If you thought competing in Le Tour De France, the world’s most famous cycling race, was just about looking good in lycra, peddling as fast as you can, and soaking up the beautiful European scenery, you’d be totally wrong. Competitive cycling is a tactical sport and Focus Home Interactive and Cyanide Studios’ Tour De France 2014 mimics that real-world event with a game that is much more challenging and in-depth than we expected.
In Tour De France, players can pick and choose from one of the official teams and compete as one of the riders in pursuit of the yellow jersey. From the hill stages of York-Sheffield and flats of Cambridge-London right through to the cobbled streets of Northern France and mountainous region of Mulhouse, all 21 stages from the official event can be played. Each stage is introduced by actual real-life footage of the region and players are able to go on a reconnaissance trip of each route in order to work out tactics and survey tricky areas, such as the endurance-sapping mountain climbs.
There’s the handy option of renaming any of the riders and teams, which is a welcome feature as the publisher does not own the official license to Tour De France so you’re faced with made-up names that loosely resemble their real-life counterparts. Prior to each race, players get to choose two food items to bring with them that help boost the likes of stamina and attack which can then be taking strategically during each race by a quick press of the triangle button.
Though you control only one cyclist in the races, and are definitely out for personal glory, Tour De France is a team game where working as a unit is the best way to ensure success. Points are scored for hitting certain stages of the circuits out in front and a number of bronze, silver, gold and platinum objectives attempt to make the monotonously slow pedaling that makes up about 70 percent of races a little more exciting. It works to a certain extent, with Trophies up for grabs for those who pay attention to these side missions – perhaps by being the best sprinter or climber – but excitement only rains in shorts bursts, such as the beginning and near the end of races, when riders are jostling for places, or if another team attempts a breakaway.
Nevertheless, this is exactly how the real-life event would play out and the developer has done a decent job at creating an intuitive control scheme and range of tactics to help keep each race as engaging as possible. Tour De France is a marathon and not a sprint, so the speed that you cycle is determined by how much pressure you place on the right trigger, while options such as tapping ‘X’ to break away from the peloton, shifting gear ratios to move faster or to slow down and conserve stamina, and tucking into an aerodynamic position to hurtle down slopes, add some strategic depth to the races.
It doesn’t stop there either. Each race is about managing effort and energy and there’s plenty of other factors to take into account, such as head winds where cyclists can shield themselves in the middle of the peleton, or take a break by auto-locking onto the cyclist in front. With gameplay largely being about keeping an eye on the stamina and attack bars and timing those moments to burst from the pack, it’s actually a tougher challenge than we imagined trying to balance when you should rest with when you should try and burst from the pack. It’s this aspect of Tour De France that Focus and Cyanide appear to have got spot-on.
Tour De France also has a team comms feature. During each race players can micro-manage other members, telling them when to take food, when to attack, protect, attempt to lead the peleton and other options. This is where things start to fall apart. The U.I. isn’t great as it doesn’t make it clear where in the peleton your team riders are positioned. Furthermore, working out what tactics to use when it’s hard to tell what’s working at all – mainly because all you’re really concentrating on is the road ahead – means we used a trial-and-error approach. It ended up that we spent most races not using the tactics at all and still winning.
What’s weird is that you can also switch cyclists to anyone in the team. While this sneaky move reduces boredom levels somewhat and allows you to switch to a teammate with better stamina when you’ve messed it up, it kind of defeats the whole point of the game. During two races, when positioned near the middle of the pack, and near the end of a stage, we simply switched to the rider who was nearest the front and then raced through the final barrier stealing his glory.
Away from the main Tour De France campaign, there’s a local multiplayer option and the addition of new Pro Team Mode allows players to compete in several seasons. Do well and your reputation grows and you attract the attention of better riders from other teams. Along with glory, rankings bring financial rewards that can be used to invest in building the ultimate team. It’s good to see the series evolve with a new game mode, though we would have preferred if that effort had gone into ironing out some of the technical issues.
The most noticeable flaw is the fact that there’s no collision detection system. That means you can practically ride through other cyclists and brush them aside, crudely popping your shoulder through the shoulder of an opponent. Head towards an unfenced piece of grass and you’ll simply bounce of an invisible wall and back on track. Where Le Tour De France should be commended however, is with the scenery. During races there’s some pleasant settings to enjoy and the likes of the English rolling hills, quaint French towns and familiar landmarks such as the London Eye provide some decent eye-candy. If you can forgive the looping audio with cheers and shouts from the robotic clones that line the courses, and the annoying whistling of the wind that jars your ears in every race, then visually it’s all quite lovely, though certainly not spectacular.
There’s no doubt that Tour De France is aimed at a niche audience of cyclists, or fans of the prestigious race, as slow-paced 150km-plus races require concentration and a lot of patience. While thrill-seekers will be bored to tears, others may be glad to hear that all bases of the touring event are covered and there’s enough in terms of tactical variety to ensure that each race feels suitably engaging, at least during certain sections anyway. A bit more polish in some areas and a re-thinking of the confusing team-based system and U.I. design would be welcome, but Tour De France certainly has its moments.