Saturday, September 15, 2007

Review - ProCyclingManager 2007, the demo

Somewhere, somehow, I learned of Pro Cycling Manager 2007. Basically the player is a team director, running a team that is racing. A few weeks ago I downloaded the demo which has only one team (Predictor-Lotto) and one race - the 8th stage of the 2007 Tour.

As the director, you're responsible for selecting equipment. You can select it to optimize either flats, climbing, or something else, I think time trialing, but there are no sponsor allegiances - you can use any front and rear wheel with no fear of losing sponsorship (at least in the demo).

Tactically, you can have your racers work for one another, attack, counter, chase, or simply sit in. There's a couple sprint buttons but with no real sprint in the demo stage, I didn't get a chance to experiment with them.

I didn't see anything on feeding (from a feed zone or a car), about support cars in general (how do I fix a flat?), or giving bottles to one another (which then gets into how you feed).

The initial install took a while (I put it on two machines - two hyperthreaded 2.8 Ghz, both with excessive RAM and somewhat vanilla video cards. The disconcerting bit was a period of time where nothing appeared on the screen.

Starting the game takes a while too. First you have to "start" it, i.e. get into the game. Then, after you go through your pre-race preparatory steps, the game has to load the "environment" for the particular game. This takes a long time. Perhaps a faster drive (I have both SATA and IDE drives) would speed things up. Regardless, I feel like I'm back in the old days when you kick something off, go make a cup of coffee, come back, and sip and savor your bean drink while you watch a whirly gig cursor or dots march across your screen.

Speaking of which, I need some java right about now.


See, you couldn't even tell I went and brewed up a nice cuppa light and sweet.

Man you must have a fast machine.

Back to the game.

Once you actually get into the game interface (i.e. it finished loading and you're sipping some nice java), you have a few options. The important ones are the Tutorials and the Stage. I also learned it's good to review the manual.

Tutorials give you barely any info unless you read the manual first. I didn't so I sort of floundered in them. However, they're so straightforward it's almost as if the game designers were afraid to challenge the gamer.

The Stage starts off with some background info - the previous stage's results, who's in what place, and what the upcoming day looks like. For the imaginary 8th stage in this Tour, you want to keep your new upstart Van Huffel in the yellow. As a distraction, Cadel Evans wants to try and win the stage and take some time from his rivals (without taking the yellow from Van Huffel).

The stage starts off with some minor climbs. I found out that when your racers start to hurt, their heart rate skyrockets (all your racers heart rates are visible to you) and they turn yellow and red in effort.

On the first minor climb, one of my racers immediately went into the red, heart rate blasting into the 190s while everyone else was still in the 160s. I was wondering who the heck this horrible racer was as I tried to read the unfamiliar format down the column of names. So Mister Red Heart would be.... Robbie McEwen.

The Sprinter.

Della Casa, so to speak.

Of course.

Nothing like when a game mirrors real life, especially for me.

As one accustomed to being in such a situation, I quickly let McEwen ease up. He managed to hang on for the first few climbs but finally popped on the longest climb of the day. I got so absorbed in making sure he didn't get dropped alone that I left four guys (including Van Huffel, which I didn't realize) doing a rotating paceline, driving the field, for more than half the stage.

For the demo, remember that your primary objective is to keep your guy Van Huffel in the yellow. So putting him at the front in a rotating paceline is, well, not tactically sound. The secondary is to try and win the stage.

The first game I played was a disaster with McEwen somehow finishing with a bunch of my climbers (who'd all blown after slaving away at the front). I suppose the fact that Van Huffel finished ahead of them meant Van Huffel had a good day, not that I played him smartly.

The second game I let Van Huffel simply maintain his position about 5 guys from the front, assigned everyone to protect him (save McEwen, Horner, and Evans, the latter two working together), and he kept the yellow. I even had Evans attack at the end but I ended up pushing him so hard he lost a lot of time at the finish.

The third game I used everyone up, allowed McEwen to ride in the autobus on his own, and used up the flat landers up till the middle of the big climb. Finally I put Horner and one other guy at the front, Van Huffel just behind, and tried attacking with Cadel a couple times. Cadel couldn't stay away (I don't know the subtleties of gauging their efforts so I almost blew him up, then I made him slow down too much so that the field caught him). This was the first game where Evans and Van Huffel were in the lead pack but it splintered going up the last climb, Moreau won by two minutes, and both Evans and Van Huffel blew sky high and lost tons of time.

So I managed to meet one of the goals in one of the games I played. Of course, in real life, my whole team would have been cooked for the next day, but this is a one day demo, right?

There are elements of PCM I like. For example, you get to select your team's equipment, with up to three "load outs" possible. Each selection (frame, front wheel, rear wheel, helmet) is rated for its help in climbing, time trialing, and flats. I'm not sure what the numbers mean but if you hit 50 for any of the categories, that's about as high as you get. I haven't figured out if things make a big difference. In the first game I played I "optimized" some guys for pulling on the flats but I couldn't tell if it made a difference. So the second and third games I selected the second load out ("C2") which is optimized for climbing.

Another thing I like is the accuracy in how the field positions itself, how it takes form. When you send your guys to the front, you'll recognize the way the pack reorganizes itself. There's also a good "autobus", the pack of racers that simply want to finish within the time cut.

Of course game lacks some things.

From a cycling perspective, the demo doesn't offer much. In it, due to the fact that the race has no real sprint, I wasn't able to see if I could set up McEwen for the sprint until the third game I played.

The racers, when moving up or back, meld through racers in the way. No bumping or whatever. There seems to be logic to it - when the field is bunched up you can't meld your way through it, but it's still sort of annoying to see others "ghost" right through your guys. This didn't prevent about four riders from crashing in the second game but I was paying too close attention to my Evans/Van Huffel tactics I didn't check out the crash itself.

The racers have a few set actions or motions - pedaling easy, pedaling hard, climbing out of the saddle, drinking, and sprinting. No variations to speak of.

The timeline is accelerated (I wasn't sitting for 6 hours per stage) but there's no way to slow it down to anything near real life. You have to hit pause to issue a lot of commands in a short time. I wish, like the game, lemme look it up, jeepers, I can't even find it online, but it's a game that simulates the North Atlantic during the Cold War era. Whenever your opponent launches or is sighted, game speed returns to a real 1:1. PCM could do with something like that - its default 1:1 is really about 10:1.

Of particular annoyance (to me, the guy who rocks his bike like Abdujaparov) is the way the tires stay in a straight line. Relative to a bike's path of travel, when you are out of the saddle, your bicycle pivots at about hub height. The tires move back and forth (left and right) under the bike, and the handlebars and seat move right and left up top. The rider's body stays relatively still - after all, it weighs about 10 times as much as the bike and it's not like you're actually slaloming down the road. In the game, the racer's body moves back and forth, the tires don't wiggle at all, and it makes things look very, well, unnatural.

As a formerly super-avid gamer (Unreal Tournament, Counterstrike 1.5 and Steam, Ghost Recon, BF 1940 and BF2, and some miscellaneous strategy games I didn't play online like Age of Empires, Total War: Shogun, and various platoon level WW2 games, ), I'm somewhat tolerant of slow load times and less than intuitive interfaces as long as the game itself has a good, solid foundation. In fact, I haven't played any relatively recent games like the newer Unreal Tournaments or the newest First Person Shooters (FPS) since they demand so much from a PC (graphics and speed).

From a gamer point of view, the graphics of PCM are pretty disappointing - akin to an earlier generation game. I'd call them slightly below the original CounterStrike (where the people really don't look too real). To CS's credit, it has matured maps and tactics - this means that the weird stuff has been taken out, at least for the most part. PCM is not at that level, at least not so I can tell.

For me though, the game is unpolished enough that I expect to see it in the $5 bin at a local software store. At a stretch maybe the $10 bin. But you can get two to three generation more polished games at th $50 price you need to ante up to get PCM. For example, Unreal Tournament is out there for $5, and even though it dates back 7 years, it's still one of the best games out there. PCM is primitive enough that I'd rate it less refined than the 7 year old UT.

Like wide ranging strategy games (Age of Empires, Total War: Shogun, etc), you need to move your mouse around the screen to do things like tell a unit what to do, click on an opponent to counter them, etc. But with PCM, the mouse moves lethargically, so much so that I'd sometimes click on the wrong racer or the wrong opponent. Based on my experiences with other games on the same machine, I was surprised at the pointer "slowness". It felt like my pointer was moving through molasses.

A final "problem" is a minor one but one that stares you in the face while you're playing - virtually all the names are misspelled. Perhaps there's a patch (or a hack) to fix this, but for now, my game is a (name) spell check disaster.

A possibly redeeming feature might be its LAN gaming possibilities - meaning you race against other humans and their teams, not against the computer's artificial intelligence (AI). With everyone floundering around equally handicapped by the game's shortcomings, a human-controlled race could be very interesting - I could see such a thing being a hit for a geeky team at a mid-winter team meeting-slash-get-together.

Overall, as a game, for a bicycle racing fan, the game could be somewhat interesting. For anyone else, it's a pass.

What does this mean to me? After all that negativity, it means I'm going to ante up and get the full version and check out the whole she-bang. Then I'll feel like I've tested all the game's capabilities and delved into the finer points of the game. However, that will have to wait for the real off season.

For more "professional" reviews, check out here (tongue in cheek but pretty accurate) and here (a little more serious).

So, anyone up for some virtual racing?


Anonymous said...

No racing here, too old but I did love reading your Post and being introduced to your Blog by Hobgoblin.

Edd Hart

Aki said...

Thanks for the intro and welcome to the blog.

For all those old time gamers out there, the game I couldn't think of was HARPOON.

Now where did I put my ginko...