Milestone occupy a strange position within the gaming industry, being relatively unknown to the majority of gamers, but fairly well known to racing fans who associate their name with good handling models and lackluster presentation. As harsh as it might sound, Milestone are the masters of producing solid but unspectacular games, and as a motorsport fanatic I love them for that.
This time Milestone have moved from the smooth tarmac of their SBK and MotoGP games, and ventured into the mud-splattered world of motocross, a sport not often explored within videogames. Naturally as an officially licensed product based on such a sport this game is aiming for a relatively small audience, and places realism ahead of all else, which is a radical change of direction over Milestone’s own arcadey MUD – FIM Motocross World Championship. But while MXGP is aimed directly at fans of the real sport, this is a title any racing fan can enjoy.
What flair Milestone lack in the visual department they damn well make up for in their physics and handling which makes throwing the officially licensed bikes around a constant delight. The left stick controls the bike, as one would expect, but the right stick lets you shift the rider’s weight around, opening up a slew of possibilities. Throw the weight to the inside and you’ll get a tighter line through a corner, but run the risk of the wheels catching in a rut and sending you face-first into the dirt, while throwing the weight to the outside allows for some nice slides. Mastering this system can be a little tricky at first, especially if you adjust the options to allow for separate rear and front brake control as well, but once you’ve got your head around the various inputs the extra degree of control feels brilliant. Bikes have never been easy to replicate in a videogame, but this is a step in the right direction.
Real-time track deformation is one of the big selling points on offer here, meaning that as the race progresses the track visibly changes with knobbly tyres ripping deep ruts in the mud, dirt and sand, which in turns alters how you navigate the track, subtly changing every lap. Naturally your tyres want to find those ruts and follow them which often creates the sensation that you’re being sucked into a specific line through a corner. But unlike road racing there’s no magic racing line here, and whether or not you want to use the ruts or perhaps take a different, higher line is up to you. MXGP is a racing game full of continuous little choices and adjustments as there’s far more lines available to you than you find in other styles of racing, while a momentary lapses of concentration can see you flung at speed toward the scenery as your front wheel folds into a rut that you hadn’t seen or you screw up your weight transition and high-side it.
From a menu presented before the start of every event you can also customise the difficulty of the game, selecting whether you want to handle rider weight yourself or what level of physics you want. With physics set to the lowest and semi-automatic weight transfer in place MXGP is very forgiving, creating a more arcadey feel, but it’s when you’ve got full control and the physics ramped up to realistic where MXGP’s handling model shines – the bike constantly shifts, jumps, jerks and bucks as it powers through dirt and sand, creating the sensation that you’re always on the very edge of control. It’s a game that demands you constant attention; not every jump can be taken flat out as you’ll miss the transition and lose speed; rollers need to be tackled in almost a wheelie; every corner is a tactical decision where you must decide to go high or low or through an existing rut. It’s intense, fun stuff, and arguably Milestone’s finest handling model to date, one that I feel confident in saying motocross lovers will be happy with.
There are a couple of problems, though, namely that the physics system can have some iffy moments, resulting in frustrating crashes that don’t seem to have a legitimate cause, or if they do the game didn’t provide the feedback necessary to figure it out. When you do have a crash the results are pretty boring due to a complete lack of damage modelling. Forays into a world of pain usually just involve the bike bouncing a few times and the rider slumping face-first into the dirt, at which point we encounter another slight problem as the respawn system is actually rather too generous, placing you back into the action so quickly that no time is lost. In some cases it even cut out a small section of the track, allowing me to bypass a rider or two. Neither the lackluster crashes or strangely helpful respawn system damage the overall experience very much, though.
What does let the racing down is the lackluster A.I., which even on Realistic difficulty is surprisingly easy to defeat. During qualifying I discovered that claiming first place with a gap of several seconds to the next competitor was not unusual, though during a few events they managed to provide a stiffer challenge. In the actual race if you get caught up in the pack then they’re mildly aggressive, but lack that killer edge, and with just sixteen competitors on track rather than dozens featured in a real motocross event MXGP doesn’t manage to quite replicate the same sense of mayhem. The racing can be hectic and fun, but if you manage to get to the front of the pack then outpacing the other riders becomes incredibly easy. The ease at which every other rider is defeated is the single biggest problem MXGP has.
Like almost all racing titles the career mode is likely where you’ll spend the bulk of your time, and unsurprisingly Milestone have opted for a familiar structure; You start out as a wild card entry in the MX2 class, snatching a position in whatever team will take your sorry hide, and then from there sign on with different teams who’ll naturally make an offer based on your performance, until eventually moving up to the big boy’s MX1 class. Sadly, though, actually signing with a different team is an arbitrary process as there’s very little difference between bikes in terms of pure performance, and almost none in regards to handling. Even the more powerful bikes within the MX1 don’t change the way you play in any significant way, thus I found myself tending to stick with one team, only moving for a change of colors rather than because I was trying to move up the ladder to a team capable of giving me a run at the podium or a shot at clinching the championship.
This mixed with the easily beaten A.I. makes for very little sense of progression. You don’t start at the back of the pack with a relatively small team and work your way toward the front, earning positions with better teams through hard riding as one might expect. No, you start at the front with a bike more than capable of being there, and simply continue to be at the front throughout your career. It fails to replicate the actual journey of a professional rider, which is a shame given how other titles like the F1 series at least attempt to give you a sense of progression, though even Codemaster’s still struggle to get it right. For your efforts you’re instead rewarded with some pictures and some new helmets to be used in the pitiful rider customisation.
When not racing the career mode ticks all the usual boxes with a virtual home for you to chill out in. Here you can access Emails from your team and check out the latest issue of the official motocross magazine, usually plastered with your name, assuming you did well in the last race. There’s also a social feed where you can get messages from your fans, which is a nice touch, and a locker where you can browse through the minimal customisation options available to you.
One area on which Milestone do slip up is in how fans and team objectives are handled, a long-running grievance within the racing genre, albeit one that other developers still seem to struggle with as well. The amount of XP you earn and the amount of fans you gain are tied to your finishing position and, most importantly, whether or not you achieve your team’s objective, which is rather confusing given that the fans probably would have no idea what points any given team is aiming for. Achieve the goal your team has set and you’ll pick up a couple of thousand extra fans and a chunk of XP, with a few smaller bonus amounts awarded for winning the entire grand-prix as well. Sounds okay, right? Well, there’s a couple of serious problems at work – first if you perform well at just one or two events your team’s ambitions rise quickly and they’ll begin to demand the same level of performance at every race, regardless of whether you’re actually capable of meeting those demands, and their expectations don’t seem to drop accordingly very quickly. Of course the simple AI does mean that all but the most struggling player will be able to finish on the podium at almost every event, mitigating the issue.
More baffling is how the acquisition of fans is tied to the system. Should you fail to meet your team’s objective you’ll suddenly find yourself losing several thousand fans, regardless of whether you actually finished well or event won the event. As an example I was set an objective of acquiring 45-points over the course of the weekend. In both races I picked up second place,which equalled a total of 44-points, just one away from my goal. In the process I took the overall grand prix victory, and yet somehow managed to lose thousands of fans. In another example I claimed a disappointing yet still solid 6th followed by a 2nd place, thereby picking up third in the overall grand prix. Despite this still relatively good finishing position my virtual social feed was filled with messages from fans who seemed to firmly believe I had led a truly horrendous weekend.However, since both fans and XP are largely just points numbers within MXGP these flaws are hardly going to effect your overall experience with the game.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment here, and by far the biggest lost opportunity, is the lack of dynamic weather, specifically heavy downpours of rain which could have resulted in dramatic, muddy races. If you head on to Youtube and watch some wet motocross races it’s both utterly hilarious and incredibly exciting, and getting to experience that in the game would have been fantastic. Again, though, this is another example of the budget feel of Milestone’s games.
Outside of the primary career mode you’ve got a couple of choices, starting with Instant Race which does exactly what it says on the tin, allowing you to jump straight into a race without faffing around too much. The game will randomly pick from one of the 60 officially licensed riders, and then throw you onto one of the 14 tracks, which Milestone claim are 1:1 replicas of the real life courses. I can’t tell you whether this is true or not, and if it is then I can’t exactly praise Milestone’s track designing abilities, but what I can say is that almost all of the courses feel fun to ride. Championship mode let’s you toss together a complete season of your favorite tracks, and just like Career mode you can choose whether you’ll take part in a full weekend (practice, qualifying and the two races) or opt for a less hectic work schedule, although no matter what you choose you’ll always have to participate in two races per event, which can get tiring. Grand Prix simply lets you set up a single event on whatever track with whatever team you want. Simples.
The multiplayer suite is all standard stuff, but with eleven other people of equal skill there’s heaps of fun to be had, and the netcode seems able to keep up with the action, though hit-detection can be a little wonky, a small problem that occasionally affects the singleplayer side of the game as well. In addition to simply playing race by race you can also participate in an entire championship, assuming you have the time to devote to doing so. What it’s lacking is a way of saving your progress mid-championship so that you and your friends can enjoying vying for the cup without having to forgo food, sleep and life in general.
Even running on PC with everything cranked up as high as it can go MXGP is far from being a technically impressive game, managing to barely scrape by as passable, as all Milestone releases have done. While Milestone put gameplay before all else, something which I wholeheartedly approve of, there’s no getting around the fact that this is 2014 and they need to step their game at least a little. Other titles that have low technical prowess combat this by using a beautiful art style or by having a unique visual flair, but since MXGP is aiming for realism that’s obviously not an option, leaving us with a drab looking racer. The level of detail on the riders and bikes is decent, and the track is okay, but should your eyes wander anywhere else poor textures, stiff animations and horrifying faces await.
Other aspects of the presentation still need a lot of work as well. There’s a lack of voiceovers throughout the game and no podium celebrations. Even when you win the championship, defeating every other rider to claim the coveted number one position, there’s nothing but an anti-climatic message of congratulations. Take a gander at the crowds and strange, melted faces gaze back at you. Even your own pit-crew look rather alien, complete with terrible animations. However, there are at least video packages which show off the real sport and tracks to enjoy, which is something, but overall Milestone need to work on how they present their games. Just little touches here and there would help greatly.
MXGP: The Official Motocross Game, like the rest of Milestone’s releases, feels like a budget title. It’s rough around the edges and the production qualities are pretty low, but sitting right in the centre of it is a beautiful handling model backed up by solid physics, creating a racer that feels truly great to play. Is it the best motocross game we’ve ever had? You know what, I’m going to say yes. Yes it is.
+ Handles wonderfully.
+ Track deformation is great.
+ Solid use of the license.
– The AI is too easy to beat.
– Doesn’t look very good.
The Verdict: 3/5 – Good
While it’s aimed at a niche market, this is still a game any racer can enjoy, and one that motocross fans will love.