With all forms of real sport suspended indefinitely (bar darts – please, no debates on whether that is a real sport) in 2020, videogames have done their utmost to fill the void, so the arrival of this year's iteration of the officially licensed game of the premier motorbike racing formula feels like more of an event than it normally would.
Despite the official licence, MotoGP 20 would generally be dismissed as a niche game, overwhelmingly of interest to committed bike-racing nuts. It's true that motorbikes – especially the fearsomely fast, highly strung Moto GP thoroughbreds and their smaller-capacity Moto2 and Moto3 feeder series – are considerably harder to race than cars.
Luckily, MotoGP 20 provides plenty of concessions for those who aren't in the habit of jumping on their bikes and getting their knees down in a convincing impression of Marc Marquez.
MotoGP 20 also has what it takes to induce rapture in the MotoGP hardcore: as is the case with all good motor-racing games, each year's relentless improvement in game development technology brings incremental advances in realism, and those are much in evidence in MotoGP 20.
If, for example, you sample the game's Historic Riders mode (which, admittedly, confines itself to pretty recent MotoGP history), you will find yourself piloting bikes that feel very different to the current crop. The way in which Historic Riders opens up an ever harder roster of challenges as you progress is pretty moreish, too.
MotoGP 20, wisely, has loosely based its format on that of Codemasters' exemplary Formula One games (the 2020 title is due for a July release), placing a career mode at the centre of its gameplay. You can opt to plunge straight into MotoGP itself or work your way up via Moto2 or Moto3.
And if your racing skills are limited, you can concentrate on team management – missing in recent MotoGP games but back for this one. The game lets you build up a new team, designing its graphics yourself, and taking control of both the commercial and sporting sides by chasing sponsors and setting the direction of bike development.
In career mode, the first thing you must do is set the level of assists on your bike: you can, for example, map both front and back brakes to one trigger (with the AI deciding when to apply the latter), and award yourself a high level of traction control (which gives you a massive advantage over AI-controlled competitors, so feels like cheating).
There's also a rewind mode which lets you erase the more egregious incidents: traction control will cover a multitude of sins, but won't render you immune from high-sides if you attempt something overambitious.
And MotoGP 20's physics, which come into play when you're hurled off your bike and into the gravel, are wondrous to behold.
It's worth participating in as many elements of each race weekend as possible, not just to learn the circuits (which are impressively realistic) but also to take advantage of the game's superb bike setup system, which lets you report specific bike behaviours back to your engineers in something approximating understandable language, so that you don't need a degree in engineering to setup your bike properly for each track.
MotoGP 20 also offers plenty for those who feel that, if life had taken a different turn, they could have raced motorbikes for a living. For example, a new damage engine (which novices can turn off) means there will be aerodynamic consequences if you knock chinks of virtual carbon-fibre off your bike, and this year's game also manages to model asymmetric tyres, designed for tracks with a preponderance of left or right-handers, which blend compounds of different hardness on each side. Even if you avail yourself of driver aids, you will still feel the effects (on braking distances, as well as grip in the corners) of tyre degradation as races reach their latter stages.
The game's AI has been uprated, too – successfully, in that computer-controlled riders behave pretty much as you would expect them too. They won't simply drive through you, taking themselves out in the process, but will ruthlessly exploit any openings you leave, and you will have to work hard and intelligently to get back past them.
All things to all people?
All-encompassing, officially licensed racing games like MotoGP 20 are hellishly difficult to make: they have to be all things to all people, by satisfying the fanatics who crave as authentic an experience as possible, while providing concessions for those whose driving skills are limited.
As far as the latter is concerned, it's slightly disappointing (given the game's unexpectedly captive audience) that MotoGP 20 has opted not to include a tutorial covering the basic principles of motorbike racing, and you will have to tinker a bit to find your right initial level of driver assists.
At times, too, MotoGP 20 somehow seems to lack the drama of the likes of the F1 games – there's a certain amount of razzmatazz to be had when you win races, but the commentary often tends to be a bit flat. Sure, motorbike racing, with its nuggety competitors constantly facing the possibility of severe injury, tends to be more matter-of-fact and less hype-prone than car-racing, but Codemasters' F1 games, in particular, do a better job of creating a sense of occasion.
MotoGP 20 is very impressive indeed. It has vast amounts to offer hardcore Moto GP fans – including online racing, which really isn't for the inexperienced – yet also offers plenty of assistance for gamers who don't exactly have ninja-level skills.
It's solidly constructed, impressive in graphical terms, and arrives at just the right time to do a welcome job of filling the motor-racing shaped hole in our 2020 lives.