Leave Call of Duty. Forget FIFA. If you want a unique gaming experience then the underground world of cycling simulators is where it's at.
Men in white coats once worked out that a successful game needs to stimulate the player once every eighteen seconds. So the user needs to shoot a head-off, find a cherry or be awarded an upgrade for the magic sword of Kaluthia – every eighteen seconds. Any less than this and it’s cheerio – they’re off. They have too many things to do – fat Chinese kids to LOL at, snarky messages to post. This is why the games industry is terrified of creating anything which doesn’t attack the player’s senses in the style of an overly tactile holiday rep with ADHD. And it’s the reason why Le Tour de France is so appealing – it’s so joyfully out-of-kilter with the rest of console gaming.
This is a game which can be played, for the most part, with the press of just one button – and it will even discourage you from pressing that. Let’s make no mistake here – this game is ever so slightly bats. It feels like it could have been created by a sandal-wearing crank who lives in a shed and collects owl pellets; somebody who has no idea of how crazy it would be to try and turn a 2,000 mile bike race into a game. But like all good eccentrics, the longer you spend with Le Tour de France, the more its oddities begin to make sense. This is a simulation of that bike race they used to show on Channel 4 in the 90’s - theme music supplied by Pete Shelley of The Buzzcocks fame.
The game doesn’t try and recreate the whole of the race – the real thing lasts three weeks – but it chops the stages up into playable slices and then simulates the bits in-between. You choose a team and a rider to control. Team selection is tough as the Lyrca outfits look like polyester vomit – purple and tiger print are big this year. The first glimpse you get of the game’s oddness is when you take to the saddle. It doesn’t feel like you are steering your rider – it’s more like shouting at a naughty horse. You tell him where to go and he sort of moves in that general direction. It seems unforgivably shit – such a basic problem. But then the mists begin to clear. You realise that steering is pretty much optional, and if you leave the controls alone your fella takes care of himself. Steering is used more as an occasional option.
It feels like it could have been created by a sandal-wearing crank who lives in a shed and collects owl pellets; somebody who has no idea of how crazy it would be to try and turn a 2,000 mile bike race into a game.
It becomes obvious Le Tour de France is much more about tactics and strategy than any hardcore pedal-pumping action. At the heart of the game is the way you manage your rider’s energy; and this is where Le Tour de France starts shoving pencils up its nose again. It teaches you that the best way to conserve energy is by doing nothing – to cruise along on the game’s equivalent of auto-pilot. So for lengthy sections of the game you will be doing bugger all – or at least, very little.
There are things to keep you occupied. You can send out tactical orders to your team mates – ask them to form a relay or launch a breakaway. But for the most part you will be drifting along, slowly entering into a strange hypnotic state. It helps if you’re listening to Kraftwerk. It seems like a suicidal piece of games design – a mechanic which rewards you for doing nowt. But it’s what makes the game feel so satisfying. It’s the slow and boring bits which build up the tension for when things do kick off. Like when you inch past a wobbly legged rival during the final yards of a stage. Or when you try for a breakaway only to glance back and see the pack looming – ready to reel you back in.
The game looks decent considering the impossibility of recreating thousands of miles of French terrain. It’s workmanlike but it never feels too samey. Bizarrely though, there are only two camera angles, so you don’t get much chance to admire what they’ve created. Seems mad to do all the work and then not let people see it. Visually it’s also let down by some glitchy looking rider animations. Generally, polish and slick presentation is non-existent. The game has one menu screen, no real options and a painfully bad tutorial section. But it’s the game itself that matters and the makers of Le Tour de France have done a great job in creating a thoughtful and absorbing experience. They should be applauded for daring to be dull and not turning the Tour de France into a banal sludge of gnarly crashes, power-ups and general gaming ‘epicness’.
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