Review: SBK: Superbike World Championship 2011

October 4, 2011, Author: Andy Knight

Okay, let me get straight to the point. SBK: Superbike World Championship 2011 is a great example of when video-games in the simulation genre are so busy aiming to be technically realistic, they forget to be a game, and any element of fun is lost creating the real-world experience. As for myself, I have never driven a powerful superbike, so I do not know what it feels like. I have tasted two-wheeled speed when I was in my late teens, however, ‘hooning’ about on my 50cc Honda moped.

It felt fun, and even moving at a top speed of 41MPH, there were times it genuinely felt quite fast and dangerous ( especially the time I came off the thing and broke 2 ribs and my wrist). That, however, is where I feel the game’s creators Milestone Studios miss out on key reality elements. When driving your all-powerful superbike in SBK 2011, it is seriously lacking in any sense of fun, speed or danger.

Last season’s recap
Last year’s SBK X ( the X stands for 2010, get it?) title was highly acclaimed, and many reviewers saw it as successfully stealing the motorbike simulation crown from rival franchise MotoGP (A game Milestone actually worked on for the ‘07 and ‘08 versions of that title). Hailed for its great advancements in riding physics, the game set the standard for motorbike simulations from that point onwards. One year later, SBK 2011 may still maintain that high standard in simulated riding physics, but it doesn’t help matters when the rest of the experience is pretty boring due to its other simulation standards.

On the road again
Don’t get me wrong; SBK 2011 does deliver a very high caliber of the real FIM Superbike World Championship experience. It includes every competing team at every class, the full roster of riders (including multi-time World Champ Valentino Rossi, and last season’s victor Max Biaggi), and even the official track of the Championship tour, detailed to realistically resemble its real-world counterpart.

SBK 2011 offers a variety of game types, from the standard quick race, career and Championship, to the challenge modes of the SBK tour and time attack. Both Championship and career are pretty much the same experience, where you start a race weekend and work your way through practice sessions, qualifying and main race events. The goal, of course, is to place as high as you can in each race, gain those all-important Championship points, and ultimately achieve the World Championship title by the end of the season.

However, the game’s main mode out of the two is the career, which is far more in-depth than the normal Championship. You start by creating your own virtual rider, although for some reason he has to be of Caucasian or Asian descent, as there is a huge lack of varied ethnicity in the character customisation.

Once you have your man and his helmet (there are several designs so choose wisely), it’s then onto signing with one of the minor teams on the SBK tour, where you will start your journey to make a name for yourself in the sport. Eventually, if all goes well, you’ll be signed by a bigger team and put in a better position to challenge for the World Championship.

At the back of the pack again... get used to it!

To get noticed by the bigger teams you’ll need the right levels of reputation, and to do that you are required to perform certain tasks for your current team. There are a couple of goals to achieve, like the special opponent task, where your team will identify another rider you must beat in the next race. On the other hand, they might set you a specific challenge that you’ll have to accomplish during a race, such as finish in 6th position. You may ask why you’d want to finish in 6th if you could finisher higher in the field, but it’s best to do as the team says if you want those all important reputation points.

On race weekends you will find yourself in a pit situation similar to that of Codemaster’s F1 games; in fact, it’s very similar indeed. Here you will have several options, such as to go out on the track, mess with your bikes settings, or adjust HUD settings etc.. The main option you’ll want to focus on, though, is that of chatting with your engineer. This guy is key to how you perform, as he can aid you with advice on several areas of the race weekend, like if he feels your bike is right for the weather conditions and track.

He can go over your race telemetry and tell you where you can improve on the track, and shave off those all-important milliseconds, making you that bit faster on a lap. It becomes vital during each stage of a race weekend that you check in with him, so you can do your best out on track.

Along the way, you will be given development challenges that allow the team to improve the performance of your bike if you successfully beat the given task, such as getting round the track in under a certain time. Ultimately though, it’s all up to you and how well you handle the bike on race day, get the wins, gain the rep, move on to a big team with a powerful bike and become the SBK World Champion. Simple, really!

The SBK Tour mode differs, in that it is a game of challenges. Your goal is to travel across the globe, passing through five continents of challenges, until completion of the final World Championship challenges. Challenges vary, with the likes of speeding though checkpoints, braking within certain distances, and getting around a lap within a certain time amongst the many tasks you will have to achieve to progress. As you’d expect they start off pretty simple, getting more difficult the further you travel across the continents.

You can also either pass a challenge or ‘storm it’; passing it allows you to move onto the next challenge, but by storming a challenge you will be rewarded with unlocks of extra tracks and riders within the game. Tour mode helps breaks up the monotony of just competing in races all the time, but as with the general game, it becomes ridiculously hard even at the simplest of difficulty settings.

Difficulty is the biggest issue with SBK 2011, and it’s the aspect of gameplay that suffers most from the simulation requirements of this game. Even with the settings determined to the simplest simulation values, the game is a challenge. With so few buttons to press you’d be easily mistaken in thinking this game wouldn’t be that hard to master, but how wrong you’d be. As with all driving games, its core gameplay is based on you accelerating and braking at the right points of the track, and placing yourself in the right position for straights and corners will also help you get round the lap in the quickest time.

It’s easier said than done though, especially in SBK 2011. In car racing games, you have the grip and downforce of four wheels to help you get around in the fastest time possible, but when trying to do the same on a motorbike, only having the two wheels makes it a very different (and much harder) ball game. Brake too late and the corner flies right past you, and you fall off; accelerate too early out of the corner with too much power, and you fall off. Trust me; in SBK 2011 you will do a lot of falling off!

That's gonna leave skid marks!

The main reason for this consistent unsaddling from your bike in SBK 2011 is that developers Milestone have made the game so realistic, you can’t just rely on pressing the brake and acceleration buttons as hard as you can when you require the desired effect. No, in fact they have made the core gameplay of SBK 2011 all about the precision pressure you place on the accelerate and braking buttons (R trigger & L trigger). This is where the game becomes very hard, very fast!

Much like on a real bike, you have to brake well before a corner and do it with slow, precise pressure, so as not to throw the back end of the bike from underneath you as you decelerate. The same goes for accelerating out of a corner; you can’t just pull back on the throttle as hard as you like for full power, because that too will also send the back of the bike out and toss you to the tarmac. It’s a very realistic mechanic, but it isn’t necessarily a good one, especially for casual fans just looking to go as fast as they can.

To help aid you round the track in the optimum manner is the racing line, which depending on what colour it shows, indicates if you are going too fast or too slow. However, it is at this point you understand why precision button-pressing sucks all the fun out of this game. Keep the line at a light green and you are going exactly the right speed, but if the green starts getting darker you’re going too slow. Go too fast and the green line will transform to yellow, orange and then red, with each change of colour nearer to red implying the nearer you are to having a close encounter with the very hard floor.

This is exactly when you realise the game becomes less about the enjoyment of riding a superbike, and all about keeping that guidance line in a happy green zone. This isn’t fun at all when you notice how very slow you are going to keep that line a healthy shade of green. It is also very hard to do, because you are constantly aching to just unleash the bike’s full power by pressing as hard as you can on the R trigger to accelerate, yet you know if you do you’re coming off very soon after.

As a result SBK feels very slow, particularly in the corners, where it feels at any moment a snail will over take you. Even on the straights you’ll soon get bored applying ¾ button presses to R trigger just to keep the racing line green! Also frustrating is when A.I. riders come flying past you doing what seems almost double the speed you are, leaving you baffled as to why they are going into corners and straights much quicker than you. After a few short laps you will want to turn your machine off and ponder what it is you’re doing wrong, but the simple answer is nothing, if you are keeping the line green.

It’s just mastering how to keep it the right shade so you are traveling at optimum speed at all times, and to do that you have to learn how to precisely apply the right amount of pressure to the buttons, which is near on impossible.

Your helmet does look nice! Can I touch it?
Visually SBK 2011 is solid all round, but nothing will stand out and grab your attention either. Bike and rider models are the nicest thing in the game; your leather jumpsuit and shiny helmet look just as authentic as the real thing. The same can be said for the bikes, which have the right amount of metallic and plastic shimmer to make them a very believable recreation.

So clean you could eat your dinner off it!

The pit area is a bit too clean and clinical if honest; it would have been nice to see something like a small pool of engine oil underneath the bike as it sits on its stand. You just don’t get the feeling that anyone has got grimy in the slightest whilst piecing together a machine full of braking fluid, oil coolant, and petrol.

Out on the tracks, everything does feel a bit samey after a while, and where you are on the tour becomes more hazy as the weeks pass. This is mainly due to the dominant track nature of the sport that means everywhere feels the same, unlike the F1 games, where you can spot the real-life environments of say, a Monaco harbour, or Singapore skyline. You can’t help but feel that having a road circuit would help break up the monotony, of just seeing stands and trees in the backgrounds at each race.

The weather system within the game could also be greatly improved. Even when racing in wet conditions you don’t get the same impact as, again, you do in an F1 game. When raining, the tarmac is a darker tone, but there are no puddles of water, nor even different handling issues to when the circuit is dry. They do throw in a rain effect onto the screen, but it doesn’t impair your vision, as the rain drops are always light. Even in first-person view (which I do not recommend; the game is hard enough already), the slight spatters fail to add much atmosphere to the experience.

Mechanically at least I can’t have any complaints, as not once whilst playing for review did I come across any frame rate, screen tearing, or slow down issues. Menus are also crisp and clear, albeit pretty basic, making them easy to navigate.

What? I can’t hear you over the engine drone!
When it comes to creating audio for sim games such as SBK, there isn’t much that can be done other than to capture the realistic sounds of the engines roar, gear changes, and the pops of when small bits of oil leak into the exhaust. Luckily, those core sound effects have been recorded and encoded to make every gear change sound just like the real thing. Sadly though, after a while it does get pretty boring listening to the bike’s engine squeal under the pressure of added acceleration.

You can adjust the audio option within the game menus, so that when out on track you can listen to the soft rock and indie beats that accompany the game’s menu and title screens. None of these are from known artists though, and like the race tracks, they blur into one sound after a while due to their repetitive nature. Paying for some licensed music, or having the ability to play the music off your own machine, could have helped greatly in improving the game’s enjoyment level… maybe.

So, you wanna race?
Go online and you can take part in all kinds of wacky mini games… no I’m lying; you can only race. The usual quick, custom and create game options are here, and up to 16 people can compete once in a stand-alone race, or play through a full championship together. The sim elements follow through to the online aspect of the game, and you can choose to make matches/games as in-depth as the offline Championship. All of the same options are available, like qualifying rounds, race stipulations, bike set-ups and so on.

First person view is only for the sadistic.

You can also adjust options like the weather, tyre wear, damage, and collision detection, but really, who wants to make the game as hard as possible when playing online? Maniacs maybe! That’s fine, but first you’re going to have to find someone else to play with, which could be a major issue; I did not once connect with anyone else online.

Two wheels aren’t better than four!
In all honesty I didn’t enjoy SBK 2011 one bit, which was a surprise, as I am a big driving game fan. The game is just so technical and fiddly, it completely lacks the fun-factor. That said, for as much as I found SBK 2011 tiresome and boring, I can’t actually say it’s a bad game when I consider that it is meant to be a racing simulation. If you think about what the developers were trying to achieve, they have effectively recreated the real-life experience of riding a superbike. Precision does take precedent when trying to handle such a powerful machine, and they have captured this very accurately in SBK; it just isn’t any fun!

The problem is that this kind of game will only appeal to a very small section of video-game fans, and by that I mean fans of the sport of superbikes. Casual gamers expecting a nice arcadey speed-trip will be sadly disappointed if they play this, and those who are looking for a simulation racing game would be better off playing Codemaster’s F1 2011, as it is far superior in delivering the real-life power of motor racing.

So unless you are a huge fan of the sport, I can only recommend you avoid SBK 2011 like the plague!


How We Review Games