It is Tour de France time, and that means crowds of talented bikers defeating our evil physics overlords and riding through one another across the beautiful French countryside and chunks of England. No? That must just be one of the fantastic new features in Tour de France 2014, a game which also serves up blind robot crowds and a host of other bizarre bugs. Indeed, this is one bike trip that you’ll spend all summer trying to forget.
Tour de France, as fans will know, is anything but a casual race through a variety of pretty locations. It’s a set of 150km marathons that are as much about a strong team of riders as a single decent cyclist. From mountain ranges to sprawling cities, the teams have to be at their absolute physical peak if they want to even stand a chance of competing. It’s impressive to think about, but not especially interesting to watch, and even less so if you’re expected to stay focused on a single person. With dozens of miles of track, an individual rider is far more likely to be keeping pace and reserving energy – and that’s not exactly something that makes for an exciting video game.
And yet, that’s exactly what Tour de France 2014 expects you to do; there are small moments of action followed by ten minutes of making sure that you’re fresh enough for the next point of interest. Races are incredibly long – a single event can easily take almost an hour – and the poor graphics mean that there’s rarely anything to look at between bouts of concentration. This alone will probably make it unplayable to the vast majority of gamers, and even those interested in the event will have their patience tested.
It’s a simulator – that’s where the problems begin, and that’s where most people’s interest will end. Rather than feeling part of the action, you’ll just press buttons to change your rider’s state, and then hold down the pedal button to watch him go. You can choose whether to be in a high or low gear, and whether to stand up on the bike and push your rider towards the finish line – but for most of your journey, none of this will matter. The most important thing is making sure that you’ve got enough energy to keep going – everything else is completely and utterly secondary, and considering that all it takes to avoid burning out is to keep level with the other bikes, it’s not as tactical as it sounds.
The other problem comes from the fact that it’s not even an especially good simulator. The publisher was never going to pour money into the graphical side of Tour de France 2014 – it’s just too niche – but how bad it looks is actually a tad surprising; it’s easily the worst looking PS4 game to date. Still, there’s obviously been a bit of effort put into the riders, and aside from very little in the way of animation, they do look good; 90 plus miles and they barely shift in their chairs, but the textures on their clothing are nice.
As an interesting observation, daring to even try to turn around is massively frowned upon. It’s almost as if the developers didn’t foresee that someone may actually try to do this. The results are hilarious as a consequence, with your rider desperately pedalling into an invisible wall while also managing to flicker on and off, changing position with each rotation as the game works out what in the hell is happening. This has the odd side-effect of giving the impression that the entire game is on-rails, with only the slight choice of choosing how tightly to take the bends. If you’re totally into the race, you probably won’t notice how little your input actually matters, but the illusion is all too easily shattered.
The immersion probably won’t last very long anyway, and definitely not beyond your first proper look at some of the crowds. The only way that you can describe them is ‘Supporters by Numbers’ – a mish-mash of ethnically diverse models that for some reason morph and transform the closer that you get to them. Regardless of how you ride past, they don’t even begin to notice that you’re actually there, and the few of them that move do so regardless of their position to you. That means that, if you’re in last place, the guy with the camera will continue taking pictures of absolutely nothing as you ride by. Even when two people are occupying the exact same space – a wonder never seen in human history – the journalists fail to react. They probably work for The Sun.
Funnily enough, this amazing feat of nature – the ability to pass through your peers – is a skill that all Tour de France riders possess. There’s absolutely no clip detection, and you’ll find yourself driving through other bikers as though they’re simply not there. On the one hand, this is understandable: can you imagine the mess at the beginning of a race when both computer and human players try to avoid each other in fear of a mass pileup, probably resulting in the deaths of dozens of people? On the other hand, it looks more than a little stupid, and you’ll be left asking why there wasn’t some sensible middle-ground somewhere between God-like powers and sporting tragedy.
The importance of not wiping out your entire team within the first thirty seconds of a race is only highlighted by the comms system, which is used to control your team. You can switch between riders at any time, a feature that’s rightly included despite the fact that it’s easy to take advantage of. Got a player that’s shattered? Switch and now you have one that’s good as new. Losing? Just skip forward to the computer controlled guy that doesn’t suck. This slightly unfair way of looking at things is vastly outweighed by the ability to plan your actions in the race and take advantage of each rider’s skills.
If you fancy the purist approach – sticking with the same athlete – you’ll still be able to issue commands on the fly, trying to game the final standings so that you receive the best possible score. It’s not something that you have to do, but those that want any kind of longevity out of their purchase will want to learn how to take advantage of comms. It, like most of the controls in the game, works well for its purpose, and has been nicely thought out, but isn’t explained or presented well enough for the intricacies to be obvious when first playing.
With all 21 stages of the Tour de France included, and each one being almost far too long, the amount of content on offer is impressive. There’s a pro mode where you can compete across several seasons, and a local multiplayer mode in which you can invite your enemies along to try it out with you, but nothing that manages to make staring at some guy’s admittedly well-toned butt for hours on end worthwhile.
While obviously made with good intentions, the very nature of this game makes it unenjoyable for the vast majority of the time that you’ll be playing it, and the graphics, glitches, and poor design choices only serve to highlight the problems of digitizing such a long-distance sport. Despite some poorly implemented good ideas, Tour De France 2014 feels a bit like pushing a BMX up a hill on a wet and windy Sunday afternoon – only without any of the fun.