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AMA Superbike (PC) Hands-on Preview

Background Info

Screens (19)
NOTE: this preview is based on an alpha copy we received that is incomplete at press time.

AMA SuperBike by Motorsims is an interesting and in some ways unique entry in the motorcycle racing simulation genre. Founded by Warbirds-maverick Bob McCarthy, Motorsims has brought together a combination of racing and physics modeling experts, and just as importantly, Internet multiplayer expertise. Warbirds is a flight sim well known for its ability to smoothly connect large numbers of people in a multiplayer arena. Motorsim's mission is to create realistic motorsport simulations, with a strong emphasis on multiplayer racing.

How Does it Look?
AMA Superbike will be Motorsim's first released simulation. SGN recently got a hands-on look at an alpha build of the product. As the name implies, the game is exclusively licensed by the American Motorcyclist Association. The game will feature both real AMA tracks and bikes.

The alpha build I looked at only has one track (Mid Ohio) but it looks pretty good. The track graphics in this build are not quite as close to photo-realistic as EA's SBK, but the drivers and bikes themselves look great. And the game has something that EA's game lacked - tremendous sensations of speed and the acceleration power of these vehicles. In fact this is the first serious motorcycle sim I've played that really conveys this critical feeling.

The sounds of the bikes is also very impressive. Each bike has a unique voice and a throaty roar. Some of the environmental sounds, such as tire squeal, sounded like placeholder sounds to me. I'm sure they will be upgraded (the game is scheduled to be released "in the third quarter" of this year).

What About the Driving Model?
The meat of any driving simulation is the physics modeling of the vehicles. Motorsims boasts a state-of-the-art physics model. I'm not a motorcycle expert by any means, but to me the physics seem pretty impressive. The rider as well as the bike is modeled, including support for manual or auto-control leaning.

One of the most challenging problems in implementing a motorcycle sim is that PC peripherals - steering wheels, keyboards, and joysticks - do not have the ability to model all the physical inputs a real driver uses. AMA Superbike has the best solution to this conundrum I've yet seen, which is to allow extensive configurability of all inputs including the critical option of using multiple controllers.

The list of input options is impressive. You can control steering, separate rear and front brakes, independent sideways and forward/back driver lean, extending right/left legs, clutch, and more. You can combine controls on one gaming device axis, separate them, automate particular items, and as I mentioned use multiple input devices at once.

As an example of what's possible, here's how I've setup my controllers. I have a Microsoft Sidewinder Precision Pro joystick connected via my gameport, and a Logitech steering wheel connected on the USB port. I use the sideways joystick axis for steering, with sideways leaning set to auto-control. I use the joystick Y-axis for both throttle and leaning forward/back (i.e., so when I back off the throttle the driver leans back, and vice-versa). Then I set the gas pedal on my Logitech as the front brake, and the brake pedal as the rear brake. I left the clutch on automatic for now (not automatic shifting, but automatic clutch) just so I wouldn't be overwhelmed!

With this control configuration I was able to appreciate some of the beauty of the physics modeling. The front brake works as you'd expect, slowing you down and shifting the weight of the bike onto the front wheel. The rear brake can be applied at the same time for additional braking strength. If I went into a corner just a bit too fast (i.e., understeering) I could use just the rear brake to "lock up" the rear wheel for a split second and swing the rear of the bike around to correct my line. Sometimes at extreme limits I didn't lose the bike as I expected to, but this may be due to by control setup or a not entirely-complete physics engine. As to whether the physics modeling truly reflects riding a real bike I'll have to leave to the riding experts.

If you prefer a simpler setup, just a joystick for example, there are further options. You can link both brakes to one axis, and balance the control inputs to your preference. The default controller setup works like this, where the joystick Y axis is used for throttle when pushed forward, and a lot of front brake with a little rear brake when pulled down. But I think the advantages of separate controls for front and rear brakes will be difficult to resist. Of course, you don't need to use gas/brake pedals as I did. If your joystick has a throttle control you can use it to control one set of brakes.

I can't overstate the importance of the incredible job Motorsims has done on the controller input features. As mentioned, there just isn't a controller perfectly suited for input to motorcycle simulations. The next best possible solution is what has been provided in AMA Superbike, an infinitely configurable interface.

What's this about Multiplayer?
I couldn't test the multiplayer component of the game, but it sounds impressive. There's no doubt Motorsims has the expertise needed to implement support for large numbers of simultaneous racers. The bad news is there will be a monthly fee (I'm told "a small one") for access to the Motorsims Racing Network servers (you do get 30 days free access when you purchase the game). The good news is that it will be far more than just a matching service like the Microsoft Gaming Zone.

First, they will have high-speed servers to effectively support large races. There will be a rating system so that you can choose to play with people near your own level of ability. Motorsims will organize and administrate racing leagues, and there has been talk of prizes. You can watch other races as if they were on TV. The system is Roger-Wilco compatible for voice communication during races. The game can automatically download new features and patches from a menu within the game (they use a system where you only download the changed bytes of any file, to keep the downloads small and quick). Motorsims' stated goal is to build an online racing community. It will be impressive if they can pull it off.

Final Thoughts
There's something about even this limited alpha version of AMA Superbike that keeps drawing me back to it. The sensation of speed, the precise control, the feel that I'm really driving a wild, powerful two-wheeled beast. If the multiplayer works as well as the Warbirds flight sim, AMA Superbike could turn out to be a great game. I know I'm looking forward to seeing more.

By: Joe McGinn 9/1/99

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