MotoGP may have the high glitz and glamour when it comes to motorcycle racing, but the boys in World Superbike don't ride any slower or fight any poorer for those podium positions. The motorcycles raced in WSB are far closer to the machines everyday bikers are able to ride and take on track days, albeit mostly without the same level of skill and fearlessness necessary to race at a world class level.
There are three main game modes presented at the front of the game: Arcade, Simulation and Xbox Live racing. Within each of these are further options to allow the player a quick race, quick championship, time attack or the longer more involved Story Mode. There is also access to the rider roster and game options, where stuff like race length, weather conditions and opponent skill can be tweaked.
It's not totally clear if SBK X is based on a particular season of racing, though possibly 2010 - the track selection includes Donington Circuit, a track you've probably not been to in a while as it currently resembles a building site. The circuit has little chance of seeing any racing other than off-roading at the moment, given the lack of tarmac around it, and the fact the company running it back in 2009 went bankrupt, although at the time of writing, the circuit may have found enough funding to save it. That aside, there are fourteen tracks in total around which the racing hots up, so there are no shortage of corners to learn and master.
Along with the 1000cc bikes, the SuperSport 600cc series has a representation within the game - it's possible to race the same season and same tracks on these smaller engine bikes; they might have a little less power, but they'll still beat that balding, overweight mid-life crisis man in his Porsche at the traffic light grand prix.
Loading up the circuits is pretty rapid, with selection through to racing taking less than thirty seconds, in general things load fairly swiftly, especially if installed to a memory stick or HDD, and it’s important to note as waiting around for ages just to get on the track can be a bit of a trauma in some racing titles.
Once in the game, Arcade mode allows the player just to get stuck into racing and not have to worry too much about the technicalities of riding a bike at full tilt. Arcade will let the player get away with full deep corner braking, rear wheel spin-ups under power and touching the grass, with little worry of being thrown off high or low-side. The demo of the game on Xbox Live seemed more "floaty" in arcade, maybe it was a bit of an older build as it isn't as evident in the full game. The sense of speed isn't quite the same as in the recent MotoGP release on the system; it doesn’t give quite the same sensation of adrenaline. Maybe this is down to the fact it runs at 30fps as opposed to MotoGP's 60fps in this all new engine, something that will disappoint a certain type of gamer, but really it still plays very smoothly and in the heat of battle it's unlikely to be that noticeable. There really isn’t anything to complain about graphically, the models look decent and the animations realistic and believable – no pulling wheelies whilst standing up clapping to the crowds here.
However, SBK has never really been about arcade racing, as nice an inclusion as that is. The series has always leaned more towards the simulation of bike racing, something that's not been forgotten in the latest version of the game. Under the simulation option a similar series of sub-game modes are available, but substituting the Career mode for the story, and it's here that the meat of the game lies. There are three different levels of simulation: low, medium and full - although there's no real indication of what is and isn't computer assisted, it's certainly obvious once on the bike that this is pretty challenging stuff; in full-sim mode it requires absolute precision and control. Going into a corner at high-speed or trying to brake at full-lock well in to the apex is likely to mean a trip to the course doctor (or at least some lost places to other more elegant and smoother riders). There's no getting away with arcade shenanigans here. Have no fear though because it's easy enough to flick between the different grades at any time should this hard-core racing be too much and humbling. Even on the lower sim settings, things are going to take a bit of practice to get comfortable with the setup and handling.
The simulation can be further refined by introducing tyre wear and rider weight, the latter of which affects the bike’s handling depending on where in the saddle the rider is shifting his mass to. As a simulation things seem to sit fairly accurately; bikes will squirm under-power and tend to force the machine to oversteer under heavy braking entering a corner. The subtleties of the handling can be tweaked by the crew mechanics, allowing a multitude of changes to suspension, braking, drive and gearing – the chief will even make a few suggestions about the right setup for each track and session type, if you allow him to of course. As good as the simulation is, the game doesn’t give over the same kind of thrill that MotoGP 09/10 seems to provide, turning-in in particular feels like you’re riding a cruiser rather than a sports bike – it’s also quite difficult to get a feel for how hard the bike is braking, feedback through the controller is curiously lacking. Yes the game more accurately reflects the physics of things two-wheeled, but that doesn’t necessarily make for an exhilarating ride, something every biker lusts after.
Career mode is built around gaining reputation to advance a rider's standing. There are a number of different ways to raise this, from finishing position, performing stunts and snatching Superpole victory from the rivals. In every career mode race there is a special opponent to beat, giving additional bonus points, and along with this, a further championship goal bonus is available if the relevant criteria are met across a race weekend. For each event the five or six different sessions are present and correct, including practice, qualifying, warm-up and the actual race. There’s no requirement to play through all of these (though it will help learn the tracks and get the best bike setup), allowing the player to jump straight to the final race event if so desired.
To spice things up even more, like the up-coming F1 game, SBK introduces a dynamic track system that alters the way the tarmac behaves as the race progresses. On dry races, this means the rubber slowly builds up on the racing line, giving a little more grip as the weekend moves on. During wet races, a dry line will start to appear as the bike’s shift the water off the circuit. If this really does make a difference to the simulation, it’s quite hard to detect, perhaps requiring the fastest of fast racers to notice the quicker lap-times.
Should racing the computer AI become tiresome, SBK X offers a substantial multi-player component across Xbox Live. This supports the arcade racing through to full sim, even allowing a championship across all circuits in the game, including qualifying, should you have a spare weekend to dedicate. Getting a match with the settings to your taste might prove a little tricky though, there really aren't very many people playing this game online at the moment, and those that are mainly seem to be opting to create matches on full-sim for superbike racing, shying away from the lower sim modes and arcade almost totally. The lobbies are very good, able to see the different players on an updating course map whilst waiting to race as a spectator, and once in a game things are generally lag free even when pings seem on the low side. The lack of online players is off-putting though, so it might take a while to reach that top level one hundred ranking [it should be noted that the game's officially release date is 4th June, which could well explain the lack on online games at this time of writing].
SBK X is one for the simulation fans, and although there is a substantial arcade mode included, if that’s more your racing style, you’re probably better off looking at MotoGP. There’s a lot to this title and a lot to like; the career mode willl definitely take some dedication to get through, but it just doesn’t quite put across the thrill of bike racing the same way its competition does. For that reason, it only gets second place on the podium.