MotoGP 21 game review: Are its new features enough?

The official game of MotoGP is back with a 2021 season instalment. Are the new features enough to elevate MotoGP 21 into the pantheon of great racing games?

MotoGP 21 game review: Are its new features enough?

Six manufacturer teams, unpredictable results, young upstarts, ageing legends, half a field covered by just 5.3 seconds at the end of a race. There’s a strong argument that MotoGP is not only in rude health, but is the best form of premier class motorsport right now.

I’m not one to disagree with that viewpoint either, especially after the spectacular 2020 season that featured nine different race winners and a new champion in the form of Joan Mir on a Suzuki.

This is a roundabout way of saying that MotoGP 21, the newly released official game of Grand Prix motorcycle racing, has a lot to live up to.

MotoGP 21 Portimao

MotoGP 21 Portimao

Photo by: Milestone

Created by Milanese developer Milestone, this is its 11th MotoGP release and is the first to reach the next-generation machines of PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series. With that comes 4K resolution, rapid loading times – between three to four seconds from the menu to the racetrack – and smooth 60 frames per second fidelity. You also get natty DualSense feedback on PS5, amplifying the feedback into your palms.

But pretty visuals alone, and it does look rather detailed, do not make a great video game or simulation experience. Engrossing gameplay elements, rewarding handling and a sense of accomplishment do.

There’s no better place to start than the career mode. For most people, this is likely where you’ll spend countless hours playing. With the option of jumping straight into the top MotoGP class, the real enjoyment, however, comes from creating your own rider, team and cosmetic items, starting out from the bottom of Moto3, progressing through Moto2 and then on to the premier class several seasons later.

Portimao MotoGP 21

Portimao MotoGP 21

Photo by: Milestone

This progression path has largely remained the same in recent years and there’s no large shakeup this season. Here you can sign a Data Analyst, a Chief Engineer and Personal Manager. You then allocate team members across engine and frame development in Moto3, adding in electronics in Moto2 and a fourth category in the form of aerodynamics when you reach the upper echelons.

Development points are accrued through winning races and then spent at your discretion to improve motorcycle performance. You can earn additional resource credits by completing tests during free practice such as setting a lap time or reaching a certain top speed. These can be stacked too, selecting two at a time to reduce the grind – take note Formula 1.

While the bike development and progression of your own rider or team – you can sign for an existing team too if that’s your dream – encapsulates a sense of achievement, outside of pit garage and post-race celebrations, the career does lack a hint of personality. Your fellow team members, for example, are just headshots on the screen and have nothing to say.

Interestingly there are two season calendars to choose from. One that represents what could have been pre-Covid-19 disruption, featuring venues such as Termas de Río Hondo in Argentina, or one that is the current 2021 season with two rounds at Losail, Qatar, to kick off the year. A thoughtful touch. If you do a single championship outside of your career, you can customise the track list too.

MotoGP 2021 screenshot

MotoGP 2021 screenshot

Photo by: Koch Media

Speaking of tracks, the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya features the upcoming remodelled Turn 10 and the Algarve International Circuit makes an appearance for the first time. Its blind crests and elevation changes are reminiscent of something created in the 1960s mashed together with modern safety standards. Being able to wrestle the technological tour de force that is a modern MotoGP bike around here pushes your abilities to their limits.

The track is also in Milestone’s other motorcycle racing game, Ride 4, and I suspect that the team was able to lift the circuit from there, allowing them to have the new venue from launch. The downside to that being, MotoGP 21’s revised suspension system – which rides the bumps with far greater accuracy than last season’s release, noticeable at the rear of your bike in particular – now highlights certain inaccuracies in track replications.

There is a giant bump around Turn 6 at Algarve that makes your steed wobble like a jelly castle that simply doesn’t exist when you watch real-life MotoGP. The same is true around Luffield at Silverstone and turn one at Phillip Island.

Much like the weather conditions. You can have a wet race, or a dry race, but dynamic weather or lighting conditions to bridge the gap between the two extremes are an omission. This could be down to the complexities of simulating bike swaps should the weather turn from sunny to downpour – but the climate technology exists in the aforementioned Ride 4 which is created by the same company using the same game engine, so maybe it will arrive in MotoGP 22?

MotoGP 2021 screenshot

MotoGP 2021 screenshot

Photo by: Koch Media

That’s perhaps a moot point, but the use of classic riders and tracks isn’t. In previous games, there has been a mode dedicated to MotoGP history. Whether that was the creation of scenarios in MotoGP 19 or a strange FIFA Ultimate Team-esque Historic Mode in MotoGP 20. In 21, there isn’t anything.

There are 47 classic riders and three tracks in the form of Laguna Seca, Donington Park and Brno, but they are not used in any enthralling way. It’s the gaming equivalent of owning the Crown Jewels but hiding them in the loft under your old photo albums.

Online gameplay also misses vital elements. You can search online lobbies, or create your own. Be it private with friends or public. But that’s largely it and in 2021 that doesn’t quite cut it anymore. There are no scheduled online races like GT Sport, no weekly challenges like WRC 9 and no ranking system like F1 2020 at all. You simply end up with rooms filled with wildly different skill sets and little incentive to continue racing.

Despite these oversights which hold back MotoGP 21 from ultimate greatness, there is still plenty of fun to be had.

MotoGP 2021 screenshot

MotoGP 2021 screenshot

Photo by: Koch Media

The on-track racing is the glue that sticks the game together. MotoGP 20 saw a dramatic shift away from something that was easy to pick up and play and into the realms of simulation.

On the top-class motorcycles, simply smashing on the brakes would result in a stoppie followed by a crash. If you did manage to haul your bike up with both tyres still on the ground, a little too quick into the apex point resulted in the front washing out and your helmet scraping the ground.

This all remains largely the same, but this time around you have additional assists and guides to help ease you into things. You need to work your way up, going through the tutorials, building through the slow categories and adapting. You can then look at the riding aids one by one, be it the ideal trajectory line, to the joint brakes and even brake input modulation to aid with, in theory, more stable stopping performance.

Throw in tyre compound selection, brake disc size choices and fuel consumption management and there’s a lot to think about during the race even if you manage to stay upright. But that’s how it should be.

MotoGP 2021 screenshot

MotoGP 2021 screenshot

Photo by: Koch Media

MotoGP bikes are ridden by the best of the best. It’s one of the toughest challenges on two wheels. You should feel like you're strapped to a mammal during a running of the bulls.

Making this game hard to ride may alienate more casual players, but I applaud the brave decision as for those who are really into the sport, here’s something that will take patience to fully master. Dedication is required before you can channel your inner Marc Marquez. Before you ask, yes, he’s in the game.

That being said, it seems as if your AI opponents never have similar handling challenges, plus they love to move in robotic unison. I feel there is work to still be done on the corner entry weight transition. When you watch MotoGP in person, the bikes snake around in the braking zone. You can rarely ‘back it in’ with the rear wheel writhing.

Following the inevitable and plentiful crashes, you can enable bike recovery this year. Once your rider has found their bearings, you must walk back to your forlorn ride, before the game cuts to the bike being righted and you setting off on your way again. It adds to the authenticity, but the novelty wears off rather quickly.

Bike retrieval MotoGP 21

Bike retrieval MotoGP 21

Photo by: Milestone

The long lap penalty is a welcome addition too. You can utilise manual starts where you hold in the clutch and release when the lights turn green. Get the timing wrong, or abuse track limits through the race, and you have to ride around a longer loop situated on one corner per track.

I found the game doesn’t signpost the entry point clear enough – unless you use the racing line – and the sections can be tricky to navigate. The option to have the AI take over, like an automated pitstop in some other racing games, is promised post-release.

MotoGP 2021 screenshot

MotoGP 2021 screenshot

Photo by: Koch Media

As are the Red Bull MotoGP Rookies Cup and electric MotoE support categories to make a full roster of five classes in total. In addition, as you progress through your career, you can set up your own junior teams to manage alongside your own, analogous to what Valentino Rossi is involved in at present. This is one area where MotoGP 21 is far ahead of other licensed motorsport titles.

If it sounds like a mixed bag, that’s because it largely is. There is no doubt that the new console hardware allows the game to step up from a visual perspective. The lengthy career and large rosters are welcome. I’m even on board with the polarising braking physics and handling. But the presentation and online modes are sometimes from a bygone era.

Despite a lack of pizzaz to really elevate the experience, however, MotoGP 21 is the zenith of the series so far.

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