It's often said that stunning visuals can't make a mediocre game into a great one, but MotoGP '06 proves that the opposite is certainly true. While the MotoGP series has gained quite a fanatical following on the Xbox, its next-gen debut isn't as polished as series fans would have hoped for. With next-gen games seemingly all about stunning visuals, it's ironic that MotoGP '06's graphical problems prevent it from being truly great.
If you don't already know what MotoGP '06 is all about, it's unlikely that you're going to be interested in the game, but for the sake of professionalism, it's probably best that I explain what it has to offer. As the name suggests, this is a racing game based on the MotoGP racing series, where incredibly fast bikes are raced around tracks by insane men. It's a thrilling sport, that's for sure, and this Xbox 360 debut features both the 2005 and 2006 seasons. You get all 17 courses, bikes and drivers, plus an extra 17 tracks in the Extreme mode.
If you're new to the Xbox platform you might be wondering if this is the same series that has appeared numerous times on the PlayStation 2. It isn't. The PlayStation 2 MotoGP titles are developed by Namco, while the Xbox games are developed by Climax and published by THQ. There's a big difference between the two, and I personally rate the Climax developed series a few notches above the, admittedly good, Namco series. With that out of the way, what exactly is wrong with the game for this review to warrant such a negative opening paragraph?
The big problem is the frame rate. All the MotoGP games on the Xbox ran at 60 frames per second or there abouts. Sure, there were a few moments of sluggishness, but nothing terrible. On the Xbox 360 it's not unreasonable to expect these problems to be ironed out, but in fact the opposite is true: the problems have become worse. Once again, the game attempts to run at 60 frames per second, but it falters far too often. A few fluctuations would have been fine, but it happens all the time, and on occasion can affect your riding. Wet races are a guaranteed slideshow, and while some courses suffer more than others, it's terribly disappointing.
At times the game can look stunning. For the moments when it's running at full clip, all in glorious high definition, it's a 360 game through and through; at other times it seems almost like a stop gap between the Xbox games and a true next-gen version. Roadside objects vary quite wildly in quality, shadows glitch on and off riders, the screen tears quite regularly, textures lose clarity mere feet in front of your rider, and the effects seen during wet races are so minimal it appears as if the bikes are riding on ice. Releasing the game during the relative quiet of the summer is a good idea, but doing so at the expense of the overall quality surely isn't.
If you can look beyond the sloppy visuals, the gameplay is as good as it's ever been. If you're new to the series or had taken a break from MotoGP for a while, it'll take a good few hours to get back into the swing of things, but you'll soon realise why the series is four games strong. Once you nail the track you've been working at for hours, and your bike glides around the corners like it's hardly any effort at all, it feels like a real achievement. You can get away with a lot when racing a car, but bikes take a whole new level of concentration and practice.
Even after you've got the courses mastered, you've still got the other riders to contend with. Novices will be able to get by easily enough by playing on the two lowest difficulty settings, but the harder settings take some beating. While the rider AI still isn't brilliant, it's a damn site better than what we saw in the recently released Tourist Trophy for the PlayStation 2. Riders make a real attempt to race you and don't simply ride around like it's a time trial. The one area that can be a little annoying is how easily you can come off your bike compared to the stickiness of the AI riders. It's incredibly rare to see the opposition come out worse in a collision, even if the clash was their fault.
The MotoGP career mode and the numerous classes of the Extreme circuit mode make for plenty of racing action, but how this is drip fed to you might be annoying for some people. Rather than giving you the far more accessible Extreme mode from the start, you need to compete in a full MotoGP season first in order to unlock it. You'll obviously be better prepared for the Extreme courses after you've spent a few hours honing your racing skills on the exceedingly challenging real life tracks, but it still seems silly to remove this quite obvious way for people to get into the game. Each course also has a number of challenges associated with it, so there's plenty to tackle when you're taking a break from the stresses of championship competition.
Throughout your time with the game you're working towards raising your Seed. This is a number between 1 and 100 that is a representation of how good a rider you are. You start at 100, and it'll get lower and lower as you race, often only dropping by a few tenths at a time. As you progress you'll earn stat upgrade points that can be used to increase your cornering, braking, acceleration and top speed stats. All of the bikes in the game can be tweaked with, with the usual set of suspension, gear ratios and the like being available for everyone who likes to have a tinker with the finer details of their set-up. The Extreme bikes can even be upgraded with new parts, assuming you've earned enough money through your performances.
Ever since MotoGP spearheaded the launch of Xbox Live on the original Xbox, the series has lead the way as far as online integration goes. MotoGP '06 sticks to what it knows, so you have a very similar set-up to what has been seen in the last three titles. Sixteen players can race online (something that very few games offer) and the lobby system is excellent. Options online let you race against similarly skilled opponents, against AI racers and online competitors, and thankfully with collisions on or off - which is essential for races with novices hell-bent on taking everyone out at the first corner. With sixteen players on track lag can become a problem, but unless a player has a particularly bad connection, performance is very good. Your seed is also carried over to the online game, with results having an affect on it.
MotoGP '06 is a fine game for the Xbox 360, but its technical shortcomings aren't good at all. This is by far the most skilful racer on the system, and with 34 courses to master, there's a lot of gameplay for your money. However, the frame rate problems, graphical blemishes and a general lack of new content compared to MotoGP 3 on the Xbox can't be ignored. For a next-gen price tag you expect to get a next-gen product, and sadly MotoGP '06 hasn't quite made a successful leap to the next-generation.