Motorsports — at least, the ones that involve running repeated laps on a circuit — are actually more about braking than accelerating. My job is to find the apex, the point in a turn or change of direction that allows me to carry the most momentum through it. In Monster Energy Supercross 4, riders are searching out the optimal apex along a vertical axis, instead of a horizontal one.
When I do find this proper jump height and distance — landing halfway through the downhill side of a big dirt archway, adding that momentum to my bike’s acceleration, and then blasting through a long straight — it’s a unique and extraordinarily satisfying racing experience. More often, though, I end up stranded halfway through a bunker complex, unable to build enough speed to follow the optimal “flow” path illustrated on screen by a translucent blue arc.
All this makes Milestone’s motorsports simulation game both seductively enjoyable and frustrating to the point of controller throwing. There were more than a few what am I just not getting here? moments in my eight hours with this game, which has also been my first experience with the franchise. Monster Energy Supercross 4 is for those familiar with the series, and/or with the sport in real life. The rest of us, no matter how eager we are, will face a strict learning curve against a sim that rarely communicates what the player should be doing.
Let’s start with the rider’s weight. They can use that to lean into, or pull back from, a jump to shape the bike’s midair trajectory. Starting out, I ticked the option for “semi-automatic” weight management, whose menu suggests that the CPU will handle this optimization for me. Not so. Long jumps still require a sharp, properly timed flick forward on the right thumbstick if you’re going to reach the next hill with the back wheel on its crest. Manual weight management, then, means you have to manage it in the portions where you’re not jumping.
That’s not made clear in the paper-thin tutorial race, which shows the commands available to you but not whether you executed them properly. This race also doesn’t specify what a “scrub” is or when or why I should try it. (“Scrubbing,” or laying the bike down almost horizontal after a jump, lowers its trajectory and makes the rider faster through the air.) This choice would be apparent to an experienced rider, but when every scrub attempt I make ends with a wipeout, it instead teaches me to never use an advanced move that I need in order to take seconds — not just tenths of a second — off my qualifying time.
Likewise, the beginning of a very deep career mode, buffed up with a skill tree and dozens of customizable gear items and cosmetics, does next to nothing to onboard or bring along a rookie. It took forever for me to qualify or finish somewhere above last in the Futures Series, the minor league, developmental stage that begins the career. At first I wondered if I was supposed to finish last because I hadn’t upgraded my bike. But I was racing against “Very Easy AI.” Even after grinding out some virtual bucks in the game’s Time Attack mode, and buying better brakes, exhaust, and shocks, I was still coming in at the back of a 22-bike field.
It turns out that, in real life, Futures riders compete on modified, easier versions of the main event courses — but they don’t in this game. In other words, I realized I was taking on top-flight expectations with level-1 equipment and rider skills. Around this time, I figured out what this game’s deal really is with rider weight management, and I managed to shave two seconds off my lap time at both Anaheim and Oakland, now finishing 18th instead of 22nd. Progress!
Motorsports masochist that I am, I really want to throw myself at this game. That feeling of flow, of stitching together two big jumps just like the blue arrow says I can, and sticking their landings, is the definition of a great gameplay loop. It’s just not often a repeatable one.
That blue “flow” arrow, for example, does not adjust if I land short of the suggested target. It’s up to me to recalculate, on the fly, my best remaining jump sequence to get out of the sector. Fine. But there’s a training minigame where the flow arrow fills up and changes color to show the rider they’re matching the proper speed and trajectory for the optimal jump. It teaches you to flatten out your launch and take two or more hills, or go higher and build downhill momentum for a single jump only. Why can’t this arrow do the same thing in an actual race, where that information and sense of momentum is more critical?
It’s a shame, because there is a ton of depth to Monster Energy Supercross 4, apparent even to first-timers like myself. The career mode, whose event options range from one-shot qualifying and quickie races to a full-fat, real-life weekend, looks like it easily supports the kind of 200-hour journeys I’ve had with Codemasters’ F1 and KT Racing’s WRC franchises.
I’m just not sure that, after tackling those disciplines, I have space in my calendar to develop a third set of unique motorsports skills. For those who already have them, I can reasonably assume they will find tons of value in Monster Energy Supercross 4, and will especially appreciate the layers and layers of development and customization in the career mode.
But ultimately, Monster Energy Supercross 4 is a game that caters to a base constituency much more than it expands an audience. As the officially licensed adaptation of a rather niche sport, that means it lands well short of the biggest jump it’s attempting. Just like I did.