Monday, July 14, 2008

Pro Cycling Manager 2008 Review

Pro Cycling Manager 2008, developed by Cyanide Studio and published by Focus Home Interactive.
The Good: Interesting strategic gameplay, around 400 stages to choose from including the full Tour de France, comprehensive team career mode, fun and easy to join multiplayer, track racing adds some variety, course and rider editors
The Not So Good: Initially long load times, shallow tutorials don’t cover general race strategy or career mode, deliberate pace won’t appeal to some, repetitive commentary, minor bugs
What say you? You can’t find a more complete cycling management simulation, but it is quite a niche product: 6/8

The month of July brings Le Tour de France, a French phrase that means “I am the State.” The most prominent cycling event in the world features heart-pounding excitement and non-sexual uses of the world “peloton.” The Pro Cycling Manager series has been around for several iterations since the first game in 2001, showing the European obsession with both sports management games and cycling. Rather than doing all of the cycling yourself, Pro Cycling Manager puts you in charge of a team of riders that will work together to finish well and bring in huge stacks of cash. I downloaded the demo of last year’s version so I am somewhat familiar with the game, and as both a sports fan and a strategy gamer I find the premise interesting. Will Pro Cycling Manager 2008 race to a podium finish, or crash in a spectacular display of ineptitude?

The graphics are improved over last year’s, featuring almost believable terrain and quality rider animations. While the bikes look somewhat out of place with 2-D tires, the riders look good with some fancy lighting effects and a pack of cyclists is visually impressive. The locales are generated automatically according to the 2-D height profile, so France looks the same as Georgia and Australia, but there is some variety in the towns and crops you will travel through. I’m not expecting accurate geography, especially when the game includes 400 stages from around the world, but having region-specific graphics would be nice. Obviously these improved graphics come at a price, as the system requirements have been increased, so low-end machines might have trouble with the 3-D races. Pro Cycling Manager 2008 does feature some very long load times: you can wait upwards of several minutes before jumping into the race. Fortunately, the game does cache each locale for future use, if you so happen to visit the same stage. Of course, with 400 stages to choose from, this feature is somewhat superfluous. The sound design is just average: some generic background music (which I quickly turned down) and the incessant whine of bicycles dominate the title. The commentary in the game is annoyingly loud, abrupt, and repetitive, consisting of ten phrases total (I don’t know how the commentary folder has almost 2,000 files, because the game certainly doesn’t use them all). At least almost every rider is mentioned by name. Overall, I found the graphics and sound of Pro Cycling Manager 2008 to be pleasant enough, though, as the game does a good enough job of immersing you into the gameplay.

In Pro Cycling Manager 2008, you are the manager of a pro cycling team (imagine that!), no doubt in the year 2008. The game features some very basic tutorials that only touch on the basics of the game, such as counter-attacks and setting the pace. More advanced maneuvers, in addition to navigating through the career mode, are only covered in the manual, and we all know reading is for suckers. The tutorial also doesn't tell you basic race strategy for those unaccustomed to cycling (such as myself) who may not know when is a good time to attack during a race. The manual also references a non-existent blue bar on occasion, adding to the confusion. Once thing Pro Cycling Manager 2008 does not lack is racing content. The game features around 65 multi-stage races (the game calls them “stages,” which is really confusing since I thought they are made up of stages), 400 individual stages (which the game calls “stage races”) from those events, and over 80 classic stages from the past. All of these stages have seemingly authentic elevation information that results in quite a large variety of strategy. In addition to classic road-course-based racing, Pro Cycling Manager 2008 adds in track racing against other drivers (like in the Olympics) where you directly control one competitor's effort level and steering. It's a nice diversion from the main focus of the game and typically results in some exciting, close racing.

If the default content isn't enough, Pro Cycling Manager 2008 features a couple of editors that allow you to create custom riders (for filling out the few missing real-world riders) and races from existing events. You can also edit stages yourself, since they are simple XML files, so the game is really quite unlimited in its potential. The career mode lets you control a single team on its way to world domination. You will have to control your finances by signing sponsors and adjusting rider contracts, scout new talent around the globe, and improve your existing squad by running training camps. There is certainly enough here to keep you busy for quite a while if you are more interested in a longer experience. Also, Pro Cycling Manager 2008 uses an outside program (by the same developer) for multiplayer matches that are both fun and easy to join. It's always better to play against unpredictable human opponents rather than the boring ol' AI, so it's nice to see well-implemented multiplayer.

So the features are robust, how about the gameplay? The races of Pro Cycling Manager 2008 play out like a simple strategy game where you, as team director, will instruct your riders when to attack and when to conserve. Before each race, you will need to assign a team leader, team-mates to back him up, a sprinter for capturing points, and free riders to do their own thing. During the race, each driver will be given a maximum effort level and an order. You won't actually control any rider directly (except in the track racing mode), but the AI will follow your orders well. Orders include holding position, applying a specific effort level, relaying to the front of the pack, feeding, attacks, counter-attacks, and sprints. While this isn’t a whole lot to choose from and you don’t have the direct control over your riders that a lot of micromanagers would like, it is enough to run a race. Each rider has three energy bars: green for the entire race, yellow for high-speed sections, and red for attacks. In order to break away from the peloton (the gigantic group of riders where almost everyone hangs out), you'll need to have almost full yellow and red bars. The strategy comes in when you attack: you have to consider how much energy an attack will use (your rider will not be able to hold a fast pace for the entire race), the upcoming geography (attacking on a hill is tough), your rider's stats (some are better on flat sections), and other factors. It's pretty interesting, I think, since most of the tracks don't have obvious places to attack and the races play out differently each time. The peloton will also increase its pace near the end of the race, so you don’t want to wait too long to launch an attack. The AI does a good job offering up varied attacks, but they can be beaten if you execute a sound strategy. Your computer opponents also do a good job at being conservative in the first couple of stages of an event and going for it all later on when it counts. It took me a couple of races to find out how often and how hard you can attack (since the tutorials and manual don't really cover this), but once I got the hang of it, Pro Cycling Manager 2008 provided some good action. You have more options during sprints (adjusting aggressiveness), but in general you will be simply messing with hold, go to front, or attack commands. Reacting to other riders and planning out your race can be quite fun, if you enjoy these kinds of games. Thankfully, the game does not unfold in real time (even at the slowest setting), and you can accelerate the game even further in single player mode to get past those boring times when you aren't planning anything. Pro Cycling Manager 2008 does suffer from some sporadic bugs, such as deleting messages and adjusting efforts when multiple riders are selected, but these aren't major by any means.

Pro Cycling Manager 2008 is designed well, but you have to like cycling to enjoy the game to its fullest. Because of this, I think Pro Cycling Manager 2008 lacks the widespread appeal that would bring newcomers to the series that aren't already accustomed to the sport, but maybe the Tour de France will drum up interest and bring some more fans into the fold. What you get in Pro Cycling Manager 2008 is a fine elementary strategy game where you must decide the right time for an attack. Although your options are realistically limited since you can't directly control your riders, the limited options of attack and hold makes the game easy to learn, even with the inadequate tutorial and manual. The game certainly has a lot of content, with over 400 races to choose from, including the granddaddy of them all, and the roster of cyclists seems to be pretty complete as well. The addition of track racing is neat as well, and it’s a highlight of the overall package thanks to its interesting mechanics. While the sound design is unimpressive, the graphics are good enough to a sports management title. If you are looking for a complete cycling game, then Pro Cycling Manager 2008 is for you. However, the unique focus makes the game a little tough to recommend to a widespread audience.