2019 is a year of change for MotoGP. Oh, sure, Marc Marquez continues to be ludicrously dominant and Valentino Rossi is still racing at or near the front, but a lot has changed around them. One of Yamaha’s satellite teams has switched allegiances to KTM, Yamaha have in turn found a new team to ally themselves with, there’s been a major overhaul of the Moto2 category, and more. It’s similarly a time of change for the MotoGP video games.
After the turbulence of last year’s switch to Unreal Engine 4, Milestone have committed to even more sweeping changes in their premier racing game. Yes, it’s built on the foundations of MotoGP 18, but there’s also some major features such as a new neural AI that are on the cutting edge of technology.
Machine learning is exciting, but it might as well be blockchain or compensating for gravometric interference for all that most people would care or understand. To put it simply in this instance, it’s a computer that has been presented with the challenge of racing a bike under the watchful eye of Milestone and Orobix engineers. Unlike the Drivatars of Forza, these AI don’t learn their racing craft from real world players or references from real races, it’s all figured out from scratch.
It’s fascinating to see different iterations of the neural AI as it literally learns how to ride a bike. Luckily, it’s like riding a bike and the AI never forgets, and so through round after round of competing with different AI routines, constantly trying to improve itself, it goes from the motorbike equivalent of a fawn that barely knows what legs are, let alone how to use them, through to something that looks as smooth and fast as real world racers.
Actually going up against them, and they feel almost indescribably more alive than what I remember of the last few MotoGP games. The opening laps have all the riders jostling for position, swarming through corners and making it easy to win as many places on one corner as you’ll lose the next. They’re not perfect – I did have one bike practically fly past me into the gravel trap as I went through a corner – but I found them enjoyable and Milestone freely admit that they’re just the first iteration of this exciting technology, while also promising to update the AI after launch.
The AI’s complexity does mean, however, that the game will remain at 30 frames per second on console, as we saw with last year’s shift to Unreal Engine 4. While it shouldn’t provide the same kind of advantage as you might feel in a first person shooter, that’s still disappointing for those who desire the smoothest, most responsive gaming. Again, Milestone are open to continuing to tweak and adjust the game, potentially featuring a performance mode for PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, that sacrifices resolution for frame rate.
Elsewhere, the shortcomings of MotoGP 18 have been addressed in a number of ways. Where this long-running series has always done a great job of representing the feeder formulas, and will continue to do so, they’re now being made optional when you start a career. Personally, I’ll still need a few races to get back up to speed and reacquaint myself with how to race on two wheels and not four, but for those that live and breathe MotoGP, you can just start in the top tier.
Do that and you’d miss out on the new Moto2 bikes, though. Milestone had almost unparalleled access to the bikes prior to the start of the season, letting them capture the sound of the new three cylinder 765cc engines that have replaced last year’s 600cc four cylinder Hondas. Elsewhere in the game is the MotoE category in the game for the first time, which precedes the first season of the electric sport, and brings its own peculiar handling characteristics. As with Moto2, there’s just one brand of bike, but they’re heavier thanks to the batteries, which will force you to brake earlier, and they’ll deliver more constant torque out of corners.
Regardless of the category and team you join, you’ll have a more in-depth and meaningful progression through the season as you look to upgrade your bike in various areas. You’ll start a season in testing being presented with three different carbon liveried bikes to test and choose between, each with contrasting handling profiles and goals, such as top line speed or handling through corner, that you then use as the basis for your upgrades to electronics, frame, exhaust and so on.
If you don’t want to step backwards through the racing categories, then how about backward through time? After a year away, historic racers and bikes have made a return to the game in a big way, with 50 to unlock including 500cc heroes of the 90s, through to 2013, just before the modern era of Marquez dominance started. There’s a nice mixture of races and thematic challenges here, such as having Valentino Rossi trying to hold off and pull away from Sete Gibernau in his final race for Honda in 2003 at Valencia. All of the challenges have bronze, silver and gold victory conditions, with the bronze designed to be relatively easy to complete if you’re used to the game, which will unlock the rider, silver a bit more challenging, to unlock the bike, and gold there to earn extra prizes beyond that. The bits you unlock can then be used in quick races, championships and online.
With the official MotoGP esports championship heading into its third year, another big area that Milestone have worked to improve is the online multiplayer. At the base level, the game will now have dedicated servers courtesy of AWS, and that will have the usual impact of increasing stability, improving latency, making sure that lobbies can migrate if the host left, and so on. Considering the wide spread of desires from online racing, Milestone have altered their matchmaking to step away from simply trying to make sure lobbies are filled, and allow for more choice from custom made public lobbies.
Another important aspect for esports is to ensure that it’s watchable, and with that in mind Milestone are sharing the tools from the 2018 esports season, polishing them up into Director Mode, while spectators can act as streams for different cameras. It’s great for the esports streams, but also for those who want to set up and run their own championships.
The big step between game engines left MotoGP 18 feeling very much like a foundational entry in the series, lacking features and not comparing so well with the games that had preceded it. It’s great to see Milestone committed to continuing to push forward, not just revisiting old ideas like historical races, but making common sense changes for online and esports, and breaking new ground with their Neural AI. MotoGP 19 is out next week on 6th June, so if you’re a fan of racing on two wheels, you’ll only have to keep your fingers crossed a little longer to see if they’ve pulled it off.