Pro Cycling Manager: Tour de France 2011 Review (PS3)

Le Tour de France is one of those events that either captures your imagination as a kid or simply passes you by for the entirety of your life, with news coverage of yellow jerseys and the “peloton” forever destined to be clouded in mystery and shunned to the background. Cycling is a spectator event that’s difficult to market at the best of times, and even its star attraction is a tough prospect for the most ardent of sports fans. The competitive field is vast, and - outside of Lance Armstrong - there have been few bankable stars in the modern era for the PR folk to hang an image on. Unless you catch the fever early, it’s difficult to penetrate to any meaningful degree.

Of course it shouldn’t be that way, and although general apathy towards the minute-by-minute action is understandable, the tour itself is one of the most gruelling sporting events on the planet, undertaken by mad men with a will to push the human body to the limits of stamina and performance. Over the course of its three weeks, the riders will cover over 2,200 miles across terrain ranging from flat countryside to climbs and descents that’d be tough enough to walk, let alone ride. Average times are calculated each day to award the quickest rider with the coveted yellow jersey, and the lowest aggregate time over the course of the race determines the winner as they reach the Champs-Élysées.

But how do you approach a cycling videogame and make it entertaining? Where the sport has been covered before in both button-bashing mini-game form and from a tactical management perspective, specialist French developer Cyanide has decided to approach the Le Tour de France 2011 with broad strokes along both flanks, combining a complex event simulation with micro-management of your individual rider’s performance as well as their team.

From a control perspective that roughly translates to managing stamina bars, monitoring heart rate and fatigue, choosing when to make your move and break away from the pack, how to get out of trouble, where to push an advantage and when to sit back and bide your time for an opportunity. Commands are issued with single button presses or held to increase speed or brake, and you don’t so much steer your rider as you do point them in the general direction you’d like to go. Precise control is handled by the engine and when you see the sheer size of the racing pack, it’s understandable as to why. The scale is enormous and the number of on-screen character models is more than impressive.

It’s a gentle, slow control rhythm that turns each section of the race into something to be calculated and schemed rather than reacted to; although you will need to get your hands dirty on occasion. Radio commands are available to manipulate the rest of your team, and it becomes quickly apparent that shooting for individual glory will get you nowhere fast. The pacing and tactics of the event are modelled to a fine degree here, so it may be best to spend your time shepherding team-mates to the front of the pack or controlling the pace of the chasers to allow a sprinter to come to the fore in the latter stages. Situations develop organically and require careful management to manipulate in your favour.

That realism stretches as far as the terrain too, with each of the stages carved into playable sections that showcase their most interesting features. Although the texturing is muddy and an obvious tradeoff in the visuals exists to cater for the 132-strong peloton, the countryside nevertheless speeds by at a decent framerate and without too much in the way of clipping or jank. It’s certainly no AAA title in production terms, but Cyanide’s budget engine is capable enough of maintaining a decent representation of its subject matter, which is more than satisfactory given the target audience is likely to be bringing its own enthusiasm to make up for the lack of polish.

But whilst those fans are going to be served to a decent degree by the simulation and attention to detail packed into the event, it’s unfortunate that everybody else will be left by the wayside with a crushing learning curve and complete lack of guidance.

Unfortunately Le Tour de France 2011 will be almost entirely impenetrable for a console generation weaned on comprehensive tutorials and constant helping hands, as it contains not a hint of either. In-game instruction is limited to a 19-page non-interactive set of badly-translated control screens that only serve to confuse, whilst even the basics of the sport aren’t explained to any degree whatsoever. There are no prompts or hints during the race, and even the mechanics of control have to be experimented with for a good half an hour to gain a solid footing. Layer on the thick spread of tactics that accompany each section, and you have a game that’s almost completely inaccessible but for the dedicated, the existing fans or the incredibly bored.

That’s an incredible shame, because with a huge amount of investment, there is a worthwhile and entertaining simulation underneath all of the confusion. Cyanide does a good job of wringing all the atmosphere out of the Tour that it can, and you get the feeling that with a bigger budget there may be a genuinely decent title to come out of the formula they’ve refined over generations of PC titles. It isn’t this one though, and the lack of assistance for new players is unforgivable no matter how much of the audience is knowledgeable. Simple mistakes to make, but comes at a heavy cost.

Best Game Moment: Figuring out how to play

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By steven101x1 (SI Member) on Jul 31, 2011
Graphics look amazing. Best game moment is priceless.