Much like the annual battle that occurs every autumn when gamers attempt to decide which is the year’s finest representation of eleven-a-side football (a perpetual scrap between Pro Evolution Soccer and FIFA) so petrolheads who favour two wheels over four have been faced with a similar choice for at least the past three summers. Competition is similarly fierce, and even more so this year. After Capcom’s Moto GP 09/10 raised that franchise’s game so effectively back in March, Black Bean’s SBK franchise has now made its annual return, and to say that it is better than ever would be a gigantic understatement.
Because if the conclusive title wasn’t enough of a hint, this is a game that wants nothing less than to be regarded as the definitive experience of its kind, and although it doesn’t quite reach those lofty heights, it comes far closer than you may first expect. Although it is essentially two completely different games in one, it is the Simulation mode that is SBK X‘s most outstanding achievement, and if you’ve ever played any kind of motorcycle racing game prior to this one, you should definitely ensure that you make Simulation mode your primary pit stop.
Simulation mode has been born of copious fan feedback, and it shows. Although Arcade mode offers up a simplified and enjoyably adrenaline-tinged experience, it places a strong emphasis on completing a series of challenges rather than just winning races, and it isn’t massively concerned with realism. This is a distinctly shrewd move on Black Bean’s part, because younger gamers who may pick up SBK X out of curiosity or a blossoming interest in the sport will have something substantial (and substantially entertaining) to fall back on if the sheer depth of the Simulation mode intimidates them.
Whilst that younger audience will be intimidated by the skill and concentration required to simply keep your machine on the tarmac (even on the most lenient of the simulation settings, of which there are three) everyone else is likely to be intimidated by the exhaustive wealth of modification options that it offers. This doesn’t extend to the creation of your own rider (you can select your full name, nickname, height, weight and riding style, but can only choose from a preset collection of faces) but this is obviously a rather arbitrary process anyway, particularly in a game in which your avatar will spend almost all of his time wearing a helmet with his back to you.
As in previous SBK games, you are advised to take part in a small series of qualifiers, superpoles and warm-up races before you properly get going, and though you can skip directly to a race if you’re feeling cocky, you won’t receive the intel that you’ll need to upgrade your bike, and this is where the jaw-dropping number of customisable elements come into play. You can tinker with every conceivable facet of your vehicle (including suspension, steering, chain adjustment, gears, tyres etc) but most brilliantly of all, even if you aren’t fully aware of what changes need to be made (and to which part of your bike) a member of your staff will make frequent, informed suggestions based on your previous performances, which you can instantaneously apply or discard as you wish.
Controlling your bike feels quite absurdly realistic and the measured process of fully mastering it is rewarding in the extreme, with some new features like the ‘Evolving Track’ (which makes on-course debris potentially hazardous during later laps) adding fruitful new possibilities for careful strategic play. The goodwill you’ll feel won’t even be tested by the dialogue of some of your staff, one of whom occasionally appeared to have walked straight off the set of Happy Days (“Gee whizz!” he remarked to us at one point, after a poor performance in which we dropped a rank) and the unintrusive use of pop music, including the much-touted inclusion of a couple of tunes by Biffy Clyro, contributes to the markedly joyous air of it all.
So in short, SBK X‘s simulation mode stands as the most uncannily realistic recreation of superbike motor racing yet seen on PC or console. Conversely the arcade mode, with its simplified control scheme and its prioritisation of boosting and medal-winning, is a persuasive distraction in its own right. This is the kind of confident and near-comprehensive videogame that will not only thrill existing fans of the sport, but could quite conceivably bring new ones to it too. The effortlessly compelling nature of the online modes was pretty much expected (with the online Time Trial leaderboards already looking like a formidable battleground) but the genuinely terrific single-player campaign is where SBK X shines brightest. In a word: blinding.
Watch the SBK X Superbike World Championship trailer here…