Milestone – “Games Made With Passion”
I admire a developer that pours so much care and attention into its games that it is infectious. Milestone – a small developer located in Milan, Italy – has lovingly crafted racing titles of both the two and four wheel persuasion since the mid-nineties. Since screaming onto the scene with Screamer Rally in 1996, the ’boutique’ studio has developed entries in some of the biggest franchises in motorsport including the World Rally Championship (WRC), MotoGP and SBK (Super Bike Championship). Unlike similar developers though, Milestone isn’t anywhere near a household name, despite being more prevalent in its releasing games than the big names of motorsport such as Polyphony Digital, Turn 10 and Codemasters. But that doesn’t stop them from enduring, iterating and improving its products year on year, striving to be the best at what it does.
Something about Milestone’s games has the ability to draw me in and believe in its cause. The games aren’t always the best looking, nor are they the most feature-rich games on the market, but they always seem like they are hand crafted works of art that seek to perfect the on-track action rather than perfect the package. Superficially this is counter-intuitive, but if you’ve ever played one of its games, you will likely have come away being wowed by its hits and endeared by its misses. It is abundantly clear that these games are crafted by people that love the source material and consider that first and foremost their mandate when designing not just how the game plays, but how it feels and sounds.
The SBK series is probably the most prominent, and certainly the most frequent, of its franchises in recent years. Between dipping in and out of the venerable MotoGP series, Milestone built the SBK series from the ground up, from its first go at the series, to its follow up under Electronic Arts in 2001 and now to the recent incarnation of the series which has been published annually by Black Bean Games from 2008 to 2012. The games have made significant strides toward crafting two-wheeled racer that is friendly both to the fan of the sport, and to the newcomers, and despite being received luke-warmly by critics , the SBK series is the game to beat when it comes to bike racing. That is, when Milestone wasn’t on MotoGP duties for Capcom.
The current generation of hardware heralded in a new breed of racing simulation with the likes of Forza and Gran Turismo pushing the boundaries of what console gamers expected not only in how a game looks, but also how it feels and its underlying physics and handling. The same went for two wheel racers and SBK 2008 had a lot to live up to with a pretty high benchmark being set by its four-wheeled brethren in the early years. The game certainly lived up to expectations in the way it felt, but a serious lack of modes and overall sterile feel made the game feel less polished and full-featured.
In true Milestone fashion though SBK 2008 was only a glimpse of what it could do, and the solid riding mechanics in that game allowed it to put more emphasis on making future games highly polished and content-rich experiences. And they certainly didn’t disappoint in that regard. Through to the latest iteration, SBK: Generations, Milestone made significant strides toward making the game that you could tell they always wanted to make but were constrained in doing so. Out was a vanilla simulation and in was the closest console motorbike racing has been to Gran Turismo. Full-featured modes fleshed out what had become an incredibly customisable racing experience to become something that not only played well but had the modes to hold peoples’ interest for the duration of the Superbike season. SBK: Generations wasn’t just good, it was quite simply the best two-wheeled racing game since Polyphony Digital’s Tourist Trophy for the PS2.
But two-wheels, while seemingly where the developer seems most comfortable, aren’t the only trick Milestone has up its sleeve. While it is most famous for rekindling the WRC licence, previously held by Sony who published games on both the PS2 and PSP, it has had its toes dipped in car-based racing games since the mid-nineties. Its output on the PS2 and Xbox was substantive even if relatively unnoticed against its competition, releasing three games across the two systems between 2003 and 2006. Milestone unlike other developers managed to strike the appropriate balance between the simulation style of Gran Turismo or Forza, while still catering to more casual players who preferred more arcade-y handling and a less steep learning curve. While Squadra Corse Alfa Romeo (SCAR) and Evolution GT for the PS2 were great racers in their own right, it was the Xbox exclusive Racing Evoluzione where the developer really showed their racing chops.
It would be an understatement to say that few people noticed the release of Racing Evoluzione. In 2006 Eurogamer put the game on its ‘Bluffer’s Guide to Xbox Cult Classics‘ list, and for good reason. While the game was not as polished or comprehensive as Gran Turismo 3 A-Spec which was running laps around the PS2 at the time, and it didn’t drive quite as well as the Project Gotham Racing on Microsofts own, it was a great racer with an interesting concept, and a handling model that sat quite nicely between console-sim and arcade. But it was the Dream Mode that really set this game apart from the pack. Rather than playing through what was essentially the career mode working your way up to owning that ultimate super car, Dream Mode had you taking control of a car manufacturer and building your own cars and building your business up basically from scratch. In reality the car building boiled down to nothing more than choosing from a set of pre-designed blueprints, and managing that business was far from simulation, it was a different twist on the racing game genre that was certainly a breath of fresh air amidst what was an increasing stable of same-y racers at the beginning of the PS2 and Xbox generation.
Years later in 2010 Milestone would revisit its rally racing roots with the release of the first game in the WRC series since being given the licence. It was a big ask of the developer, with the WRC licence laying dormant since the Playstation 2 and Playstation Portable games, and coming up against the venerable rally series, Codemasters’ Dirt . But the developer stepped up to the task and delivered a clinical point to point rally racing simulation that has all the cars, drivers and stages of the World Rally Championship. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t fancy and it didn’t have the polish of Dirt (nor the budget I would imagine), but what Milestone delivered is exactly what a rally game had been in years past – a game that required precision driving and concentration to shave one-hundredth of a second off of your stage time to edge out your competition. Criticisms of the game were valid, with many critics citing the lack of tactility between the road and the car, making it feel like the car was gliding across the track. But while the feedback may have been missing the physics that dictated the interaction between track and tyre felt dynamic and realistic, resulting in a game that if you put the time in, you could really understand and master how you drove the car around the twists and turns around the game’s stages. It may not have been conveyed well but WRC’s racing model was a complicated and nuanced take on off-road racing. Since that initial game Milestone have gone on to developer two sequels to that title, both iterating and improving on that original title to deliver a much more tactile drive, while fleshing out the game’s structures and modes to make it much more in line with the big guns of the genre. The WRC series will never topple Codemasters’ king of off-road, but then again I’m not sure that’s what the studio was ever aiming for.
Milestone have a clear modus operandi – make games with passion. The games it puts out are designed to satiate the appetite the fans of the sports it mimics and to that end it is almost second to none in its pursuits. I can’t remember the last time I saw a Milestone game in the ‘best sellers’ shelf at my local retailer, but lack of mainstream appeal shouldn’t ever be equated with quality. Make no mistake Milestone is a quality developer with incredibly talented staff and its pursuit of excellence and its clear love of the subject matter are infectious. It starts with perfecting its mechanics and then builds the game around it, and this ground up approach is what makes its games such a refreshing experience. Knowing the amount of love and care that goes into crafting the experience rather than the marketing message makes you remember why you love videogames in the first place.
Milestone, hats off to you.
Milestone is currently developing MotoGP 2013 which is scheduled for release later this month.