How do you separate the men from the boys when everyone is leathered up and ready to get some nasty burns on their knees? Or, more accurately, how do you attract different types of gamers to a superbike simulator?
Well you could put Biffy Clyro on the soundtrack, stick a load of utterly famous superbike champions in it and add a boost button, and that should sort out the boys. For the men incredibly accurate riding physics, perfectly recorded engine noises, a shifting body weight system and a 'create a rider' option that allows you to even customise the livery on their helmets should suffice. Add on the ability to customise your bike and now you've got a superbike sim that will appeal to those that like racing games and also to those that REALLY like racing games, possibly a bit too much.
SBK X from Black Bean Games and Milestone manages to do all that in one glorious revving, burnout-ing package. The only thing it's missing is the ability to hit other riders in the face with a big chain, which is always the fantasy when it comes to bike games thanks to stupidly fond memories of Road Rash.
Silly digressions aside, SBK X is separated out into Arcade mode and Simulation mode. In Arcade mode everything is more forgiving and the usual on track guide is drawn along the racing line, indicating how fast you need to go on the straights and how slow you're supposed to be going round the deadly corners without falling off your bike or slamming into barriers made of tyres.
The Arcade mode is, as usual, the place where you learn that riding a bike is a heck of a lot more difficult than driving a car. The very fact your rider has to lean round corners before twitching the handlebars a little to get around the rest of it means that you really have to reprogram your brain to accommodate the difference in turning circles.
Still, once you get the hang of not falling off and scraping your rider along the track you can enter the story mode and try to graduate from the Superstock class right up to the SBK championship. The Superstocks are a good place to start as they aren't quite as demanding as the Superbikes and with each race you win you earn reputation points enabling you to climb the ranks.
But once you're done noodling around in the Arcade mode you should make things even more difficult, or realistic, for yourself by ramping it up to Simulation mode. This is where SBK X really shines. Milestone has been making superbike games since 2006 and each one tends to push the realism to further limits. In X this includes even better control over you rider's weight distribution and a better feel for the feedback from the track to your bike. Here you're really meant to switch to the view from inside your rider's helmet to enhance the experience of hurtling down a track at well over 100mph.
The gears come into play a heck of a lot more because out goes the automatic settings and in comes remembering to get out of neutral after a particularly heavy crash. Speaking of crashes, coming off your bike not only buggers your ride but if you crash and injure yourself you'll miss out on some races as you recover in hospital.
Interestingly in the career mode you need to complete races and gain points, but earning reputation means you will be contacted by other teams and manufacturers to race for them. Keep racing well and you'll get access to better bikes and parts so you can customise your bike to various levels. But if you start losing races or get wiped out in a spectacularly bad crash then you will be thrown off the team and you'll lose sponsorship. And, in keeping with the theme, you could lose your hot office assistant who reminds you to keep your appointments. The career mode only lasts for eight years as this reflects the usual career length of a real life rider.
One of the new additions to the series is the idea of what Milestone is calling the 'evolving track'. It's probably not something you really notice unless you are really into racing games but it adds yet another level of realism to the racing. As the bikes race around they leave tyre rubber on the track which helps in Simulation mode when the racing line isn't projected on the track, but you can follow the rubber round the corners. It also helps by providing a bit of grip and you have to take this into account when getting round those devilish bends.
Another aspect to this evolving track is that when it rains the track obviously becomes slippery, greasy if you will, but as the bikes do their laps round the track they will actually end up drying the rain slicked surface. What this all means is that the surface can change from lap to lap and you'll have to anticipate and compensate for the ever changing conditions under your incredibly fast spinning tyres.
The online modes have been improved and now 16 players can race against each other, which is always more fun when you've got a whole bunch of similarly skilled friends battling it out for first place (though again, it would be nice if you could hit them in the face...). Added to this are the replays you can save and you'll also be able to download 'ghosts' of the most skilled riders to try to beat and help improve your lap times.
While the whole SBK series appeals to a certain niche you can definitely feel the passion and expertise that Milestone and Black Bean put into their games, and that niche has a great number of hardcore followers. All of whom should be suitably impressed with this year's edition of SBK.