Though they once managed to team up with Electronic Arts and push out the magnificent motorcycle simulator Superbike 2001 to near unanimous praise, a title that came after establishing themselves as a very competent developer team in the late 1990’s with Screamer Rally, the Milestone we know now is unfortunately very different than the Milestone of old. Pushing out game after game sporting a surprisingly large variety of official licenses most of us aren’t quite sure how they managed to obtain in the first place, four World Rally Championship releases and a collection of decidedly average MotoGP titles lucky to receive more than a single patch gave Milestone a justifiably poor reputation within our favorite genre. Boasting more ambition than technical prowess, racers like Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo, the original Ride, and Valentino Rossi: The Game were discussed in sim communities not for their willingness to innovate on what’s a very rigid and concrete brand of games, but for widespread technical & performance issues, the developer’s inability to support the titles after launch, and the feeling that Milestone were doing just enough to have a minimum viable product out on store shelves.
Because of this, it was exceptionally hard to get excited over MXGP3 when select websites started to talk about it, and the announcement that we’d see Milestone’s officially licensed motocross racer move over to Unreal Engine 4 didn’t give a lot of people faith that this time, things would be different. Known for the challenges in getting the software to achieve a stable framerate, Rally Evo struggled to maintain 30 FPS on Sony’s PlayStation 4 in clear, daylight conditions, so it was hard to see the other team from Italy getting a firm grasp on the newest iteration of the Unreal Engine, not to mention building a semi-competent game around it – especially as the prior two MXGP releases were stiff, lifeless dirt bike simulators that were incredibly hard to stomach.
Yet now that the game is out in the wild, by some act of God, Milestone have actually gone out and pulled it off; the results being nothing short of spectacular. Their absolute finest hour as a developer, MXGP3 is easily the all-around best dirt bike game that has ever been made for modern video game consoles. Though the subject matter of focusing on a predominantly European motocross series may make things difficult for those who are unfamiliar with any kind of two-wheeled off-road racing aside from the Monster Energy AMA Supercross championship, sim racers who brave the initial unfamiliarity will find a motocross game with virtually no show-stopping flaws; uncharacteristically competent for Milestone. The final product is enjoyable not just because Milestone have seemingly gotten their act together after years of mediocrity and it’s a nice story to see them knock one out of the park, but also due to the fact that there’s just so much shit to do in-game, and everything is complimented by a physics model that balances realism with accessibility.
The biggest problem motocross games have traditionally exhibited over the years, is the unwillingness of developers to see the sport of motorcycle racing in anything other than black and white as it pertains to the overall riding physics. You’re either leaping over barns or canyons in a single bound, running flat-out around even the most treacherous of circuit layouts – think the MX vs. ATV Series – or just staying on the bike for more than a few corners is an exercise in frustration – as seen in the ultra-hardcore MX Simulator. There has never been a happy medium that implies motocross is just like any other form of motorsport; yes, you’re making these huge leaps five, six, maybe even seven times per lap, but there’s also multiple corner lines, braking points, and – wait for it – even throttle management.
MXGP3 introduces us to that happy medium. There is no rider balance mechanism as seen in MX Simulator – so the hardcore guys might be a bit put off – but the separated bike and rider controls first perfected in MX vs. ATV Reflex return here, along with buttons for both front and rear brakes, giving you a pretty diverse level of control over your virtual avatar and his steel horse. With a rather convincing set of physics powering the whole thing – a change that’s highly appreciated compared to the stiff physics of the first two iterations – bikes feel nimble yet weighty, and you’ll find yourself experimenting with a combination of braking styles and pedal inputs to free the bike up on corner entry.
Corner exit, however, is where MXGP3 shines, as throttle management is absolutely necessary to contain wheel spin in the 450’s and generate the most amount of rear end grip; the back tire wandering around under your avatar’s ass and your speed clearly being affected if you get it wrong. Jumping physics no longer feel like there’s a child’s hand grabbing your bike and carrying it through the air as they did in the last game; there’s now some satisfaction in getting a massive run at a ramp and setting off on a nice arc through the air, though track layouts encourage rolling jumps with partial throttle and landing the bike perfectly on the downward portion of the ramp to maximize your time on the ground. If you’re used to the MX vs. ATV series and ripping around at top speed, it’s a vastly different experience that takes some practice and skill building, but once you understand what MXGP3 wants from you, it’ll be very hard to go back.
But it’s in the weather effects and terrain deformation where MXGP3 kicks all sorts of ass, and it really serves to complete the experience.
We’ve been subjected to dynamic dirt for about ten years now, starting with Sega Rally Revo in 2007 before arriving in the aforementioned MX/ATV series (with even iRacing and PiBoSo getting into the fray), but like with Milestone’s new riding physics, MXGP3 strikes another happy medium when it comes to how the tracks get torn up with each passing lap. The moment bikes start to turn laps under practice, qualifying, or race conditions, a hunt for grip begins; riders slip and slide all over the place through the center of the corner, and I found part of the fun in MXGP3 to be wandering around in corners looking for that key rut to turn the bike, and when a corner had been completely beaten to shit, letting the bike wander around in the mess to see where it naturally stabilized. It’s not over-exaggerated like the MX/ATV series, where giant canyons would form in the corners, nor is it a visual gimmick like in Sega Rally ’07; to me it both looks and feels a lot like Sprint Car racing, just on two wheels. You’re always keeping your eyes on the dirt and moving around to discover for any extra bit of traction.
And of course, the viscosity and general characteristics of the dirt are subject to change, all thanks to Milestone’s stellar implementation of dynamic weather. While I felt the first season of career mode featured just a few too many wet-weather events to show off what they’ve done to their environments, at the end of the day the riding experience is so enjoyable in adverse conditions I found it hard to consider a negative aspect. MXGP3 is a blast in the rain, with the dirt being just slick enough to generate slightly longer braking points and require careful use of the throttle, but never to the extent where it’s actively trying to kill you or is somehow exponentially more difficult than riding on a dry race track – which is what happens in most tarmac racing games. Milestone’s weather can also change over the course of a race, with an overcast event producing a sudden downpour as you click off the laps met with an equally tangible change in the level of grip, but sim racers need not worry – the underlying riding experience is so fun and intuitive, you certainly don’t dread storm clouds by any stretch of the imagination.
Thankfully, the solid riding experience has been paired with an equally competent roster of AI competitors, though I’d like there to be a touch more consistency in their performance. The AI on Realistic difficulty in MXGP3 are formidable opponents, blasting around the track without any external assistance or bullshit tweaks on the part of Milestone to make them on-par with the player’s skill level, but it seems as if their capabilities only rise to the occasion every second or third event. I’ve played through two complete seasons in career mode (one in both classes), and while some events would provide me with absolutely fantastic races that came down to the final jump (literally), others I would sweep the Grand Prix weekend totally uncontested once I took the lead. I also found that the AI put up a much better fight in the GP1 category compared to GP2, meaning the first season in career mode might turn into a bit of a grind for avid motocross fans who pick up the riding controls rather quickly.
But when they’re on, dear God they’re amazing to battle with. I’m hoping Milestone choose to support this title with more than just a single patch, as I’d like this experience to carry across every race, not just one in every three races.
Tying this all together for some sense of purpose and progression within MXGP3 would be the game’s career mode. Though I refuse to label what Milestone have built as expansive – considering you’re just playing through seasons while earning cash in various ways – the mode is surprisingly detailed in how you’re allowed to conquer the MXGP calendar as you see fit. After a handful of preseason exhibition races, you’re given a cash allowance and a starter bike of your choice to tackle your first season in the 250cc support class, gaining XP and cash with every race, which either allows you to upgrade your current bike, purchase a new ride, acquire sponsors for your independent team (generating a hefty XP bonus for campaigning under your own operation) or sign with any of the teams in either MXGP class – which rewards you with a factory bike and complimentary team jersey. As you can probably guess, the more assists you disable in the career options menu, in combination with winning a fair bit, and it becomes pretty easy to rocket up the ladder and have the likes of Red Bull KTM or Monster Kawasaki offering you a spot in the premier series provided you’re not shit at pretend dirt bikes.
It’s very simple in theory, but what MXGP3 gets right about this is in the way the game issues team objectives and calculates your rider XP. Initially, it’s very easy to earn XP with any of the entry level independent sponsors or riding for a backmarker team, as you’re basically expected to score points and not make a complete ass of yourself out on the race track. However, after becoming a championship threat, XP is only handed out – and in some cases subtracted from your rider level for failing to meet the requirements – if you sweep the race weekend; meaning it’s actually possible to lose your spot on the team. This is partially why I advocate for Milestone to bump up the AI difficulty a notch or two, as the dynamic of team owners steadily increasing their demands, combined with reputation being able to decline after a string of bad performances, would create an environment where you would float from team to team in a natural career arc of a real rider.
As you’d expect, bike and rider customization play some kind of prominent role in MXGP3’s career mode, with your independent entry boasting a pretty solid array of both visual and performance upgrades to help create something that’s unique to you and your team. While the variety of upgrades is pretty spectacular, personally I found that the customization options were far too inexpensive for the amount of prize money the game would toss you after each race, and it was to the point where I had several hundred thousand in my account just sort of sitting there after two championships in career mode, with not a lot to spend it on despite building a pair of fully upgrade bikes in both classes. You end up reaching an end-game point very quickly.
This is partially due to the fact that a stock bike with no performance upgrades is capable of winning races on the highest difficulty (and of course, if you sign with a team, you’re riding something even faster) so your prize money just sort of pools until you’re bored enough to customize some bikes. Again, Milestone patching the game to feature slightly faster AI would mean you wouldn’t be winning as many races, therefore not reeling in as much cash, not acquiring top level sponsors within just a single season, and as a result there would be some importance to financial management, but unfortunately that all relies on Milestone patching the game more than once – which they’re not exactly great at doing.
There are also some odd limitations placed on the user in the customization menus; jersey names are limited to just six characters (I was forced to roleplay as Kyle Larson), while jersey numbers are placed on a slider, forcing you to sit there and manually scroll for ages if you want something in the 400’s or 500’s.
Yet for all it gets oh so very right, the trademark Milestone slip-ups are still present; the sign of a development team shooting for the moon and landing somewhere in the Nevada desert. At the moment, selecting any event type in career mode other than the basic two race weekend sans qualifying ends up skipping to the next race weekend after the qualifying or practice sessions have concluding, glitching the absolute shit out of the game. I’ve ran into a bug in an online session where the camera remains locked at the starting gate (above), even as the gate drops and your bike rockets off the grid – and I think it affected more than just myself as another user in the room also seemed to wander aimlessly in the background as my own rider had been doing. Your online experience will definitely vary, as my first win was acquired not by beating a guy fair and square, but merely running within a few bike widths of someone and handing them a vicious netcode shunt, though in viewing YouTube streams from the MX gaming community it appears a smooth online session is certainly possible. There’s also the horrible generic dubstep polluting the menus, and a V-Sync option that cripples the performance of the game, so here’s a little tip: turn it off.
Oh, and rear wheels visually don’t spin at the proper speed. It’s kind of a mindfuck when you first notice it.
But for these slip ups, there are also signs Milestone genuinely wanted to push out something spectacular year. There’s a testing compound for you to ride at your leisure, including a mock Supercross layout that may possibly hint at Milestone acquiring the official Monster Energy AMA Supercross license for a future release, and in turning laps, I’d be more than pleased to have these riding physics – and the good performances of the AI – in a selection of content I’m much more familiar with. There’s a set of riding tutorials, a special nations championship that’s separate from the main career mode, some kind of basic photo mode, and generic bike setup functionality – though what comes with the bikes by default is certainly more than enough to go all the way in career mode.
The biggest hurdle to overcome with MXGP3, is simply the content offered. If you live in North America and are looking for a modern motocross game after several years of MX vs. ATV withdrawals, nothing within MXGP3 is recognizable save for the season-ending events at Charlotte, Assen, & Glen Helen, sponsors, and of course, the bike manufacturers themselves. The physics obviously make learning the tracks fairly enjoyable, but you’re still looking at sixteen circuits you’ve never heard of before – many of which are hard to fall in love with; the MXGP calendar visits many empty fields in Mexico, Argentina, and Thailand – a far cry from iconic locations such as the Daytona Speedway infield, Washougal, or Red Bud.
But unlike most Milestone products, those willing to brave the vast unfamiliarity will find a very solid motocross racer in MXGP3; an occasional lapse in the AI’s otherwise blistering pace pace, and one glitch in career mode that can be avoided by skipping qualifying sessions, are not nearly enough to derail what’s otherwise a fantastic package with no major faults. I would certainly prefer Milestone to bring things stateside and acquire the AMA license, but even with the obscure content placed front and center MXGP3, the overall pretend dirt bike experience is extremely difficult to find any substantial issues with. This is easily the best motocross game that has been released in quite some time, and provided Milestone can properly support MXGP3 – both with patches and additional downloadable content – we’re looking at a definite turning point in the two wheeled portion of our genre. It’s really good, and easily Milestone’s best work in the history of the company.