MotoGP 23 review: the most rigorous bike sim ever made
Developer Milestone isn’t messing about - this is a racing sim where formidable challenge meets considerable reward
Brake later and accelerate earlier. That’s the advice a seasoned rider imparts from next to me in the stands while we watch the MotoGP pack warm up. I’m in the sport’s heartland, Mugello. Undulating its way across the Tuscan hills and relinquishing into a straight that lets the bikes hit 227mph, it’s a fearsome set of corners just to look at, let alone get your knee down on. I try to imagine turning my survival instincts and convincing myself to brake later into turn 1, San Donato.
Then I remember every time I hit the brakes during my first few hours with MotoGP 23. The hovering rear tire. The greasy squiggle of rubber my bike leaves in protest when I try to tip it in towards the apex. The crashes. All the horrific bloody crashes. Brake later and accelerate earlier. Nah. I’m alright mate, thanks.
To go fast in this formidable latest edition of Milestone’s licensed MotoGP series, first you need to go slow. Brake earlier. Accelerate later. Baby the bike round. Just try to stay attached to it for a lap, ignoring the sector times. Forget what Marc Marquez might think as he tears past you, hanging on through the corners with just his pinkies, scratching his back on the tarmac.
It isn’t that the game’s mercilessly hard across the board though, you understand. MotoGP 23’s neural riding aids, a new feature for the series making their debut here, analyse your inputs and step in when they’re needed while braking, steering or on the throttle and they’re much less invasive than last year’s auto-braking assists. So it’s totally possible to whack all three neural aids to ‘please give me absolutely loads of help’ mode and still feel like you’re in charge. The thing is, though: you want to be good at riding these bikes without any assists. And that’s what makes it a challenging racer.
You want to really master the handling model, because when you try it with all the assists turned off you recognise that it feels a lot like how you imagine controlling a 1000cc prototype to feel. The brakes don’t simply slow you down, like hitting the left trigger in a driving sim does. Here you have separate front and rear brake inputs, each upsetting the weight and traction level of the bike in different - and equally terrifying - ways. To brake effectively and tip the bike into an apex, you don’t just need to memorise a brake marker, but instead a whole sequence of firm squeezes and feather-like adjustments, watching your rider for clues where the weight of the bike is, feeling your way through the corner via your pad’s vibrations. And because that sensation is so correct, so authentic, getting it right makes you feel like Mick Doohan.
The braking’s been this way for a couple of games, though. What’s really ramped up the challenge level this year is the way the bike behaves when you get on the throttle. In every bike game I’ve played before, all the way back to Milestone’s Superbike World Championship in 1999, if you give the machine a cheeky mid-corner squirt of throttle it simply goes faster. MotoGP 23’s not letting you off that easily though. Every time you apply throttle here, the bike wants to stand itself back up.
It sounds like a small thing, but this fundamental change to the handling model is akin to the original Gran Turismo making you brake at realistic distances before a corner for the first time. Of course it should be doing that, you realise as you feel yourself absolutely hanging off the bike on corner exits just to keep it pointed at the next straight. Just like the braking, it’s exactly the way you want a MotoGP bike to behave. Muscular and unruly.
The end result of this handling overhaul is that after a decade of regular-as-clockwork licensed MotoGP games, it suddenly feels fresh and exhilarating to ride again because you really feel like you’re approaching the exercise like the real riders do. It feels like you’re hardly ever at full gas, full brakes, or full lean over the course of a lap, instead inputting lithe and precise commands that achieve a sense of flow and momentum. It’s wonderful.
It’s also got more going for it than its handling model. Career mode’s always the main event in this series, giving you the chance to ascend through the Moto3 and Moto2 categories, secure a contract on the big bikes and start chipping away at all Rossi’s records. This year the mode’s had a revamp in presentation, trying to inject a bit of Netflix doc-style drama into that familiar progression arc with the introduction of ‘turning points’. Basically they’re just scenarios that give you particular challenges: beat your team-mate. Beat your rival. Do really well in the next few races to move up to a higher category. It’s not going to win the Booker Prize, but it does its job. You feel like the star of a media circus, minus the cringeworthy IG posts and the matching Gucci t-shirt and shorts sets.
Also new to this year’s game is dynamic weather. Spots of rain can now appear on your visor during what was a dry race when the lights went out, and that might bring about flag-to-flag race conditions which allow you to hop in the pits for a bike swap. Or risk it all like Brad Binder did at the Red Bull Ring in 2021 and stay out on slicks while everyone else pits. It worked for Brad, but in all fairness Brad didn’t have to worry about accidentally unplugging his controller while scratching his leg like I do. Full wets, please.
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These changeable conditions throw up a bit of drama and unpredictability to a race weekend, and the visual effects of the rain are impressive. It’s hard to know what rain looks like when you’re moving through it at 227mph, but I believe in Milestone’s interpretation.
Last year’s release took some stick for releasing without the full complement of updated rider helmets, particularly in the Moto2 and Moto3 classes where the likes of Sam Lowe seemed to have opted for an all-white lid design - and annoyingly, that same problem persists this year too. I’m sure the team back in Milan’s hard at work, retexturing these missing helmets, but until then it’s a bit of an immersion-breaker. I can let that one slide because of the quality of the visuals everywhere else though. The series switched over to Unreal Engine a few games ago, and since then it’s been crisp, super-detailed bikes and riders on gorgeously recreated circuits ever since.
Speaking of circuits, we’ve got two new ones to slide around on this year’s race calendar. Kazakhstan’s Sokol International Racetrack (no Borat jokes please, it’s 2023) joins India’s Buddh International circuit, the latter of course famous for producing exhilarating and memorable F1 races such as… Well, they definitely went there a few times didn’t they? Pretty sure. In truth they’re not scintillating tracks to ride, but that’s not the game’s fault.
MotoGP itself has a narrower appeal than, say, F1, or shooting stuff, and that’s always going to push a licensed MotoGP game out of centre stage where EA’s F1 series and the CODs and Fortnites occupy. But anyone with half an eye on bikes will be floored by the riding model in this game, and the obvious passion it recreates the sport with. Turn on those neural aids, spend some time in the MotoGP Academy to learn the basics of its handling model, then gradually turn them off and enjoy the best riding sim anyone’s built to date.
Release: out now
Available on: PS4/5, Xbox Series X/S/One, Nintendo Switch, PC (version tested)