Perhaps, one of their most satisfying experiences in recent years has been MotoGP 20, based on the highest categories of the worldwide motorbike races, from Moto3 all the way to MotoGP. After RIDE 4 and Monster Energy Supercross 4, MotoGP 21 becomes their third licensed bike game to join the Series X|S line-up, with notable visual upgrades and additions. Let’s see if this is a corner they can ride smoothly or if it’s a high-side towards the gravel.
Look at my shiny new bike!
As someone who’s put a lot of hours into MotoGP 20, which at the time of writing this is part of Xbox Game Pass and Game Pass PC, it’s impossible not to notice how well the next-gen jump has been managed. Whereas last year’s title simply features a higher resolution for Xbox One X, MotoGP 21 also features a Series X|S version, and it’s immediately clear that it’s the real deal. 60 frames per second that are smooth as butter across the board, a very impressive use of HDR that renders weather effects and daytime changes simply beautiful, with in particular the orange lights of the sunset in Qatar that surprised me for effectiveness. All individual assets also seem drastically better than they were in previous games, and while there’s still a handful of elements that feel less polished, like the bike’s physics after a crash, the MotoGP franchise’s venture into the new generation of consoles is definitely a satisfying one. And there’s even a fun and versatile photo mode to help creating lovely photos of our high-speed adventures.
The visual impact is definitely positive, especially compared to MotoGP 20, whereas I’m finding the audio compartment more hit and miss. While the detailed commentary available in multiple languages makes it really feel like watching a race on TV, the bike sounds range from accurate to strangely obnoxious and repetitive even through different gears and speeds, with a couple instances of them cutting out altogether. There are several audio options that aim at capitalizing the strengths of stereo, surround and headphone systems alike, but with some of the audio samples not being up to par it becomes a slightly futile exercise. Moto3’s almost bee-like sounds are close to the real bikes, but their rev definitely keeps feeling off, and the repetitive nature of it became an annoyance quickly, prompting me to tweak the audio settings to lower that part at least.
Rising up after the fall
Fortunately, MotoGP 21 is not just a mere graphical and roster upgrade, a decision that various sport game developers opted for during these trying times of the pandemic. Perhaps the most advertised and noticeable gameplay change is a completely revolutionized and frankly rather innovative management of crashes. Riders always fell of the bike, but what would normally happen in such games, including MotoGP 20, is a couple seconds of rolling and crashing animations, followed by a respawn somewhere along the track. While this option is still available, a new mini-game of sorts has been introduced where the player has to move the rider using the controller’s stick towards the strucken vehicle, picking it back up and then having to restart from a standstill, with the difficulties of usually having to do so from the grass or the gravel. While the walking part feels slightly undercooked and, frankly, a bit gimmicky, the idea of larger time penalties and the difficulties of restarting a potentially damaged bike stuck in a difficult spot is a sound one.
Speaking of punishments, fans of MotoGP are aware of a relatively recent change to regulations that added long lap penalties to the potential roster of punishments a driver can get for various kinds of unsportsmanship. For those not in the know, these are special tight paths signaled on each track in one specific area where a driver needs to serve a single ride-through, costing him usually a handful of seconds at best as opposed to a more devastating passage through the pitstop or a time penalty that is served after the chequered flag. This is another element that has finally been brought over to MotoGP’s official videogame, and the system works just like it would in real life: double long lap penalty for a jump start, just the one for repeated minor cuts or a single major one, and so on.
Penalties are just one of the many things that are now more readable in the new and improved UI of the game. On top of deploying the on-screen layers of today’s TV broadcasts regarding positions, times and laps, there’s also new and handy indicators that show how many warnings a player got as a punishment looms closer, or if the rider has to serve any sort of penalty in a given timeframe. This is paired with an improved and more coherent selection of camera angles, from a variety of close and farther third person views to different on-board cameras, alongside new visual aids for the driving indicating the long lap penalty areas or the suggested point of the track where the rider should balance the weight and turn from one side to another.
Speaking of aids, coming from the already great MotoGP 20, Milestone seems to hit all the right notes in the ’21 edition in terms of offering every kind of player the right experience. A wide variety of options allow making the bike extremely smooth and linear to drive, even as far as offering automatic braking, connected brakes so players don’t have to manually balance the front and rear, to the aforementioned visual aids and AI levels ranging from practically beatable blindfolded to lapping as fast as their real-life counterparts. Just like last year, I’ve found great satisfaction in a middle ground of sorts, that does help mantaining the bike on the track with a basic controller but still forces me to balance the weight of the bike and braking expertly, as it jumps around on the bumps and the rear moves like crazy during accelerations out of a turn. Quite the exhilarating experience, probably my favourite driving model in a biking game in recent memory.
Fun for the whole season
Naturally, all these features can be abundantly tested out in a variety of classic game modes. Quick races, entire custom championships, time trials, even in online multiplayer up to 22 players (up from MotoGP 20’s 16 player limit), though due to the servers being offline before launch we have not been able to test this feature in particular. Rules are always completely customizeable, even regarding the qualifying and race length, and provide all of the tracks that are in the 2021 calendar like Mugello or Qatar, plus a handful of classic venues no longer in the real life MotoGP rotation like Laguna Seca.
And naturally, there’s an improved career mode as well, taking the basics of the already solid mode from MotoGP 20 and improving things. Players get to be their own manager and partly the team’s as well, as the rider will have to use their hard-earned resourced to reinvest in increasingly competent staff, bike upgrades and so on, with then the actual player who has to test the new changes on the asphalt during the test sessions before every race. The players can start their career from MotoGP or as low as Moto3, working their way up through sponsorships, manufacturer deals and upgrades towards a promising career in the highest class, at which point one can even create satellite teams in the lower categories to find young talents and get more money in the process. And with all licenses and performance levels in place, you could even witness real life stories’ virtual renditions, such as Acosta’s shocking Moto3 debut, Valentino Rossi’s struggles after decades of high level racing, or Marc Marquez’ comeback after the injury onto an unstable Honda.
The Historical mode from last year’s title is gone on the other hand, but its core content isn’t: it is now possible to use any classic rider, bike and track in any game mode, without needing to unlock them via cards through hard-earned credits in specifically designed events. While there’s an option that allows all bikes to feel and perform virtually the same, keeping it disabled really shows the difference in engine power, stability and general handling of the various eras of the motorbike championships, and this is reflected well on the already excellently managed fuel and tyre consumption that can be turned on and tweaked in any mode. A decent trade-off, Historical mode was a sound concept but also a bit too grindy.
Were players to make their own career or at least use their self-created rider, they get to choose from a large variety of looks, and of course with largely customizeable suits, helmets and bike liveries. It may not have an RPG-esque character creator or the astonishing depth of the Forza Horizon series’ livery editor, but with several options and customizeable colours it’s still quite easy to impose your own style on everything, even though there’s not quite the creative freedom one would hope as it mainly only allows to edit existing styles.
The ride of our lives?
I have very little to complain about Milestone’s latest attempt to emulate the world of MotoGP and its feeder series. Last year’s already great game has been further improved, with vastly improved graphics and performance on the new consoles, several gameplay and UI tweaks and a handful of brand new additions. The much hyped manual control over a rider after a fall is not quite as exciting as we hoped, but it doesn’t really matter; MotoGP 21 is an excellent rendition of one of the fastest and most exhilarating sports on the planet, proving not only to be one of Milestone’s all-time greats, but also one of the finest biking games in several years. MotoGP videogames are definitely in the right hands, and it’s available now on the Xbox One family of consoles and on Xbox Series X|S.