Cycling’s most enduring videogame needs an overhaul

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It’s been almost 20 years now since the Pro Cycling Manager game first hit shelves, offering cycling-obsessed gamers a chance to run their own professional cycling team. A new version has come out every year since then, offering updated team and riders lists, and a range of new features and updates.

I’ve reviewed a few editions of the game in recent years — in 2013, 2014 and 2018 — and with the 2020 edition now available, I thought it was worth diving back in to see whether much had changed since my last visit.

What is Pro Cycling Manager?

If you’re just hearing about the Pro Cycling Manager (PCM) series for the first time, here’s a quick catch-up. The game is a detailed simulator that allows you to control virtually every aspect of running a professional cycling team, including which riders are on that team, which races those riders will do, what equipment your riders will use, which sponsors will help fund your team, and most interestingly, how your riders will tackle each race on the calendar.

You don’t need to manage everything if you don’t want to — the game offers default options for virtually every decision, allowing you to speed through the parts that don’t interest you. The same is true of the racing — if you’d rather not play through a particular race, you can let the game simulate it for you. Which is good, because as of PCM 2020 there are a daunting 230 races available for you to choose from each season, with 650 individual stages to tackle.

There’s a lot to digest in the PCM dashboard. This main page has been “completely overhauled” this year.

Playing through a race involves controlling each of the riders on your team, assigning roles throughout the day, and generally riding to a strategy that will give you the best shot at victory. For more on how the races actually play out, check out this review of PCM 2018 which, as I’ll get to in a moment, is very similar to PCM 2020.

PCM also features a Pro Cyclist mode which, as the name suggests, allows you to focus on the development of a single rider, in contrast with the whole-team focus of Career mode. In Pro Cyclist mode, you’ll start off as a 19-year-old rider in a low-level team and as you progress, you’ll make your way up through the ranks.

PCM also features a multiplayer mode where you can test your team management skills against other players around the world, a one-off mode where you can dive into a single race without the need to tackle a whole career, and a bunch of track cycling events. In my experience with the series, these options are minor features — Career mode and Pro Cyclist mode are where most users will spend the majority of their time.

The development studio that makes PCM — a French outfit called Cyanide — also makes the Tour de France line of video games, a simplified version of PCM which strips out most of the team management and focuses largely on racing the Tour de France.

Tour de France 2020 is available on PlayStation4, XBox One and, for the first time, Windows PC. PCM, by contrast, can only be played on a Windows PC.

For the purposes of this review I’ll be focusing on the more detailed of the two games, PCM 2020. Here’s what’s new this year.

New features

The headliner for PCM 2020 is the addition of rider morale management. “You must listen to the requests of your cyclists and either agree to them or decline,” the game’s promo material explains. “In each race, the motivation of your cyclists is linked to morale and key events, such as wearing a jersey, winning in the previous stage, etc. A fully motivated cyclist can excel in pivotal moments in the race, including an accelerating peloton and preparation for the final sprint.”

A section has been added to the management dashboard where you can see the morale of each rider on your team and what’s influenced it.

For a headline feature, the inclusion of rider morale management feels like it adds little to the game. In my time playing PCM 2020 I haven’t noticed a rider’s morale having a significant impact on their performance. To be fair, I haven’t pushed the limits of what’s possible here — I’m not sure how bad a rider’s morale can get and what impact that will have — and I haven’t gone close to playing through an entire season, but so far morale hasn’t meaningfully changed my gameplay experience.

The other headline feature for PCM 2020 is the addition of the 2020 Tour de France routes. An equivalent update is made to the game every year. There’s something cool about getting to “race” on virtual renderings of the real Tour de France route, and create an alternate reality of how the race might unfold. But overall this is a minor update and a small part of the game for anyone that’s diving into the full team management experience. As big as the Tour is, it is only one of dozens of races your team will tackle during a season (as noted though, the new Tour route is the centrepiece of the simpler Tour de France 2020 game).

There’s also a new “assistant” in PCM 2020 to “help you plan your races”. From what I can see this largely takes the form of pre-selecting riders for upcoming races at the start of each month. As mentioned, PCM has always done a good job of assisting you to auto-pilot your way through decisions you aren’t interested in making (when you want your riders to peak, for example, or what sort of frame you want your R&D team to work on). Given this, I didn’t feel that the addition of the assistant made a massive difference to the gameplay experience.

As mentioned above, the main page in Career mode has also been “completely overhauled” for PCM 2020. I was impressed with the new arrangement, which provides a good selection of the info you need in one place.

An ‘assistant’ helps you plan your races each month.

Computer-simulated riders supposedly benefit from new, improved AI in PCM 2020 too which makes them “more aggressive and adventurous”. Players who have spent hundreds of hours playing recent PCM games might notice differences in the way the AI behaves in this year’s edition, but I wasn’t able to. In my experience of the series I’ve always found the AI to be aggressive enough so as to provide an interesting challenge.

Has anything really changed?

If you’re getting the impression that I’m a little underwhelmed by PCM 2020, well, you’re right. From the time I’ve spent with the game so far I’m left feeling that little of substance has changed with this edition, a criticism I’ve levelled at previous iterations too.

I’m certainly not alone in thinking this. A quick scan of the forums on Steam — the distribution platform where you purchase the game — reveals a bunch of players with a similar opinion.

“I literally see no changes in this game for years now,” writes user Staalkongen. “How can they keep launching the same game over and over?” User zoeren has a similar take: “If you [have] followed the development of PCM over the last years, you know that the ‘new features’ are just a nice description for: ‘We updated TDF stages and rounded some corners of the UI.’”

User Nevens takes a slightly more pragmatic approach: “We really have to stop to accept the fact that because they are the only one making cycling games they have the right to sell a game [for] 40€ every year with nearly nothing new.”

Little appears to have changed for PCM 2020. Even the same glitches are back.

Many of the same “quirks” seen in previous editions of PCM are back in 2020 too. There’s the same generic and just plain bad commentary (“The little promenade is over – the group has been overhauled!” is a sentence nobody would ever say in real life.) There’s still plenty of glitches like riders passing through one another (see image above), and cars and motos driving right through the bunch. And from a graphical standpoint the game looks like it’s more than a decade old … which isn’t a coincidence — very little has changed in terms of the presentation since before 2010 (see video below).

The lack of any women’s racing, meanwhile, gets more perplexing and frustrating every year (thankfully some helpful modders have created database packs that allow you to tackle women’s racing).

In my view, PCM really needs a ground-up redesign, rather than a fresh coat of paint every year. Realistically, though, it’s hard to see that happening.

While there is a dedicated community of PCM tragics out there, that community is small. This isn’t like other annual sports game franchises — like FIFA, Madden, NBA, or even Football Manager etc. — where there’s enough mainstream appeal (and therefore unit sales) to justify more meaningful changes every year.

It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for Cyanide to spend development time making considerable updates to a niche game each year, much less redesigning it from the ground up.

To better understand the thinking behind PCM’s annual iterations, I got in touch with Hama Doucouré, communications specialist at Nacon Gaming, the company responsible for publishing PCM 2020 and Tour de France 2020.

“As a publisher, NACON is working with Cyanide for a little more than one year now, and we’re pretty happy with what we were able to do in such a short time,” Doucouré said. “For PCM, all the work on the AI requiring a realistic behaviour during races (fostering the leader, running for stages victory …), the morale management, the assistant manager feature and the rework of the dashboard, and for Tour de France, the first-person view or the new time trial mode or an improved interface that makes the game more enjoyable, which were features expected by the community, are a few examples.

“For the first time, we have launched a Discord [ed. An online communication platform used frequently in the gaming community] on PCM / TDF to be close to the community, listening and answering to their requests and suggestions.”

Only one WorldTour team hasn’t licensed its riders’ names for PCM 2020: Deceuninck-QuickStep. On the plus side, “Bop Junkey” is a very good name and “Sam Bunnett” isn’t bad either. Hama Doucouré explained that Nacon has to deal with ASO, AIGCP (the men’s team’s association) and cycling teams separately to get licenses for riders and races. “The updates and creation in-game of all these features and new races / countries too is a very demanding task,” he said. “We’re happy to have [a lot of] official content this year.” Free community-made database packs can be downloaded to correct all incorrect rider names.
While PCM 2020 certainly isn’t perfect, and while little changes from year to year, if you’re looking to manage a pro cycling team, PCM is and has always been the best option on the market. It offers great depth and detail for those that want to dive deep, and an easier path for those who’d just rather skim the surface and focus on the racing. Either way, there is definitely satisfaction to be had in the progression the game offers as you move through a season (or multiple seasons, if you’re particularly invested).

If you already own a PCM game from the past couple years I wouldn’t recommend buying PCM 2020. There’s not enough new content in here to justify the hefty price tag of AU$56.50 / US$39 / €35. You’re better off downloading a database pack with 2020 rider lists, teams and races and adding that to your existing game.

But, if you’re new to the world of PCM and keen to check it out, I’d certainly recommend you do. Perhaps just wait until the price of PCM 2020 drops a little, or better still, just buy PCM 2019 and find a 2020 database pack to bring the teams, riders and races up to date. At the time of writing, PCM 2019 is on sale on Steam for AU$17 / US$12 / €10 too — 70% off. That’s probably the ideal place to start.

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