Thursday, July 28, 2011

Pro Cycling Manager 2011 Review

Pro Cycling Manager 2011, developed by Cyanide Studio and published by Focus Home Interactive.
The Good: Tons of detailed content plus editors for even more, sponsor goals give direction, enjoyable multiplayer, time acceleration or fully simulated events speed things up, excellent graphics
The Not So Good: Overwhelmingly minor improvements, vague interface lacks tool-tips, no tutorials or strategy guide, poor sound design
What say you? The latest Tour de France tie-in is generally indistinguishable from its annual predecessors: 5/8

The Tour de France (or, in its native tongue, “L'État, c'est moi”) dominates obscure cable sports networks every July, bringing its special brand of doping-fueled pedal-to-pedal racing. As with most sports, a computer game adaptation is inevitable, and Pro Cycling Manager returns with its eleventh entry for 2011 (actually using the year it was released in the title…what a novel idea!). This particular sport is more strategic than action-oriented, as you must position your riders in the best place for their attributes and the course layout to win the race. I last played the series in 2008, so I say it’s time for an update, especially with the promise of 3-D riders, better AI, and an improved interface. Does Pro Cycling Manager 2011 capture the yellow jersey, or crash in a massive pileup?

The most appealing aspect of Pro Cycling Manager 2011 is the graphics, which look spectacular. The riders are animated well and look almost photo-realistic, with identifiable team colors and superb textures. More significant are the tracks, which are filled to the brim with objects like trees, power lines, buildings, mountains, authentic distance markers, and all the other things you see along the Tour. The crowds come to life as you pass by, almost making you feel like you’re actually watching a real race. One complaint: riders seem to float around each other when passing, especially laterally, but other than that, the graphics are excellent. All of this 3-D splendor comes at a price, however, as load times for the races are a bit lengthy. The sound design is much less impressive, with sporadic, repetitive commentary that occasionally says rider names and terrible generic music doesn’t fit theme at all; I was pretty disappointed with this part of the game. Still, the graphics clearly offset any shortcomings involved with the sound design.

You can’t fault Pro Cycling Manager 2011 for a lack of content, although, to be fair, most of the content has been around for several years. The game is officially licensed, which means you are going to get the real riders and real teams on the real stages. There are several ways to cycle through the game (see what I did there?). The first is the career mode, where you are the general manager of a team of your choice, responsible with securing sponsorship, interacting with riders, balancing the checkbook, hiring staff, and scouting new cyclists. You sponsor has specific goals they want reached in every race (win, top five, points leader), which is great for figuring out what’s appropriate success for your organization; nobody expects you to win the Tour de France with the worst team in the game, so having realistic goals for each team is nice. The actual riders are rated in thirteen areas, from mountain performance to recovery and acceleration. These are used to determine rider type (fighter, climber, stage racer) and which contract type is most appropriate for their level of skill (from leader to youth). Training and healing your riders is done automatically, the quality of which is determined by the rating of your staff. Entering races and marching up the rankings while appeasing your sponsors can be fun.

Pro Cycling Manager 2011 doesn’t stop at the career mode, however. If you are in for a shorter experience, you can play single seasons where you can set the calendar and points system, one of sixty-five single tours (confusingly called stage races), a single stage from a stage race, of which there are over five hundred, eighty classic races, or seven track events with seven different modes where you control the rider directly. You can also alter the bike equipment used by your cyclists, if a particular stage is more in the mountains or flat. Multiplayer is a fun feature of the game, allowing you to play single stages or entire seasons online against human competition. You can even create your own riders, teams, and stages using the included editors. While Pro Cycling Manager 2011 has exhaustive features, one thing it lacks is a tutorial. Conspicuously absent (especially since there was a tutorial in the 2008 version of the game, the game offers no guidance to new players on how to play the game or what strategies to use. What is a competitive energy level? When should I sprint or attack? The game nor the manual never tell you, so unless you are a cycling aficionado, the strategic learning curve for Pro Cycling Manager 2011 is steep for newcomers.

Cycle time! You are given three options to simulate a stage: a quick simulation, a detailed simulation, or a 3-D race. For the simulation options, you can specify the race roles for each rider and specific instructions like ride in breakaways, sprint for the climber’s or points jersey, lead a teammate, or chase the breakaway. And then it’s just a matter of pressing the “next” button and scream at the terrible results for your team you had no influence on. The more hands-on approach is to play out the races in full 3-D glory. The interface is the same as before, with your riders listed along the left with icons to press to make orders, a side view of the route showing sprint locations and terrain, and times to the adjacent groups of riders. The interface needs some work, however, as there are hardly any tool-tips when you hover over things (what’s this yellow bar for?) and the pre-race strategies aren’t displayed for each rider. Remember who your sprinter was? You better, because the game isn’t going to tell you.

Basically, Pro Cycling Manager 2011 boils down to attacking at the right time (I think; again, no tutorial). Each rider has an overall energy level, plus ones for the extended efforts (so that’s what the yellow bar is for!) and attacks. You have to time when to attack, so you aren’t surrounded by riders who will impede your progress while having teammates help to keep you ahead. Each rider gets a semi-random in-game performance adjustment to make things a but more unpredictable, which I find to be an interesting feature. You don’t control any of the riders directly, but can adjust effort percentage and issue orders like keep position, relay, attack, counter-attack, sprint, follow, or protect. You’ll also need somebody to feed your teammates once or twice a stage. The race physics means you can’t go through other riders, so you’ll have to keep an eye out for blockers when starting to mount an attack. Time acceleration is available to speed through those dull portions of the race (some would argue that’s 100% of the time), and the AI plays the game well and attacks frequently and effectively. Still, there is a strong sense of déjà vu. Is Pro Cycling Manager 2011 a good cycling simulation? Yes. Was it a great cycling simulation already? Yes. And I can’t recommend spending money on almost entirely the same product we see year after year. I know I would have regretted paying for this newest version considering I have one of the predecessors.

Pro Cycling Manager 2011 is peppered with incremental changes that add up to a mediocre annual edition. The bottom line is that most of the content was already present three years ago, negating the need to spend $40 more on a supposedly new version. Just looking at the numbers from my previous review hits you with a lot of “the same”: the same number of races (though there are a ton of them), the same career mode, the same rider commands, the same multiplayer, the same editors. The interface is identical as well, and it still lacks tool-tips for most of the small icons and bars, in addition to leaving off important things like rider types and contract specifications during a race (so you could remember who the team leader and sprinters are, for example). The AI is apparently improved, although I couldn’t see a major difference, being a cycling novice. The tutorials have actually been removed completely, leaving new players befuddled as to proper cycling strategy. The lone bright spot of Pro Cycling Manager 2011 is the graphics, which are outstanding. Still, I would imagine few people would want to spend $40 on upgraded visuals when the rest of the game is exactly the same. In the end, Pro Cycling Manager 2011 falls into the pit that so many annual sports titles do: the changes (or lack thereof, in this particular case) do not justify a full price.