Capturing the fine line of speed and balance that exists in any motorcycle Grand Prix race is an extremely tricky one to place in a game. Similar to the sport itself, you have to balance enough options to appeal to the hardcore racing fan while having enough controls and accessibility for any beginner to pick up the controls. Even harder, you have to appeal to a sense of exhilaration for a sport that many people have never experienced in their life (since a lot of people never come near motorcycles). Has THQ and Climax made the third title in their racing series the charm, or will they hit a bump and get nasty road rash? Grab a helmet and head out to the track, because we’re entering MotoGP 3: Ultimate Racing Technology.
Much more than a simple roster or tech upgrade, MotoGP 3 tries to bring the full experience of the high-octane sport in two primary modes. Sure, you’ll be able to leap into quick races or take part in time trials to post your fastest times on the Xbox Live scoreboards. But the primary thrust of the game will be found in either the Grand Prix or the Extreme modes. Grand Prix is the larger of the two modes, which pits you against the riders and 16 racetracks from the 2004 MotoGP season in a career mode feature. Truly an international event, you’ll be racing your way through France, Qatar, Spain and other countries as you try to establish yourself as one of the best cyclists in the world. This won’t be easy though, as you’ll need to go against the top racers of last year’s circuit to carve out your own niche.
First thing that you’ll need to do is create your own rider that will represent you on the track. The racing editor allows you to essentially choose everything from the leathers and the helmet that you wear on the track to the look of your bike and the team logo that you face for. You also get a number of attribute points to distribute amongst four primary character stats: Cornering, Braking, Top Speed and Acceleration. The allocation of character points are not a trivial matter, as they have a significant affect on how your rider reacts during a race. Increasing your points in acceleration allows you to reach top speeds quicker, whereas top speed lets you control the bike at dangerous speeds. Braking allows you to effectively slow the bike, while cornering lets you pull those death-defying turns off seamlessly.
Of course, boosting all of these stats means absolutely nothing if you aren’t fully prepared for each track. Players will have the chance to go into the workshop and tweak the setup of their bikes, including the wheelbase, gear ratios and suspension, among other aspects. Once you’ve got your ride setup exactly the way you want it, it’s off to the track, where you’ll be given a chance to familiarize yourself the layout of the road. Not only will you get a video feed from the view of a computer rider, you’ll receive a large map of the course that highlights any chicanes, straight sections or hairpin curves, among other trick features. After that, it’s off to the qualifying day, where you’re given ten minutes to get the best time possible for any lap you complete, which determines your starting position during the race. You won’t get a chance to cut corners in this game, as straying off the track at any point results in time penalties that are added once you cross the finish line. You’ll also have to be wary of the changing conditions, as varying weather conditions will affect your approach to every course.
The other side of the racing equation is the extreme mode, which lets you race your way around the streets on fictional courses. You get the chance to race 600cc, 1000cc or 1200cc machines against your competition, with any potential money earned from successful wins or finishes going towards purchasing new bikes or upgrades for your machines. Much of the tuning parts are similar to those found in the Grand Prix mode; however, you may find that your tactics will be radically different. For instance, you may need to use braking much more than other tracks due to the buildings or roadway barriers naturally occurring. You’ll also have the option to really tear off down the street with these street legal (or potentially illegal) machines.
One of the features that GP3 emphasizes this time around is the concept of seeding players. Much more than a gimmick to establish where your rider starts in a race, this system lets you determine just what difficulty level your opponents will race at. Initially you’ll start out at 100 and only after dedicated play and beating opponents will you eventually make it to number one. One of the cooler facets about this idea is that your seed level can and will change based on how you race, and can be improved both online and off. However, if you do happen to go online, your seed, which is tied into your Xbox Live ID, can help determine what level of race that you’d participate in. This concept is a great way to prevent experienced players from jumping in and ganging up on new players; although, once you’ve gotten used to the mechanics of the game, you’ll probably start seeking out higher up opponents to boost your seed level. In this way, Climax gently eases beginners into the intimidating online races.
One of the things that you’ll notice is how strong the racing presentation for MotoGP 3 is. Racers and bike models are exquisitely captured, and the animations are really slick, especially those frightening leans into turns that make you think that riders are going to wipeout at any moment. In fact, it’s this attention to detail that makes the crashes even more spectacular, as the cameras hone in on every single tumble, skid and roll. Add to this a large number of effects designed to amplify the sense of speed or active motion. GP3 excels with motion blurring when you start flying down a track, plenty of shaking cameras as you start to head off the course and other visual touches, such as flecks of water that stream onto the screen in the middle of a rainstorm.
The frame rate is extremely solid, whether off or online, and you’ll be impressed by just how well the game handles when you’re competing against numerous people. In fact, the only thing that feels just a wee bit choppy is the FMV highlights of cities and of racetracks from the previous season. While FMV in most titles feels a bit off, the included footage of races on the same tracks you just finished can sometimes help you prepare for the next race, or ease your wounded pride as you see the pros wipeout on the same corners you did. Sound effects in GP3 are adequate, although considering that they’d really only need to represent the roars from different engine classes and the squeal of tires on a track, there’s nothing here that will truly surprise you. Ditto for the music, although you can substitute the game soundtrack for a custom one of your own, which you’ll probably do quickly as the soundtrack isn’t too engrossing.
Like I said at the beginning, getting the balance of motorcycle controls just right is perhaps one of the trickiest jobs presented to the game designers. Notoriously, previous versions of the MotoGP series were extremely unforgiving with its control scheme, which practically demanded racing perfection or your rider would go flying on every turn. MotoGP 3 is more lenient than its predecessors, allowing you to take some turns awkwardly or at a faster speed than normal without wiping out. This lax nature will definitely help beginners get the hang of controlling the bikes around a course. Sure, it winds up reducing the realism of the game just a little bit, but it also reduces the amount of frustration you'll feel while racing. Similarly, GP 3 allows for a little battling between riders for position by colliding, rubbing into or even leaning onto opponents. This title is a bit more tolerant of contact, although nine times out of ten your rider will wind up getting unseated while your opponent races away unscathed.
This might not seem like a significant issue until you start getting into higher difficulty levels, like Pro or Legend class, where the AI will relentlessly go after every corner regardless of whether you're in front of them or not.. This mentality demonstrated by the AI is pretty similar to that of many online opponents that you'll face, but it does seem somewhat skewed in favor of the computer. The game won't necessarily pull out a large amount of rubber band tactics in a race, although you can expect that if you are wiped out by one of these computer racers that more than one of your opponents will inevitably fly past you unless you've gained some incredible lead of more than five or six seconds.
With a tighter emphasis on control, the racing experience and addressing the timeless online issue of newcomers versus veteran players, MotoGP 3 is the best racer of the series. It provides just enough depth for the fans of the sport while still being accessible for beginners. What's more, the game provides the Grand Prix format for simulation fans and the Extreme mode for arcade racers. Racing fans looking for a good rush need look no farther.