Despite the fact that its once-brightest star sullied what we thought were superhuman achievements by admitting to a tissue of lies and drugs deceptions (and ruined a world-class cameo in Dodgeball into the bargain), sports of the two-wheeled, pedal-powered variety have never been more popular. With Great Britain dominating inside the velodrome and the likeable Sir Bradley Wiggins becoming the first Brit in aeons to win the Tour De France, anticipation for the 2013 race – the 100th Edition, no less – was pretty high, to say the least. The early stages have certainly proven to live up to the expectation with some spectacular twists, turns and crashes, and this year’s Edition looks set to capture the hearts and minds of bicycle fans the world over as it heads towards its climax.
Now cycling, as anyone who has ever owned a bike will tell you, can be arduous at the best of times. Personal memories of trying to pedal a Raleigh Chopper up a gradient not designed for such a bike notwithstanding, anyone knows that Le Tour is a punishing, and very lengthy, endurance test, participation in which is characterised by careful management of energy and close attention to pacing. The decision to turn this sport into a videogame is a strange choice to the casual observer, and while pro Cycling Manager vets Cyanide have done a pretty decent job of attempting to mimic certain aspects of the race which will undoubtedly appeal to die-hard Tour fans, it is highly unlikely that you will play a more brain-deadeningly tedious game this year.
Take the box art for starters – a rider clad in the famed yellow jersey cycles into an ominous, all-grey oblivion, above which hovers a disembodied head and a smoky grey outline of France. Dark clouds swell forebodingly in the distance. It marries some kind of existential cycling angst with the post apocalyptic horror of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Once you delve into the game, you realise how that guy on the cover must feel.
You get to select your rider – or even a whole team of riders, should you wish – from the full compliment of official names included with the license. Although he is taking a year off this time around – Wiggo’s Team Sky is present and correct, with pre-Tour favourite Chris Froome selectable. You are then plunged into a super-realistic depiction of the full, 21-stage Tour, all two thousand-odd miles of it. You can aim to win the whole thing outright – or go for one of the snazzy jerseys you can pick up, such as the splendidly named King of the Mountains pullover.
It is your job to help manage your charges, taking control of pedalling power, steering, gear changing, and maintaining energy levels. You decide when to sprint, when to slow down, when to use an attacking, aggressive approach. Playing as a team presents you with the plate-juggling prospect of issuing orders to your team-mates, as well as keeping an eye on the energy levels of a number of riders, and ensuring that correct tactics are employed. You can swap between individual riders, all of whom have different stats, strengths and weaknesses.
Each stage is laid out in the form of a pre-race summary, which tells you what kind of terrain you are set to face, so you can plan your route accordingly. The management aspect of things is admirably immersive. To a big fan of the sport or a veteran of the Pro Cycling Manager series this will be an enticing prospect, however to the layman it is far too difficult to get to grips with, and devolves into a frustrating experience. The lack of any real tutorial doesn’t help either – this is a deceptively complicated affair in spite of the relative simplistic and boring action. The Tour De France, and indeed sport of cycling as a whole, is complex and with a weighty set of rules and regulations – this isn’t just a few blokes riding around France on a jolly, it is one of the most prestigious endeavours of sporting accomplishment in the calendar. You wouldn’t expect a newcomer to pick up a similarly complicated sports title from scratch without some kind of hand holding – imagine entering the world of the NFL and attempting to understand it off the cuff.
Any racing title lives and dies by its gameplay, and whilst Le Tour is a significantly different experience with the unique race-management required, this is still being sold as a game that offers some of the thrill of taking part in a competitive race. When the gameplay involves simply holding down the right trigger with varying degrees of pressure, it soon becomes a lesson in abject tedium. You could argue that Formula 1 presents similar challenges in terms of lengthy spells of driving around the track – yet the sensation of speed and constant need to maintain control of an incredibly powerful vehicle is far more appealing to the man in the street. There is nothing exciting about this action, as you career through the French countryside, past the poorly rendered crowds that line the streets, and some particularly horrid looking cars and other vehicles. The sound effects are perfectly functional – with all of the clanking bike chains, barked orders and pedally sounds you would expect. Although poorly animated, the team uniforms and some individual likenesses are recognisable.
You will spend a lot of time looking at the metronomic rise and fall of other cyclists’ lycra-clad arses. But it is all just so boring and anodyne. Laughably, you can even hold down the right bumper and your bike guy will just follow the person in front, leaving you to handle gear changes and turns. Some sections are skippable. Even when something pulse-quickening occurs, such as a multi-bike pile-up, or an order to quicken the pace and break away from the pack – it is usually depicted so poorly that it just doesn’t make a jot of difference, or just doesn’t break up the monotony of the long distance cycling chore.
An option has been included to enjoy the fun in multiplayer – meaning you can enjoy the team based action with a friend, or even play through the course in split screen mode in direct competition – yet the game doesn’t really provide the kind of frenetic two player race-offs you would be able to find elsewhere.
VERDICT: It would be completely unfair to bury Tour De France in negativity, but it does have genuinely negative aspects that would be the bane of any title, such as some shoddy graphics, lack of tutorial, and most obviously a complete lack of genuine variety in the gameplay. Finding the sport itself boring is a case of horses for courses – some fans will love the realism of how decisions are made during the races and how riders are managed to maximise their energy over the duration of each stage.
It is just sad that when the sport is on the crest of a wave of popularity, Cyanide couldn’t have done something to make their simulation more appealing to the general populace. This could have been the inclusion of some more arcade-style elements, or even support for alternative control methods rather than just holding down the trigger – anything that doesn’t end up boiling everything you do down to careful and inanimate pressure applied with your index finger.
BAD. Ugly, lazy, and unpleasant, if we’ve scored a game so low then it has serious issues. A 3/10 game will suffer from a combination of uninspired, lacklustre design, unfixed bugs and poor presentation.