Last year we at The Digital Fix donned our lycra and challenged ourselves to compete in - and complete - the one-hundredth edition of the world’s most famous cycling race, the Tour de France. Whilst we came nowhere near winning the General Classification, we scored some points victories along the way, getting near to one of the coloured jerseys. This year Cyanide Studios and Focus Home Interactive have upped the ante by delivering a PlayStation 4 version of this premier cycling game. The question is does it build on last year’s solid entry to deliver something more worthy of the yellow jersey?
On first impressions you’d be forgiven for wondering if the developers planned for this to be on the latest batch of consoles, rather than again the old school ones. The front-end is its same tedious self with very basic menus and graphical layouts. Loading is slow and navigation is fairly unintuitive. You do notice some new options though thanks to there being a highlighted ‘new’ by these particular choices. Warm-up is one of these novelties and it indeed does what it says on the tin; it warms you the player up to the game and its particular requirements. It’s a tutorial mode then, but one gratefully received given the paucity of support given to folks previously, in a game where the majority would need substantial education - after all there aren’t many cycling games around and despite the best efforts of people around the world, knowledge around cycling - and road racing specifically - as a sport is minimal.
The tutorial itself shows that nothing much has changed from last year, but the fact it explains all of what that is is a massive boon to newcomers and old-hands alike. So again you control one of the nine riders on your chosen team. You navigate a stage from start to end, or via simulation. If controlling your rider you have to manage stamina and your attack power to try and get through the stage as per your target - be that winning points in the sprints, staying atop the King of the Mountains competition, or taking that stage victory. You pick one rider but can leverage your team as in real life to help make that objective of choice more achievable. You can ask your teammates to relay with you, reducing the effort your rider need exert. You can ask them to chase down riders that attack, or attack themselves. You can do everything that happens in real life, basically. You yourself in riding hold R2 to peddle, L1 changes your gear ratio and mashing X makes you attack. Circle is what brings up your team menu enabling instructions to go out.
All the options are there then and when you graduate from the warm-up to racing you have a good deal of choice here as well to better enable that winning push. You can go ahead and race through just the automatically picked seven stages, or add as many as you like up to the full and gruelling twenty-one. You can go on a reccy of each stage, or part thereof, beforehand too if you’d like - it’s encouraged if you want to define your race strategy ahead of the real thing. It’s a real shame that the racing itself has so many problems, then. First of all despite the fact the developers have implemented this year’s race plan, i.e. you start in Yorkshire and head to Paris via Cambridge and London, the stage scenery is so very bland and generic. It kind of takes the fun out of the fact that you’re racing (perhaps) through that town you know well. The racing itself is hard to get to grips with. You can execute what seems a near-perfect plan and still end up flailing well-behind the key challengers for the GC. We picked Team Sky in our first go and rode as Chris Froome for the majority of the rides. Yet in one mountainous stage where we picked the right food to sustain our stamina and attack energy - and used it at the right time, with no blow-outs or anything all the way to the end - we still came in a couple of minutes behind Contador, despite being the only rider who could match his skills. Whilst this could be that we did something wrong there was no useful feedback or suggestions as such. You do have your race manager screaming at you throughout your ride but it’s scripted guff that often has no relation to what’s going on at the time.
Fortunately if you really are getting irritated at the lack of success and lack of understanding as to the root cause, you can fast forward the stage, or basically simulate it. This can be a good way to mop up some of the trophies anyway given racing properly through a whole tour is almost as gruelling as the real thing. It’s also a good way to get over the paucity of graphical flair. We checked if it really was any better than last year’s PS3 version in terms of visual quality as we didn’t really think it was. The fact the game engine has had a graphical upgrade is distressing given it’s still full of mirrored rider models, animations with fewer frames than it should and a crowd which is befitting of a sporting event the magnitude of a school sports day rather than the magical road race which this really is. It looks and sounds ok in the end, but ok is pretty damning and after a while you’ll get very bored of anything on screen in terms of optical feedback.
Interestingly we have this year a new game mode, Pro mode, which is clearly influenced by EA’s Fifa Be a Pro mode. You start off with a team of low-skilled riders and you race the tour, winning prize money along the way - more when you achieve certain objectives. You can then hire new riders and go again the next year. Well, go again on the same tour but a second time with your new-look team. Do this often enough and succeed and you can build the definitive selection. This mode comes with leaderboards so you can compare yourself to folks around the world and any of your friends who happen to own the game also. It’s a nice alternative to just racing Le Tour and works pretty well, even if its racing mechanics are still the same. We also have split-screen versus mode in case you want to prove to your mates that you are a superior time-trialist.
For cycling fans this is an appealing title despite its flaws. It gets the idea of real road-racing across and does incorporate the same kinds of strategies your heroes do in real life. Unfortunately as a game though it’s limited. It’s hard to learn despite better tutorial efforts this time around, and one stage to another adds very little variety (even with time trials interspersed throughout). The presentation is very basic and shows the budget limitations in effect. But it needs to be applauded for delivering anything approaching actual cycling and for improving itself in multiple areas since last year’s effort. One for the fans only again, but there’s no better time for a fan to submit their entry.