EA Sports SBK2001

Virtual Racing Champions!

story by Colin MacKellar, Created Feb. 26, 2001
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Torrance, California, January 26, 2001 -- Dateline -- Donington Park 14 May 2000.

The bike throbs gently under me as I double check the closed visor and pull at a tuck in my leathers that was pinching my calves on the sighting lap. Riders around me are doing likewise as the final seconds tick away before the start of the first European round of the season. I did well in the opening round in South Africa, the fourth and fifth place finishes really making it look like I did the right thing in leaving GPs behind for a career in SBK. Things were a lot tougher in Australia and Japan, but now we're getting to the home of GP racing and I'm looking to do well. Not that the Bieffe Ducati with the old 996 block likes Donington much. I just scraped onto Superpole and then lost it big time trying to get the rear tire to hook up coming out of Goddards. So now I'm stuck on row 4 looking up the Remus pipes of Andy Meklau's 2000 Duke. Okay, this is where I show the blokes I'm not just a 125 rider. Clear the mind, eyes on the vanishing point at Redgate, spot the lights at the edge of my peripheral vision. I'm ready. 

I've nowhere to go and before I can push on the bars, I ram his bike and start to tumble. "Sh*t! This can't be happening!"

Lights on Red. One. Two. Revs to 11,000. Three. Weight on the front wheel. Four. Head behind the bubble. GREEN. The front starts to come up but the rear spins some and the front comes back to earth as I get hooked up and shoot between Meklau and Lavilla who both have their bikes spinning the rears hopelessly. I'm thinking this is a good start as I pass Slighty. Juan Borja on the Infostrada Ducati just doesn't have the momentum I've got and I glide past on the outside as we run up to Redgate. I'm well on the inside of the approach to the corner and this could be a bit hairy as I've been loosing the front end during practice at this sharp righthander. But this is a dream start so I'll go for it. I'm on the inside of Chili and Yanagawa as we start to peel into Redgate. Neither know I'm there, and as we enter the corner, Chili starts to lean into me. I let off the brakes a tad to get clear of him just as I feel a slight bump and the rear end starts to chop away a little. I hold my line and I sail past Yanagawa and move into fifth place behind Haga-San. What a start. This is going to be a race to remember.

I'm exhausted and I'm only half way round the first lap of a 10-lap race.

I start to run wide on the exit of Redgate, but just manage to straighten up as I clip the rumble strips. Then it's into the Craner curves with the blind downhill apex. Haga-San is running 10 meters ahead and I notice a puff of smoke off his rear wheel as he starts to tip into the right-hander that leads into the curves. I hit the apexes perfectly, but the rear tire skates badly as I wind up the power through the turns. Perhaps the guys were right and I should have taken the softer compound. It's cost me another five meters as we dive down to the Old Hairpin, but the front is feeling totally planted and I can cut back to within five meters of Haga as we brake for the righthander. I carry a touch more corner speed and find myself right with him as we exit the turn.

I start to cut to the inside to run round the outside of him at the next left-hander when his rear tire really lights up with a cloud of smoke and he's going down. I've nowhere to go and before I can push on the bars, I ram his bike and start to tumble. "Sh*t! This can't be happening!" The bike and I come to a rest at the side of the track and, amazingly, the engine is still running. I heave it up and jump back in the saddle as Yanagawa, Borja, Chili and Fujiwara flash past. I've blown it, but there's a lot of race left to go.

Perhaps I should have settled for just five laps of SBK2001 from EA Sports. This is the third version of the Superbike game that was first launched in March 1999. With a release date of October 2000, this is really the version that should have come out at the start of the 2000 season as it features riders and bikes from the season that has passed -- and it's the riders and bikes that are the clearly the most stunning aspect of this visually rich sports game. The graphics on the bikes are pinpoint accurate, the tiniest of sponsor stickers can be found on the virtual Ducatis, Hondas and Suzukis. The riders are beginning to look a little more like their real-life models although we're definitely not talking photo quality here. The movement on the bike is true to life, with the riders parking their butts on the edge of the saddle as the knees go out to kiss the apex of the corner. Track detail is, quite simply, superb. Both the run through the forest at Hockenheim and the concrete jungle of Valencia are implemented to the highest standards. Nobody could argue that the game developers don't deserve the highest praise for their work in the visual representation of the sport. The aural features are also good, with crowd roars as you enter the Hockenheim stadium, some interjections from the commentator as a rider falls and, by and large, a good implementation of the exhaust notes from the different bikes. The Ducati has the best V-twin boom, but the Aprilia is good as well. All of the fours sound pretty much the same but the VTR Honda has a weird hybrid sound between the two. It is one of the few mistakes in the simulation that the game attempts to achieve.       

So how's the gameplay? Pretty good, especially the ability to align the performance of the competition with the skills of the player. First time out? Classify all the competitors as Rookies, chuck in automatic braking, full traction control and rider assistance and beat them all. Getting good? Open up full bike setting control as well as doing your own braking. Unbeatable? Try riding with a manual gearbox as well as full control of rider movement on the bike. With the competition set at maximum skill level, the human is hard-pressed to match them. There are a million settings on the game, with control over tire choice, suspension settings, steering geometry, gearbox, etc. But if you're feeling lazy you just leave the standard settings alone and concentrate on learning the track, getting the braking points right. Customisability extends to the nature of the games, from quick race through one event involving qualification, Superpole and the two-leg race up to a complete season. Run the perfect race? Then check it out with the extended replay capabilities that allow you to choose any of the riders and select one of 10 different camera angles. This offers some spectacular scenes of carnage when there's a big crash. It really is a cool game.

There are only a few minor gripes. Occasionally the bike's engine note doesn't match the track action like when the revs occasionally rise while braking. It's almost impossible to get the tires to grip on full lean without using the traction control. The celebrations on the cooling down lap could be a little more spectacular, a couple of wheelies or burn-outs would be great instead of just the air-punching that goes on. Also, lap times are only recorded during qualification, not during the race. Stuff like shadow racing would be nice (implemented in the GP500 game from 1999), whereby a shadow image is visible while racing, showing your position during your fastest lap. But all the same it's an excellent game. If you don't have SBK2000, buy SBK2001. If you do already have the last version, I'm not sure the new version has been updated enough to warrant forking out another $40 US Dollars.

Motorcycle Online Rating: **** Testers Opinions: Calvin Kim, Virtual Slow-guy

My l33t sk1llz not withstanding, I found racing on "easy" mode too simple. It's actually difficult to crash. While riding on "hard" mode was the most satisfying, make sure you have the rider AI set down low, or else they'll smoke ya six-ways to Sunday. Hardware wise, gripes are hard to come by as the game ran flawlessly on my system. (PIII 600, 128MB RAM, Voodoo3 3000 AGP with the overclocking turned off). Make sure you have recent versions of all your driver software.

As Colin mentioned before the audio was a little funny at times. Some better sampling at more power levels would probably be the smart thing to do for the next release. I didn't have, or rather I didn't notice, the problem with the engine note not matching the track action. Anytime the engine note did not match my true acceleration (or lack thereof), I was either downshifting, or the rear wheel was loosing traction.

One last gripe is a lack of independent brake control. You can do wheelies by positioning your body all the way back and giving the bike a healthy dose of combusto-juice, but you can't do a stoppie! What gives? Also, on a game engine complex enough where you can view real-time telemetry of the suspension and engine, you'd expect independent brake control. At least I expected it.

  The graphics were fantastic. When you start a Single Round or a Championship game, you are greeted with all the fanfare and effects of a real SBK weekend. First comes Fridays practice session. Then it's off to qualifying. If you didn't do too hot on Friday, you can still repeat the process on Saturday. After Saturday's practice and qualifying sessions, its time for Superpole. If you're not familiar with the terminology, Superpole is one lap around the track that determines your starting grid position among the top 16 fastest riders.

Finally its race Sunday, and time for your warm-up lap, which if you did everything correctly, should just be a way to settle pre-race jitters and confirm any last-minute bike setup changes. You pull in one last time and its time for Race One. You can see your rider in the pit lane, with digital umbrella girls providing shade. The programmers over at EA Sports really did their homework with this game.

The key to this game is all about being smooth. Smooth on the gas, off the gas, into turns and out of them. The only way to be smooth, however, is to have a good controller. Erratic inputs and ultra-sensitive movements are not the way to control this game. Look for a review of a new controller soon.

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