Last year was a strange one for certain sports games. With matches cancelled or postponed, races reorganised at the last minute and hastily concluded championships in the real world, sports games carried on like nothing was different. That was felt most keenly in the world of motorsports, and while MotoGP 20 featured 22 tracks, only 9 were used in reality. In this one aspect alone, MotoGP 21 is a much truer representation of the 2021 season.
In truth, while the MotoGP license gives the game its flavour, it’s much more about how it plays. The bike handling retains many of the characteristics of those found in MotoGP 20, further enhanced with improved bike suspension and now factoring in brake temperatures and size choices to match the track characteristics and weather. Moto3 bikes are a relatively easy ride, if lively when pushing with reckless abandon, but Moto2 bikes step things up with a lot more throttle control needed to lay down the power and more care needed on the brakes to avoid pulling a stoppie. The full-blooded MotoGP bikes take that even further, feeling like you’re trying to tame a wild beast. You really do require a deft touch on the triggers and analogue stick in order to string a good lap together, and not fall off your bike entirely.
Racing a bike compared to a car is much more about flow and anticipation. Knowing when to turn into a corner, how hard to lean in, the speed you can carry through and acceleration out of the corner is just so much more important. It’s not just about getting a good lap time, but also about simply getting a lap in. Whether you lean on the extensive assists available in the game – from racing lines and corner markers to automated braking – you’re punished much more harshly for braking or turning at the wrong point. It’s something that, whenever I come to a bike racing game, I always have to readjust to this form of racing.
One of the first things you encounter in MotoGP 21 is the tutorial, which tries to get you up to speed with riding a bike, but it’s an area where I feel MotoGP lags behind car racing games. To bring motorbike racing to more people, to make it accessible, it needs to far outclass what can be found in F1 2020’s practice session track learning objectives or Gran Turismo’s licenses. It doesn’t match either game through the tutorial or the R&D objectives in the career mode, which feel more like general goals rather than an effort to teach you the tracks and how best to get around them.
There are some realistic nods that I do enjoy seeing, even if it’s rubbing the salt in the wound that I’ve just fallen off my bike. Instead of simply respawning as a ghost on track (which is still an option if you like), you now see your driver get up, dust themselves off and you then sprint over to the bike. It’s a bit clunky and takes too long, but fits with reality. Similarly, if you cut too many corners or other infractions, the game can penalise you by forcing you to take a ‘long lap’ adding an extra corner or extending one depending on the track. They’re often quite finicky to tackle, with Milestone promising the ability to let the AI take over in an update after release.
Playing on PlayStation 5, the game looks and runs great, with dynamic 4K and solid 60fps giving a crisp and clear image to go alongside impeccable performance. The DualSense controller really adds to the experience, with a little more precision to the haptic feedback compared to traditional rumble. It’s the triggers that are the real hit, though, the way that they “slip” under your fingers conveying the bike’s wobbles and squirms, the loss of grip under braking, acceleration and cornering. It can be tiring for your digits at full strength across long races, so it’s a shame that dropping the effect down to ‘Medium’ reduces them to simply being triggers with more tension than usual.
While there’s some tweaks, much of the career mode is the same as before. You create your custom rider, fiddle with the extensive sticker creation system to customise your rider and bike, and then sign up to either an existing Moto3, Moto2 or MotoGP team, or found your own to try and lead to glory. Either way, you’ll have a set of managers and staff, adding to the points earnt from completing R&D objectives across a race weekend. The R&D progression is nigh on identical, lacking the kind of nuance found in Codemasters’ F1 series as you funnel resources and personnel into each project.
The game features all of the 2021 tracks, with the return of the Finnish GP after 38 years, as the historic tracks section now includes Brno alongside Donnington Park and Laguna Seca. There’s also two versions of the 2021 seasons that you can race: the one that championship organiser Dorna intended to run, and the one that’s actually being run. In reality, the Argentine GP and GP of The Americas have both been postponed with the real world season starting with a double-header in Qatar.
It’s a shame that the Red Bull Rookies Cup and MotoE are absent at the game’s launch – they were patched in with an update for MotoGP 20, and while expected, it’s not yet clear when the same will happen this year – and the Historic Mode from last year has also been cut, leaving fewer ways to take in the classic content in the game.