PS2 motorcycle racing fans are getting a raw deal. No one expects MotoGP4 to threaten the similarly named Xbox 360/PC game - which comes from another publisher - for graphic flair, but hey, a decent wash and wax would have been nice. As it is, the fourth chapter in this six-year-old bike racing franchise is visually indistinguishable from its immediate predecessors.
A stalled release is partly to blame here. MotoGP4 launched in Europe over a year ago and Japan soon after. Apart from a new online component, the 2006 U.S. version is a carbon copy of that game. The delay didn't just affect the graphics either - because all licensed bikes, riders, and tracks mirror the 2004 MotoGP season, dating the title even further with serious bike racing fans (the bland in-game audio and music is equally cringe-worthy). Not a great start for a contemporary console depiction of this colorful and vibrant sport.
What it lacks in graphic polish MotoGP4 tries to compensate with extra content - Namco has added two bike classes. These new 125cc and 250cc bikes are easier to control than their powerful 990cc siblings and are selectable in any of the game's modes. Inexperienced PS2 racers will also appreciate the new multi-stage tutorial section that nurses newbies through the entire learning phase.
Even more impressive is the much-anticipated online mode. Finding matches in the game's first official week of release took some work but once you do connect, the racing is quite addictive. There were some rough patches - disconnects, lag, and warping - but racing seven warm-blooded opponents over the Net is much more compelling than a 2 to 4-person split-screen contest (the game's alternative multiplayer option).
MotoGP4's single-player game also entertains. The core Season mode now features optional 125cc and 250cc championships paralleling the real-world MotoGP series and you can cash in your accumulated winnings for performance upgrades and bonus material like movies, riding gear, and licensed bikes and riders. There's also a single-event Arcade option, a Time Trial mode (with ghost bikes), and 100 individual mini challenges that'll unlock even more bonus material.
The motorcycle physics vary between training-wheel simple (with rider aids like auto-brake and automatic transmission enabled) and moderately challenging. An optional "sim" mode produces a nervous bike that'll instantly break traction if you're too ambitious with the throttle (who the hell oiled the track?) and the gas and brake controls are mapped to the PS2's pressure sensitive X and Square buttons, permitting graduated analog response depending on how hard you press. You can also control fore and aft weight shift with the left thumbstick or let the game do this for you automatically. MotoGP4's gamepad-friendly bike dynamics may not impress hardcore sim fans but they deliver enough of a challenge to keep casual bike racing fans engaged.
The single-player AI also rises to the occasion. Although pushovers at easy difficulty, the game's rider-bots can throw down fast enough lap-times at the normal and hard settings to force you into the garage for some additional performance tuning. The wet weather effects are also impressive but some overly generous collision detection permits comical bumper car tactics without serious consequence.
MotoGP4's licensed bikes and riders, accurately rendered tracks, and extensive single and multiplayer gameplay options are all good selling points but the unpolished graphics, bland audio, and out-of-date licensing are serious misfires. This will likely be the last MotoGP chapter Namco Bandai produces for Sony's second-generation deck, however, so enthusiastic two-wheel PS2 racing fans will just have to suck it up and breathe in the exhaust fumes.