SBK-08 - first look

Regardless of whether you had any affinity for motorbike games, there was no denying SBK-07 was a bit on the hard side. There were options aplenty to mess about with so that there were umpteen degrees of slavish simulation, but there were a couple of notable problems which prevented the game from surging to the front of the two-wheeled racer pack.

Firstly, there wasn’t a whole lot of eye candy on offer - aside from the umbrella girls (and even they were only included in the form of unlockable photographs). It was released on PS2 just as PS3 was launching, and consequently looked competent at best. Secondly it was really tough, with a simulation element that suggested a target audience of bikers who knew their way around a PS2 pad rather than gamers who knew a bit about bikes. Both of these issues look as though they’ve been addressed in SBK-08. Thankfully the game looks nicer - although it is still noticeably rough around the edges, with some textures missing and many shadow and lighting effects still to be implemented - and while it’s not spectacular, it’s certainly not going to make you ill.

Any likelihood of making yourself ill stems from the time you could find yourself spending in front of the game. Its new, less hardcore Hell’s Angel slant means that it’s easier to get into the business of screaming around corners at 45-degree angles, whittling down your kneecaps as you go, and it’s far more satisfying too. Before we realised it, we’d ballooned the blood vessels in our eyes so that we looked like something out of a Clive Barker novel, all in the pursuit of biker excellence. Unknowlingly, a few hours had gone by.

Above: All images are from the PS3 version

The rule is simple: don’t mess with anything to start with, at least until you’re able to stay on your bike for consecutive laps. If you do venture into tuning territory, you’ll be entering a whole world of tire pressurising, brake weighting, differential diddling pain. No, better to just leave everything at default and get on the track. The key to a good racing game is not speed or looks (they help of course), it’s rhythm. SBK-08 is metronomic. Once you’re settled with the notion of braking a hell of a lot earlier than in your typical four-wheeled racing variant, and with the idea of fully analogue braking and throttling, you find yourself hitting a satisfying, almost hypnotic groove which has you gliding round corners effortlessly with only the slightest nudge of the stick. The only sticking point with the controls is the lack of individual front and rear brake controls. Other than that, it’s perfect.

You’ve the option of instant racing, race weekends (which consist of multiple practice and qualifying sessions plus the races) and a Championship mode. Unfortunately the same level of excitement wasn’t to be had from the championship option. Of course it could yet be fleshed out before its May release, but what we played lacked substance - it was essentially a string of race weekends; just like real life, granted, but a little tedious. If there was a hook to complement the racing, a tangible reward mechanic a little more developed than simply coming first and adding championship points to your total, there’d be more incentive to plough the hours in, just like there is in something like a Gran Turismo or even PES’s Master League. Milestone - are you LISTENING?

Instead SBK-08’s greatest strength lies in its bike-riding. There are some quirks to the formula, however, like each team having its own attributes such as racing experience and technical know-how, and unique race engineers to guide you through race meets. Choosing a less established team will influence your preparation for each weekend, if not the races proper. Then there are the umbrella girls, who’ll be present in all their sexy, polygonal glory.

From what we’ve played, SBK-08’s greatest appeal will come from getting your bike through a race as fast as possible. The handling physics feel great, AI seems pretty realistic and there’s a nice engine scream scoring the game - which makes all the difference. But if this is going to be a major contender, it needs to be boosted by a proper Career mode, not to mention some good online play. At this stage it’s safe to say that this is a marked improvement over the solid gameplay of SBK-07. Far more importantly, it is actually good fun, rather than painfully and unrelentingly realistic.

Apr 23, 2008