Based on the Japanese arcade game GP500, Namco's Moto GP is the most accurate motorcycle racing game to date. The game has gorgeous graphics, 36 real bikes, 5 actual tracks (10, if you count the reverse versions), and a selection of top riders as well. As with any Namco arcade port, there are a load of hidden secrets to uncover, which gives the game a decent amount of replay value. On one hand, this is great for those gamers looking for the ultimate console simulation, but the initial learning curve will turn off a lot of people. The word for this review, kids, is learn- you'll need to do a lot of it if you're to get the most out of this game.
There are five gameplay modes: Arcade, Season, Time Trial, V.S., and Challenge, as well as three difficulty settings. The difficulty adjusts the spacing of the bikes on the track in addition to the handling of the bike you choose so most people will end up on Easy for a few rides. In Easy mode, you get a red strip on the track that lets you now when to start braking, and those new to the game will find it quite helpful for the Normal and Hard modes. This will also come in handy for the Arcade and Time Trial modes, in case you haven't figured that out. Season mode has you racing for and against various teams as you progress. You have to be prepared to sit down for a while with this one, and finish in the top 3 or so on a consistent basis. But you can only race up to 5 seasons, and on the Hard setting, at that. Challenge mode is cool, because you can unlock new bikes and riders, including Klonoa, from Klonoa: Doorway to Phantomile (an excellent Psone game that you probably never played).
Unlike most bike games that have you bouncing off invisible walls near the track edges, you can pretty much go anywhere you like here, but you'll do a lot better if you stay on the track. Each of the courses has been accurately modeled down to the smallest detail, but you'll be so concentrated on racing that you won't notice anything but the track and your opponents. The game is so well designed, that it's nearly impossible to pick up and play it on the first few tries. It's all about practice, practice, practice- and more practice. The gameplay is a mixture of simulation and arcade, heavy on the simulation side. Which means you really have to learn to anticipate each and every corner of the tracks, and lean into those turns just like the real riders do. Until you do, you'll be zipping off the tracks or wobbling about awkwardly, which makes for some really funny replays.
The arcade feel here comes from the fact that the game lets you bump the bikes around somewhat when passing other riders, something that usually will result in a pretty bad crash in reality. It's actually not so easy to lose your bike in the game, you just have to be really, really careless, or try hard enough. No doubt this is to give novices less of an incentive to throw controllers. The wipeouts are pretty spectacular, though (especially since you can get right up afterwards), and definitely of the "don't try this stuff in real life" category. Actually, the bike bumping comes in handy if you learn how to use it to pass rivals on the turns- it's tricky, but once you pull it off, rewarding. The game also uses the analog buttons on the Dual Shock 2 quite well, and again, once you learn the simple act of feathering the accelerator and lightly tapping the brake buttons, the game becomes a fun and challenging experience, rather than a frustrating (albeit good looking) nightmare. You can also use the analog sticks for steering, gas, and brakes, but it takes a light touch and patience to master (and no caffeine before you play).
The graphics are excellent, despite being non-aliased and a bit jaggy at times. I didn't mind this at all, but there are those who think that the PS2 should be able to wash dishes, walk the dog, and bring them a hot breakfast. Well, think of it this way- if developers are able to max out the capabilities of the system at this early stage- that's not really a good sign for the future. Anyway, what's here looks great, especially the amazing replay cameras. When you first see the demo run for the game, you'll think that you're watching an actual televised race- it's that good. The 5 tracks can be raced either normal or reverse modes, and you'll probably crash into a wall or two if you decide to check out the beautifully detailed, realistic backgrounds while you're trying to complete a race. The sound effects are dead on, if you've ever been a fan of the sport, but the music is an acquired taste, to say the least. I usually turn the music off when I play a racing game anyway, so it's your call on that one.
In the end, Moto GP is one really spectacular looking and playing title from Namco, easily beating Ridge Racer V, in my opinion. Some of you out there may be put off by the steep difficulty of the game, but what's wrong with learning how to do something new, I ask? Now, if Namco can only give us an updated PS2 version of Soul Calibur, I'll have another reason to not play my Dreamcast so much.
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