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AMA Superbike (PC) Review

Background Info

Screens (19)
The goal of AMA Superbike developer Motorsims is to combine realistic racing physics engines with state of the art online gaming technology. This is an ambitious goal, but Motorsims may have the expertise to pull it off. Company founder Bob McCarthy was part of the Warbirds team (a flight simulator renowned for its superb online play). Motorsim's first commercial release is AMA Superbike, a realistic simulation of superbike racing on the real AMA circuit tracks.

Presentation/Graphics : 88
The visual quality of the graphics are very good, though not up to the near-photorealistic standard set by EA's Superbike World Championship. The tracks are nicely rendered. The ones I am familiar with seem like reasonable facsimiles of their real-world counterparts. The drivers and bikes are very well modeled, and the view system works very well. There is the traditional chase cam, and two different cockpit views. You can have your view locked behind the windshield, or use the more realistic view that shows you what the driver would really be seeing. The latter view includes the game's implementation of leaning in all four directions. For example, your view rises up when you lean back.

While I think it's fair to say that the developers' focus was not on eye candy, the game does excel in one very important area. The graphics engine conveys a superb sensation of speed, the best I've yet experienced in a motorcycle sim. I'm not quite sure how it does this, as the frame-rate is no better than other motorcycle games. But the effect is impressive, to the point where it actually helps me drive the bike. I don't tend to go into the corners overly fast as I've often done in other motorcycle racers.

Presentation/Audio : 70
The sound is one area that could really use some improvement. Not in the bikes themselves, for the sound of your own cycle is rich and throaty. But the sound used for tire-squeal is quite poor. What's more, it is an on/off sound. That may actually be realistic, but in a computer sim tire squeal is one of the few cues the program can give to the user to compensate for the lack of a "seat of the pants feel" that only a real vehicle can provide.

The positional sound of other bikes could also be much better. In a multiplayer game when a bike passed me I didn't hear him until he was right on top of me. Hearing him approach from a little farther off would add a lot of tension to the race.

The developers do plan on upgrading the sound in a future patch.

Interface/Options : 85
It is difficult to rate AMA Superbike's user interface. On the one hand, there are some flaws. For one, the escape key does not work in a standard way. It exits the race/game without asking the user for confirmation., so it can't be used as a pause key as in most other games. In fact I haven't been able to find any pause key, even in offline play. The front-end interface is generally well designed but too slow (a flaw the developers have acknowledged - expect it to be fixed at some point).

One other problem is that it's not clear when a race is over. I won a race and then clicked on the "Exit Race" button, expecting to be taken to the winner's circle. But apparently I cancelled the whole race. The same thing happened in an online race. Once the race was over I couldn't figure out how to end it without canceling the results.

The status information displayed on screen during a race is also somewhat confusing. I couldn't easily tell what my position was in the race nor how far ahead or behind other riders I was.

On the other hand, the interface is extraordinarily flexible. In particular the controller input screens are extremely well done. AMA Superbike is a fairly sophisticated motorcycle simulation. There are separate controls for steering, leaning in four directions, shifting, throttle, rear and front brakes, clutch, and more. Each of these can be mapped to any controller you have. For example, on my Sidewinder Precision Pro I used the default setup, but then mapped the rear brake to the throttle control on the joystick so that I could control my front and rear brakes independently. As a result I can easily chose to lock up the rear wheel if I go into a corner a bit too fast.

You can even use multiple controllers at once. I have my joystick plugged into a gameport, and a Logitech force-feedback steering wheel attached via USB. I was able to set it up to use the joystick for steering and throttle, and the gas/brake pedals on my Logitech as the front/rear brakes. You can even map multiple functions onto one access, such as controlling both throttle and lean by moving your joystick forward/back. I can't say enough about the phenomenal job Motorsims has done in the controller configuration options.

Another area of AMA Superbike that works extremely well is the built-in mechanism for retrieving game updates and patches from the net. Motorsims is probably unique in that they openly admit that AMA Superbike is a work in progress. That's not to say that the game is unfinished. But they are continuously working on the game, and all new features and fixes are available free of charge to all owners of the game. It's also extremely easy to update. You just click on the "Update Game" button from the control center menu, and the game uses the robust Castanet technology to download files. Or rather, to download the parts of the files that have changed, a neat system that keeps the downloads as small as possible. True to their word, Motorsims have already put out a couple of game updates, which I had no trouble at all downloading. The installation process is virtually automatic, so it will not cause any problems for inexperienced computer users. The main menu even tells you whether or not there are any new updates available.

The last item I want to mention isn't exactly part of the game, but it is important. Motorsims has been very good about answering questions and responding to complaints on the newsgroup. The company really seems to be dedicated to supporting their users, which I applaud.

Gameplay : 80
There are three areas that have to be looked at to appreciate the gameplay value of AMA Superbike: the driving engine and physics, offline play, and online multiplayer races.

There has been a lot of debate about the realism of the physics engine in this title. I think it's pretty realistic, though it could use improvements in some areas. Others say it's too simplistic, but I think that misses the mark. Motorsims say they created this game by first programming a completely realistic physics model, including support for all the things that can go wrong when driving one of these beasts. The result, they say, was a model so realistic that no one could drive it given the lack of "seat of the pants" feel I mentioned previously. So they toned it down bit by bit, removing the areas where people got into the most trouble.

I think that this explanation makes sense, to a point. The patch has already restored some of the realism, making it harder to accelerate without popping a wheely, for example. And the physics engine does seem to model up/down weight transfer - you can see the bike moving this way under acceleration or braking, or when you go over the top of a hill. Generally I find the bikes fun and somewhat addictive to drive. It would be even better if the sound provided better feedback.

But I think a better way to go might have been to make the realism elements optional, so that users who want more of a hardcore sim could turn them on. Also, if the game made better use of other feedback cues, such as sound, perhaps the fully implemented physics model wouldn't be so difficult to drive. To their credit, Motorsims has stated they will enable more of these features as options, as well as improving the sound feedback. Given their track record on customer support and patches so far, there's no reason to disbelieve them.

The offline single-player game allows you to race against AI drivers. It's a good way to practice the tracks, but as a standalone game I don't find it very rewarding, for a few reasons.

First, while the game does have three skill modes (Beginner, Expert, and Pro) you can't select your level. You have to work your way through races at each level to get to the next. This would be OK, except that the beginner mode is SO easy that I lost interest before even completing a single race, because the AI drivers were left so far behind. This problem is exacerbated because there is no way to set the length of the races. Even worse, you have to win about twenty races before you even move from the low-power, easy Supersport bikes to the Superbikes. Since the whole point of someone buying this game is for Superbike racing, I can't imagine anyone having the patience to put up with this game design. You can race against the AI in single-race mode (inexplicably called "Practice" in the game) but that's about as far as the offline game goes.

Let's move on to multiplayer. In this area the game improves quite a bit from the single-player experience. Which shouldn't be too surprising, since multiplayer gaming is really the focus of the developers at Motorsims. As part of their commitment to online racing Motorsims has setup their own high-speed race servers that the game automatically connects to. Like the single-player mode, players are automatically rated by the game and can only compete against other players at similar levels of ability. In multiplayer this actually works fairly well; it's not as constraining as the single-player design. For one thing you can race the Superbike class right off the bat, which makes it infinitely more challenging and rewarding. The races I joined were close, and completely lag-free. The only potential problem I see is that if the game is not successful enough there may not be enough racers in your class to compete against when you choose to play the game. It would be nice if there was an "open arena" area that bypassed the rating system for low-traffic periods.

The multiplayer mode will improve more in the future as Motorsims plans to set up leagues, competitions, and even to offer prizes for the winners of some competitions. So don't read too much into my rating for the gameplay category. If you are into offline play game might not suit you. But if you love online racing it may well be very satisfying.

Replay Value : 75
Like the gameplay section, the replay value of this title really depends on what you are looking for. If you don't like online multiplayer gaming (or don't have a good Internet connection) I suspect you could get bored with this sim rather quickly. The multiplayer racing, on the other hand, is very good and only looks to get better in the future.

There is one area where even online racers might get bored, though, and that's the track selection. The tracks that are there are very well done, but there are only nine of them. There were going to be twelve, but there were licensing problems with two tracks (including the Daytona track that other developers have also had trouble using) and one track (Las Vegas) was dropped because it was dropped from the AMA circuit this year. I feel this decision was a real mistake in a game with a limited number of tracks. Realism is all well and good, but when users can't use some tracks because of licensing issues they should be given alternatives. It's especially disappointing because the Vegas track was apparently the most popular track during beta testing.

Another problem with the tracks is a lack of variety. As a hardcore AMA simulation this isn't really a problem. After all, the tracks are the real ones in the circuit this year (except for the ones Motorsims couldn't license). But in my opinion the game would have more widespread appeal if it had a high-speed oval. In Nascar 3 the Talladega tri-oval is consistently the most popular track. People enjoy the high-speed all-out racing that such a track provides, and it's also an excellent way for beginners to get used to a game. I realize this isn't realistic for Superbikes, that the tire wear would be extreme from always turning one way. But the reason it occurred to me is because there is a great oval track (Pike's Peak) physically modeled in the game. And it's incredibly fun to drive on. But it's closed off to racing; you can only race on the twisty inner-road track that joins it. Even if the oval were available in a special arcade mode I think it would increase the game's appeal.

Overall : 84
AMA Superbike is a title with a lot of promise. Given the developer's progressive philosophy (and technology) regarding patches and forthright customer support, I think the title will fulfill this promise in time. If you are a motorcycling fan who likes online racing - and if you like the AMA series tracks - I wouldn't hesitate to purchase this simulation.

By: Joe McGinn 11/4/99

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