Pro Cycling Manager 2014 review

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Pro Cycling Manager 2014 is the latest instalment in Cyanide Studios’ in-depth cycling simulator. CyclingTips editor Matt de Neef took the game for a spin to see what Pro Cycling Manager 2014 has to offer and what has changed from last year’s edition.

As with other annual sports videogame franchises — FIFA’s soccer games for example — the changes between editions of Pro Cycling Manager (PCM) normally aren’t that significant. Each new edition usually offers updated rider rosters, updated races (the Tour de France most notably) and a bunch of other minor improvements. The core of what Pro Cycling Manager is doesn’t really change from year-to-year.

Career mode

At the heart of Pro Cycling Manager is career mode in which you take charge of a professional cycling team, controlling every aspect of the day-to-day running of the team throughout the season.

You start by picking your team. All 18 WorldTour teams are available to choose from, as are the 17 ProConti teams, and 40 of the world’s Continental teams. Alternatively you can create your own custom team, selecting from any of the thousands of riders in the game. The names of some teams in the game and the riders on those teams aren’t licensed (e.g. “Richard Morte” for Richie Porte) but that can easily be fixed by downloading and using a free ‘real name database’.

Creating a custom squad from only Australian riders. Fair team!
Creating a custom squad from only Australian riders. Fair team!

With your team selected you then begin the process of setting your team up for the season. As team manager, quite a bit comes under your control:

  • the races your team will do
  • the training camps for your riders, including where, when, and for how long they’ll be and which riders will go
  • the season objectives for your team
  • the season objectives for each rider in the squad
  • the team’s sponsorships
  • the team’s cash flow
  • the team staff, including riders, trainers, doctors and talent scouts
  • rider fitness, form and injury management
  • working with equipment providers to develop upgrades to your gear (a new feature in 2014)

Thankfully, for those of us who would rather get straight to the racing rather than micromanaging every single aspect of a cycling team, most of these tasks have default options. But if you’re the sort of person that likes having a multitude of options to play with, you’ll really be able to get your hands dirty here.

One of the most welcome additions in Pro Cycling Manager 2014 is the tutorial in career mode. This really helps in the early stages of the game when the amount of information on the screen and the number of decisions to make are overwhelming. This is particularly true if it’s your first time playing a Pro Cycling Manager (PCM) game. The interface has had a nice facelift this year as well.

You move through career mode on a day-by-day basis. Some days offer little more than an email alert about a rider who’s fallen ill while other days see you take the helm as your team lines up at any of the dozens of races across the season (as chosen by you early in the season).

This is where the day-to-day operations of your team take place. You can get emails (left) and you get notified of upcoming races (right).
This is where the day-to-day operations of your team take place. You can get emails (left) and you get notified of upcoming races (right).

The races

When race day arrives you pick the team you’re going to send to the race (or let the game decide for you) then set a strategy for each rider on the team. Who’s going to be racing for GC? Who’s going to be sprinting for stage wins? Who will be getting into breakaways? Again, if you’d rather skip right to the racing, you can let the game decide all this for you.

Once you’ve assigned roles to your riders you can choose to simulate the race or to control your riders as the race unfolds. Hitting “Quick simulation” is a roll of the dice — you just hope that everything goes your team’s way and that the strategies you chose worked out. Actually playing through the race is a lot more fun though.

The checkboxes to the right of each rider’s name allow you to select their role for the upcoming race.

If you’ve played sports games in the past you’re probably used to moving your characters around using a thumbstick or the arrow or WASD keys, but that’s not the case with PCM. Instead you issue commands to each of the riders on your team which determine, more or less, how the riders behave in the context of what’s happening around them. With a click of a button each rider can:

  • maintain their current position in the bunch they’re in
  • come to the front of the group and work
  • come to the front of the group and work until they’re out of energy (good for lead-outs and catching breakaways)
  • ride at a tempo of your choosing
  • attack
  • sprint (only available at the end of the race or at intermediate sprint points)

A rider’s capabilities at any given moment will be determined by three coloured bars that appear next to their name:

  • a green bar: the rider’s energy level, which drops over time
  • a yellow bar: the rider’s energy for hard efforts
  • a red bar: the rider’s energy for attacks and very hard efforts.

For most riders, attacking will drain their red bar completely, requiring a long rest before they’ll be able to attack again.

Interface

Each rider’s race performance is influenced by a seemingly random “day fitness” factor of between -5 and +5. Riders with a high positive number are “on a good day” and might be more useful than if their day fitness was negative.

You can instruct a rider to protect a team leader or, near the end of the race, to follow a particular rider. This is useful when setting up a lead-out train — get a string of riders to follow one another, set them all to work until they’re tired then get your fastman to sprint for the line.

Each rider on your team has two bidons of water which eventually run out. If you don’t send a rider back for fresh bidons when that happens (and before the last 10km of the race), your riders’ performance will suffer significantly. Each rider has one energy gel to use as well — use this and they’ll get a burst of energy, perfect for a mountain-top finish or final sprint.

New in 2014 is the option to cue up two commands for a rider. So you might ask your rider to attack and then to maintain a certain tempo. In previous editions you had to wait for the attack to end before selecting the new instruction.

Another addition in 2014 is the “automatic” option for each rider. Select this and your rider will follow the strategy you selected for them before you began the race, whether that’s getting into breakaways, sprinting for the points classification or something else. The benefit of this is that it allows you to narrow your focus and just concentrate on a couple of riders on any given stage.

Automatic mode is a new feature in 2014.
Automatic mode is a new feature in 2014.

Playing through a road race of roughly 200km normally takes about 20-30 minutes, but it really depends on the speed you choose to play it at. You can increase the race speed to 2x, 4x or 8x normal speed, which is perfect if the breakaway is established and you’re just interested in the final climb, say.

Graphics and audio

Because the races are compressed significantly (i.e. it doesn’t take seven hours to play through Milan-San Remo, thankfully!) don’t expect to see a 1:1 model of your favourite climb or stretch of road. Famous stretches of road (e.g. the Forest of Arenberg) look similar to their real-life counterparts, but still appear quite different.

It sort of looks like the Forest of Arenberg ...
It sort of looks like the Forest of Arenberg …

Overall the presentation is pretty well polished and the in-race visuals are quite impressive at times. But equally, there are quite a few quirks. For a start, all the riders look the same, and then there’s the fact that riders often ride straight through the commissaire’s car or through fans who get a little too close.

Riders on the right-hand side of the road plough through some overzealous spectators.
Riders on the right-hand side of the road plough through some overzealous spectators.

The game’s audio is similarly flawed. There are perhaps three audio tracks that play during races, and these get repetitive very quickly. In terms of the game’s commentary, it always surprises me that the makers of this franchise don’t get one of cycling’s well-known voices involved. Instead, the commentary feels like it’s been written and recorded by someone who doesn’t really know too much about cycling (including the mispronunciation of some of the riders’ names).

My playthrough

To get a feel for career mode I jumped right in to the start of season 2014, playing as Orica-GreenEdge. The Nationals Road Race was the first event of the season and I sent Cameron Meyer into the breakaway with Jack Bobridge and Cameron Wurf. Bobridge and Wurf kept attacking on the Mt. Buninyong climb, so with 100km to go I instructed Meyer to attack solo for a bit of a laugh. He stayed away and won by 5:02 over Wurf and Bobridge, with the peloton at 9:47.

Cam Meyer makes his move en route to winning the nationals road race.
Cam Meyer makes his move en route to winning the nationals road race.

We went into the Tour Down Under expecting to win that as well, and when Simon Gerrans attacked at the bottom of Corkscrew Road on stage 3 and won the stage, things were looking good. Gerro ended up taking the win overall, while Matt Hayman won the final stage with a solo break, Damian Howson won the KOM classification, Michael Matthews won best young rider and we also won the teams classification. So a fairly good tour overall.

Doesn't really look like Simon Gerrans ...
Doesn’t really look like Simon Gerrans …

Fast forward to the Tour de France. In many ways this is the core of the game, and indeed a slimmed-down version of Pro Cycling Manager is available on consoles called Tour de France 2014.

I chose my line-up for the Tour according to the actual OGE team at this year’s race, and went in with Simon Gerrans targetting stage wins. He wasn’t brought down in a crash on stage 1, thankfully, and went on to take a miraculous win on stage 2. After being caught out by an early split and finding himself five minutes down on the leaders, Gerro was paced back to the main group by his teammates. He got to the front just before the Jenkins Road climb in Sheffield before attacking over the top and winning the stage.

Gerro wins stage 2 of the Tour de France after coming back from five minutes down!
Gerro wins stage 2 of the Tour de France after coming back from five minutes down!

Gerro would win another stage — stage 9 from Gérardmer to Mulhouse which was won by Tony Martin in real life — but I can’t take any credit for that — I simulated the stage rather than playing it myself. Beyond those two stage victories my Orica-GreenEdge squad was pretty much invisible. Mark Cavendish won four stages, Chris Froome won three on his way to winning the race overall, and Vincenzo Nibali won two stages and finished second overall.

Beyond career mode

There’s more to Pro Cycling Manager than just career mode and the Tour de France. You can dive in and tackle individual races (e.g. the Spring Classics), individual stages of races, or whole stage races if you like. I tried this out by taking control of Drapac in the Tour d’Azerbaidjan (a race I was lucky enough to attend this year). In my playthrough of the race Wes Sulzberger won stage 1 with a late attack and at various points in the race we held the KOM jersey, the best young jersey and the sprinter’s jersey. We lost them all, but Jonathan Cantwell did bookend the Tour with a sprint win on the final stage.

Beyond the road there are also a handful of track events you can do in PCM, including keirin, omnium, scratch races, points race and 200m time trial. Unlike the road races where you issue commands to your riders, on the track you use the arrow keys on your keyboard to directly control your rider. The right and left keys control your rider’s position on the track (higher or lower, respectively) while the up and down keys control the intensity of the rider’s effort.

To be honest the track mode feels a little tacked on — it’s fun doing a track race or two, here and there, but the novelty of racing as Shane Porkins (not a typo — licensing issues) wears off quickly.

All the riders look the same in track mode and, frustratingly, you can't cause crashes no matter how hard you try.
All the riders look the same in track mode and, frustratingly, you can’t cause crashes no matter how hard you try.

There’s also multiplayer mode which allows you to compete in races again human opponents over the internet. You start with a handful of lower-quality riders and as you compete against your opponents, you get coins which can be used to buy more riders. I had a rude awakening with my first online race — it was a stage of the Tour of California and my squad, led by Rein Taaramae, was thoroughly outclassed.

I had a rider in the early break, but then my human opponent broke clear with his or her entire team, sweeping up the breakaway and going on to take the first four places, more than five minutes ahead of the next finisher. Those four riders? Cadel Evans, Michal Kwiatkowski (who took the win), Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam. Taaramae finished 15th, a long way back. It would seem that you really need to put in some long hours in the multiplayer before you start getting riders that are good enough to compete in and win races.

My online opponent assembled a fairly handy breakaway on route to taking the top four spots in the race.
My online opponent assembled a fairly handy breakaway en route to taking the top four spots in the race.

Final thoughts and summary

One of the biggest criticisms leveled at sports games that have a new edition annually is that there’s just not enough difference from year to year to make the new game worthwhile for the customer. This is arguably true for Pro Cycling Manager as well.

It would be nice to see the developers step away from publishing a game every year and really focus on improving (or redeveloping) what they’ve got, to offer something completely new and refreshing. It would be great to see a couple of big name commentators signed on to help make the commentary compelling. The rider artwork could do with some work to make them look different to one another, and the addition of further audio tracks would be an easy win. And if we’re talking wishlists, it would be great to see women’s cycling feature in some way.

Ultimately, if you already own last year’s Pro Cycling Manager, or even the one before that, it’s probably worth holding off until next year, or until there are significant differences to the version you already own. But if you haven’t played Pro Cycling Manager before and you’re keen to, this is a great place to start. Whether you’re interested in diving in and doing a race here and there, or micromanaging your way through an entire season, you’ll find something to enjoy in PCM 2014.

Pro Cycling Manager 2014 is available for Windows PC via Steam and retails for US$39.99 (AUD $45.50). Tour de France 2014, a trimmed down version of Pro Cycling Manager 2014, is available on PS3, PS4 and XBox 360.

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