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Richie Porte drops the wheel and his rivals start to open a gap. Chris Froome, Alejandro Valverde, and Romain Bardet — they’re all there, riding away from Porte, just 5km from the summit of Alpe d’Huez. It’s not looking good for the Australian. He’s already more than three minutes behind the overall lead of Froome, a lead that looks set to grow even further.
But then, against the odds, Porte rallies. He finds the strength to fight his way back to those that left him behind and as he does, there’s a brief lull in proceedings. Porte seizes the opportunity, attacking hard and opening a gap of his own. Nobody can follow.
He surges on, eventually catching up to the remnants of the day’s breakaway. And then he’s leaving them behind as well, hitting the front of the race for the first time.
By the time he crosses the finish line, arms aloft, Porte has put nearly a minute into Froome. He’s won stage 12 of the 2018 Tour de France, jumping from seventh to fourth in the process. The podium is within reach.
Of course, this isn’t real life — in the real 2018 Tour de France, Porte crashed out on stage 9. Rather it’s a scene from a videogame, Pro Cycling Manager 2018 to be exact. And in Pro Cycling Manager 2018 Porte still has a chance of winning the Tour.
This isn’t my first foray into the Pro Cycling Manager (PCM) universe — I reviewed both the 2013 and 2014 editions for CyclingTips. But several years on, I wanted to dive back in and see what’s changed. Annual sports videogame franchises often deliver few substantive changes from year to year, so I was keen to see whether PCM has changed much in the four years since I last put my team manager hat on.
Pro Cyclist mode
First of all, a quick introduction to PCM for those that aren’t familiar with the franchise. As the name suggests, it’s a videogame in which you take on the role of cycling team manager. You’re in charge of managing every aspect of your team, from sponsorship deals to training camps to team selections to directing how your team will ride on race day.
It can be overwhelming — there’s lots of information to digest and lots of decisions to make. Thankfully, it’s also pretty easy to just follow the default selections for most choices and focus on the racing.
As I discovered when I logged into PCM2018 for the first time, the franchise allows you to do more than manage a team now — you can now focus on an individual rider as well.
Pro Cyclist Mode was added to the series in 2015 and is by far the biggest addition since I last fired up a PCM game. In it you create a single male rider and guide them through their career as an aspiring pro cyclist. You start in the Continental ranks and, hopefully, progress to the upper echelons once you start getting results.
The younger your rider starts (between 19 and 22), the tougher they’ll find it in those early races, but the greater their potential for growth — much like in the real world I suppose. You can choose two specialities for your rider and then you’re off, guiding your rider through the turbulent world of professional cycling.
As with Career Mode, where you manage a whole team, Pro Cyclist Mode can be a little overwhelming when you first dive in. But as with Career Mode, you can also ignore most of the decisions and just get right to the racing.
For each race that your rider is selected for you can choose to either simulate the race or play through it. In the latter you’ll control what your rider does throughout (more on the actual gameplay below). For each race, your team manager will give you a target or targets to hit — ride in the breakaway for 20km, say, or win the KOM sprint, or finish in the top three on the stage or GC.
Perform as requested and you’ll gain experience points and increase your manager’s satisfaction. Experience points allow your rider to level up and get stronger while manager satisfaction is necessary to get a contract renewal and to have the privilege of selecting the riders that will start races with you later in the season.
(I was dismayed to learn that manager satisfaction drops off over time, even when you’re not racing. This means that, even if you won your last race, you might start a race with a low satisfaction rating if it’s been a while since you last pinned on a number).
Calling the shots
The gameplay in PCM2018 is much the same as it has been for years. You have a bunch of commands you can give your rider at any given time, the main ones being:
– Maintain position in the bunch
– Ride the front of the bunch (called “relay” in the game)
– Ride at a set tempo (regardless of what the bunch is doing)
– Attack (or sprint, if close enough to an intermediate sprint, KOM, or the finish line)
– Consume energy gel (for a temporary power increase)
– Fetch water bottles (fail to do this and you’ll lose power)
In Career Mode you have full control of all riders on your team. In Pro Cyclist Mode you’ll focus your efforts mainly on your rider. You’ll be able to issue some commands to your teammates, but not as many as you can in Career Mode. And sometimes, you won’t be able to instruct riders at all (if they’ve been given a free role that day, for example, or if they’re the leader for the day and you’re supporting them.)
Playing through each stage or race takes between five and 15 minutes, depending on how often you’re speeding up the action to get through the boring bits. My normal play pattern went something like this: I’d start the race at normal speed, set my riders up to do what I wanted, then fast-forward the race at 8x speed until I reached an important climb or other decisive moment. At that point I’d slow it down, control my riders more closely where needed, then speed it back up again until the next key moment.
Joining the pro ranks
Pro Cyclist Mode, like Career Mode, is a slow burn. To play through all of the races you’re selected for in a season, you’re probably looking at somewhere around 10-15 hours of gameplay, depending on how many races you decide to simulate.
To test Pro Cyclist Mode I set about creating a virtual version of myself … or at least a 19-year-old virtual version of myself that would have been good enough to be racing for a Continental team. I chose to start my career with the Australian Drapac EF Continental team, as a rider with good climbing ability and a strong sprint. Ok, so a name was really the only thing I shared with my avatar.
Overall, I had a strong debut season, but one that wasn’t without its hiccups. In my very first race I was instructed to work on the front of the bunch for 20km. I’d like to claim that I was still re-learning the game controls and that’s why I did a grand total of 0km in the wind. In reality, I had delusions of grandeur and decided I’d try to ride for myself.
The post-race summary screen informed me that my manager was far from impressed. The fact I was the team’s best finisher in 21st place did little to assuage his anger.
At the Australian Road Nationals I was again asked to work the front. I was sure I’d done a better job this time, but the director thought otherwise. I was in the bad books again, even though I finished a respectable 17th (Nathan Earle won from a breakaway, in case you’re wondering).
Things took a bit of a turn at a one-day race a few weeks later. I managed to ride the front for 20km as instructed, before sitting up and getting dropped like a sack of potatoes. I finished 18 minutes down but the director was impressed with my efforts. I was starting to gain some respect.
The lowlight of the season came on stage 2 of the Tour of the Jura at the end of April. I came down in a big crash and broke a rib, putting me on the sidelines for a month.
By the time I got back to racing my manager’s satisfaction rating was down below 50%, compared to the near 90% it had been at my last race. I needed a good result to get back in the good books. Thankfully, I wouldn’t have to wait too long for redemption.
At my first tour back, the Tour de Savoie Mont Blanc, I was given the role of team leader and asked to finish in the top three on the opening stage. No pressure! I ended up winning the stage, beating real-life U23 road world champion Marc Hirschi in an uphill sprint. It was my first victory, my first leader’s jersey, and a very satisfying comeback from injury.
I crashed the following day, 10km from the summit finish, but managed to scrape into fifth, dropping to fourth overall. I bounced back to win the following stage as well. Had it not been for that crash, I would have won the tour overall. As it was I finished second overall, and my manager was most pleased — his satisfaction rating was back above 90%.
Those results, plus a sixth overall at the Giro della Valle d’Aosta Mont Blanc were enough to land me more than a dozen contract offers by the end of July. Among the interested teams were two WorldTour outfits — Astana and Ag2r-La Mondiale. I pitched a salary of 2,500 euros a month over two years to Ag2r-La Mondiale. They accepted the offer a few days later, and by early August, just eight months after first joining a Continental team, I’d signed my first WorldTour contract.
Changes to Pro Cyclist Mode
While Pro Cyclist Mode was a new addition for me, having not played a PCM game in four years, it won’t be new to those who have played the series in recent years. So how much has Pro Cyclist Mode changed with PCM2018? Not a whole lot. The biggest change is the ability to have two specialisations rather than just one. The other changes are far more minor — they certainly aren’t wholesale changes to the gameplay experience.
For example, developer Cyanide claims to have introduced a more balanced progression and level-up system for PCM2018, likewise more in-race control over teammates when you’re the team leader. But again, these changes are minor at best.
I didn’t spend as much time in PCM2018’s Career Mode as I did in Pro Cyclist Mode, mainly because I was more interested to see what had changed since I last played a PCM game. That said, some changes have been made to Career Mode — how important these are will depend on how invested you are in the series.
The rider transfer system has reportedly been redesigned, so too the sponsors system, the team promotions and relegations system, and the contract negotiation system. The dashboard user interface has also had something of an overhaul “to provide an easier and smoother management of riders’ race and training planning.”
Again, if you’re a super-fan of the series these changes might be welcome. For me, as someone who tends to click through choices related to sponsorship and rider transfers to get through to the racing, the updates made little difference.
What has really changed?
The big question I had in mind while reviewing PCM2018 was “has anything really changed?” Some things certainly have. The on-screen tutorials you get when starting a new game are more informative than I remember. And as mentioned, Pro Cyclist Mode is a major update in recent years. But that’s probably only because I haven’t played the franchise since 2014.
In reality, there has been little substantive change since I last booted up a PCM game. The game looks and feels the same. The quality of the graphics doesn’t seem to have improved at all since 2014. To be fair, it’s not a game that needs the most jaw-dropping graphics imaginable, but, if we’re being honest, PCM2018 looks half a decade or more out of date.
That said, there are times when this game is genuinely and surprisingly beautiful. Like when you’re climbing a mountain pass and you catch a glimpse of a sweeping vista off to the side of the road.
Glitches are common as you play through the game, but I actually found them more humorous than anything else. You’ll often see riders passing through one another, for example, or commissaire cars and TV motos driving right through the bunch.
Poorly animated roadside fans also wander out into the road to applaud the bunch and sometimes don’t get off the road in time. Come to think of it, that might be less of a glitch and more a reflection of reality.
The audio, too, hasn’t improved since 2014. Commentary for sports videogames is notoriously tricky to get right — scripted responses to dynamic action can only feel so real — but it feels like little effort has gone in to improving the offering in recent years. Often the phrases uttered by the commentators don’t sound anything like what you’d hear at a bike race — phrases like “the entete is far from cordial” when a breakaway isn’t working well together, or “the little promenade is over” when a break is caught.
I chuckled to see that the game is still suffering from the licensing issues it always has. Only some teams agreed to have their riders’ likenesses appear in the game, leading to many humorous names that are almost accurate, but far enough from accurate to not attract legal action. “Rich Porden” instead of “Richie Porte”, for example, or “Dropoc Pro Cycling” instead of “Drapac”.
Race names get the same treatment. The Jayco Herald Sun Tour appears in the game as the “Harald Sun Race”. The Santos Tour Down Under comes up as “Down Under’s Route”. Ultimately, these incorrect names are just a minor inconvenience — more funny than anything else. And they’re also easily remedied — just download one of the free, third-party database patches and everything will be updated accordingly.
I was saddened to see that there’s still no sign of women’s racing in PCM2018. Thankfully there are modders that have done Cyanide’s work for them, creating the appropriate team and rider databases and making it possible to play as a female rider or manage a women’s team.
I tried out a couple such mods. One just changed the names of the teams and riders but had the women racing all the events on the men’s calendar (that’s one way to get a women’s Paris-Roubaix). Another went further, creating a new calendar of women’s races. Both mods dressed the in-race avatars with the kits of the women’s peloton, but those avatars still looked like men.
Clearly, these mods are not a perfect solution, but they’re better than nothing. Hopefully down the track we’ll see women’s racing supported natively by the game, rather than relying on the efforts of the modding community.
There were other issues that irked me as I played through PCM2018 too. There’s a lot of time spent waiting for the game to simulate the various races and other goings-on from day to day. In my Pro Cyclist Mode playthrough, for example, there were several periods of perhaps 10 minutes where I was simply waiting for the game to churn through the weeks before my rider’s next race. Watching the days roll slowly by hardly makes for exciting gameplay.
Starting a race still seems to take forever, too, as the game builds the race routes, the scenery and the rider avatars. And once you finish a race, it can take several minutes for every single rider to cross the finish line — you can’t progress to the results screen or a new race until this has happened.
Sports videogame franchises are, by their nature, slow-moving beasts. When you’re creating a new installment every year, it’s hard to introduce enough features to keep the game feeling new and fresh. That’s the case even with well-funded franchises like EA Sports’ FIFA and it’s certainly the case with Cyanide’s PCM series.
It’s difficult to recommend PCM2018 if you’ve played a previous installment in recent years, certainly if you’ve played the game since Pro Cyclist Mode was introduced. Not enough has changed, in my book, to make PCM2018 a worthwhile purchase, especially when you can simply import new rider databases to recent versions of the game.
In reality, the game needs a rebuild from the ground up. The graphics and animations need to be updated, some time and money needs to be invested into developing some compelling commentary, and more effort needs to put into porting the game across from its native French. Terms like “Relay” – the button you click to get a rider working on the front of the bunch — really don’t resonant for the English-speaking cycling audience.
All that said, if you haven’t played a Pro Cycling Manager game before, and the idea of managing a team or rider sounds appealing, it’s worth jumping in and having a look. You can simply focus on the races (as I did) or you can dive deeper and concern yourself with individual riders’ training plans, contracts, equipment, and team sponsorship deals. It’s all a bit too much for me, personally, but there’s definitely a dedicated fanbase out there that loves this aspect of the game.
And despite my misgivings about PCM2018, it’s still a game I’m likely to come back to from time to time. I love the idea of being able to dive in and write my own sporting storylines, either as a manager or as an individual rider.
There were moments while playing as a younger, stronger version of myself where I felt genuinely invested in my progress. I felt real disappointment when I crashed and was out injured for a month and, at my first race back, I was surprisingly nervous as my avatar sat waiting on the startline. I knew I needed a result to get my manager’s respect back — to win two stages was legitimately satisfying.
Writing new storylines as team manager had its moments too, whether it was as Mitchelton-Scott in the early season Australian races, or when controlling the Richie Porte-led BMC at the 2018 Tour de France.
Speaking of which, Porte ended up having a pretty good Tour in my playthrough. After moving into fourth with his win on Alpe d’Huez, he held firm over the next few stages before moving into third on stage 16. The wheels fell off a little on stage 17 when Porte was dropped by Froome and lost time, dropping back to fourth overall.
But on stage 19, the Aussie finished fourth on the final mountain stage and moved back onto the podium. A strong time trial on stage 20 ensured he’d finish the 2018 Tour in third place — much better than his real-life result.
The overall winner? Chris Froome of course. He won no fewer than five stages, six if you count the team time trial, and finished the race four minutes clear of Vincenzo Nibali with Porte another 49 seconds back.
It would seem that Team Sky’s stranglehold on the Grand Tours extends even into the virtual world …