It was at some speed between 100 and 110 miles per hour that it hit me: no video game, no matter how sophisticated, intricate or powerful, will ever come close to simulating the true terror of real life race driving. No game will ever come close to making me genuinely fear for my life, as I did on the back of an eardrum-bursting Yamaha R1 at Silverstone, clinging on for dear life with my right arm wrapped around my driver's belly as we overtook a blur somewhere to my right, leaned into a corner and accelerated down the straight. The wind, the g-forces, my heart-pounding, my bicep flexing, my arse slipping back toward oblivion.
Well, perhaps if Natal, or Sony's motion sensing controller, or Nintendo's next console comes with some kind of mind jack, one that does a Matrix and makes it real in your mind... well, maybe we'll get there. Until then, we'll have to make do with games like MotoGP 09/10 from developer Monumental Games.
Fans of the long-running series (Pure developer Black Rock and, later, Climax, both dabbled in the series) will know all of this already, probably because they're familiar with the realities of real-life bike riding: MotoGP enjoys a hardcore, knowledgeable following. For them, only one question requires an answer: will MotoGP 09/10 be better than last year's disappointing effort? According to senior producer Greg Bryant, who we're talking to in the warmth - and safety - of the plush British Racing Drivers' Club at the iconic racing track post heart-attack-inducing pillion ride, it will.
Bryant calls MotoGP 09/10 a "high sim". It's a nice term, but what, exactly, does it mean? "I want to take all the positive elements of the simulation experience and remove all the negative, frustrating ones," he says. "And look at all the positive elements of an arcade racing game and see how they can be reflected."
From that, you'd imagine MotoGP 09/10 to be some kind of all encompassing, magical catch-all racer. But, when you really get down to it, what is it about the game that makes it so? How do you create, in essence, the Forza of the bike racing genre?
For Bryant, it's all about the physics and the bike handling. "There's a lot of debate in forums and between developers about how the physics and handling should be done in a bike game," he says. "Every bike game out there, take Project Gotham's implementation of motorcycles, you take [Burnout] Paradise's bike add-on, they all have a very different feel to how a bike handles. There's a big margin of difference, compared to racing games where they all feel roughly similar."
So, how does MotoGP 09/10 handle? How does it feel? "What we've achieved is like playing GRID with the assists turned on. It gives you that feedback that you need, that you feel like you're playing with a car or bike on the edge, but it's just not punishing you the whole time." Like real life racing, then, without the terror.
According to Bryant, the game's improved handling is down to a focus on the tyre model. "The tyres are the key," he says, like some fantasy film wizard. If you're heavy on the gas coming out of a corner, for example, tyre wear will be faster. If you're heavy on the brakes and they're locking and you're sliding, like we imagine 19-year-old British starlet Bradley Smith does with his eyes closed, then the tyres will wear out faster. Like Bryant says, the tyres are key.
The upshot of all this, of course, is that tyre wear impacts handling. As they wear down you'll experience more of the bike sliding out. You'll feel the bike low sliding into corners and under heavy breaking. Monumental has put so much effort into the tyre model for this year's game that it expects experienced fans will discover a tyre monitoring meta-game deep within MotoGP 09/10. This is the essence of Bryant's "high sim".
Of course, as is the modern way, you can't just cater to the hardcore. So, MotoGP 09/10 has various difficulty levels to choose from. The interesting thing about them is that they have no effect on the way your bike handles (tyre wear, anti-lock braking system and tuning options take care of that). Instead, they affect the AI of the drivers you go up against in the various game modes. On the Gentle difficulty, they won't pose much of a challenge. But on Insane they will, because they're running using the top lap times and ghost lines set by Monumental staff. But, they use the same physics model as the player, so it's never unfair.
Where Monumental has perhaps taken the odd liberty is with bike balancing. In real life professional racing, not all motors are created equal. Some, even, haven't got a chance. To combat this, Monumental has balanced all of the bikes in the game so they're competitive to within a fraction of a second of a lap time.
"But they do feel and handle very differently," Bryant insists. "Some hold more traction in the corners, so we've had to slow them a little in the straights. Other bikes, they tank down the straights, like the Hondas are really fast in the straights, but in the corners, if you put too much gas on you're going to be losing that back end and you really have to take the corners much much slower than you perhaps do with something like the Yamaha, which is nicer in the corners and a nice smooth all-round bike."
Our brief play test of the game at Silverstone didn't last long enough for us to make any definitive assertions about the game's handling. It has a unique feel, one that's almost floaty, for want of a better term. But the new racing line and replay system (both racing game de rigueur) help immensely, and you quickly acclimatise to the handling's nuances.
Outside of the actual racing experience, Monumental has implemented some interesting online features that remind us, quite starkly, of FIFA's Live Season mode. AI drivers in championship and career mode will "desire" the positions they achieve in the real world. So, if all conquering Italian Valentino Rossi comes first in a particular track, the game will know this, and his in-game counterpart will "desire" to come first when he races that circuit. Conversely, if he wipes out on a corner or comes last place, his weighted position will be lowered and his in-game performance will reflect that.
The online multiplayer features 20-player racing - the most on XBL and PSN - as well as a lobby system which allows players to join and watch a race in process. There's also a new majority vote wins system, which allows players to tailor the number of races and laps of upcoming sessions.
It's the way the bikes feel, at the end of the day, that will make or brake (geddit?) MotoGP 09/10. Monumental won't please everybody - no video game ever does - but it's a guaranteed improvement on last year's game.
Bryant, though, is willing to go one step further. He's willing to put his neck on the line and say MotoGP 09/10 has the best bike racing physics ever seen in a "contemporary" video game.
"Contemporary game? Yes, definitely," Bryant confidently proclaims. "The only game that has a more detailed bike physics engine is GP500, but that's going down a very puritan route of looking at centrifugal forces and the gyroscopic forces of bikes through corners. It's a very tough, challenging experience. Most gamers, including myself, can barely get one of those bikes round a circuit. It feels as challenging as getting a real GP bike around a circuit."
So, that means the handling's better than that of bitter rival SBK, which has a new game out round about the same time as MotoGOP 09/10, doesn't it? "It certainly blows away SBK's and Tourist Trophy's physics models in my opinion," Bryant says. "And other GPs, it's miles ahead of them." Zing. Still, I doubt it's as good as the physics model of a real-life Yamaha R1 going 110mph.
MotoGP 09/10 is due out for the Xbox 360 and PS3 in March.