Tour de France 2021 Review

June 21, 2021
Xbox Series
Also on: PC, PS5
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This weekend sees the return of Le Tour de France, one of cycling’s big three Grand Tours. Like most events, its 2020 outing was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic but it was eventually run in late August with Slovenian, Tadej Pogačar, winning the overall classification. This year, however, it returns to its usual late June/early July start though it still hasn’t been free of COVID-related changes. This year’s Grand Départ was meant to be in the Danish capital of Copenhagen, however it has since been moved to Brest in the Bretagne region of France. Should you wish to experience all 3,383 kilometres (2,102 miles) of this year’s Le Tour but without the saddle soreness, then Tour de France 2021 from developers Cyanide Studios aims to fill that void.

As a sport, professional cycling is relatively easy to understand and follow. Whilst there are rules and regulations that govern the sport the basic idea is you ride from point A to point B and whoever gets there first wins. This could be a one day event like Paris-Roubaix or multi-day or even multi-week events, the latter including the Grand Tours. These three events, Giro d’Italia, Le Tour de France and the Vuelta a España are the events the professional teams and riders covet the most. The joy of cycling, however, is that whilst there’s a prize for the overall win, you can still take a prize for topping the other disciplines of cycling if you’re not quite an all-rounder. In the context of Le Tour, the main jersey riders strive for is the maillot jaune or the yellow jersey. The rider who is wearing this at any point of the three weeks it takes to complete the event, is the cyclist who is leading the overall classification.

The Paris-Roubaix, even digitally, isn’t easy

However, should you be unable to take the overall win there are other jerseys to aim for. If the sprints are your thing, the maillot vert (green jersey) for the rider who gains the most points at designated sprints throughout the tour. You could take out the maillot à pois rouges (polka dot jersey) if you get the most points during designated climbs or the maillot blanc (white jersey) if you are the highest classified rider under the age of twenty-five. In a gaming context then this allows you to focus on one of these should your push for yellow subside or you could ignore the overall classification completely and go for one the alternate classifications. 

Tour de France 2021 maps out this year’s event in its entirety and should you wish to, you can hop right on into one of cycling’s toughest challenges. We did and it’s here the biggest issue of making a cycling game hits you hard — cycling stages can be long and boring. From experience, the joy of long rides comes from the banter and the camaraderie you have with fellow riders. This is something that is pretty impossible to digitise and impart into a game. If you decide to ride out a whole stage, which takes anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour depending on length and type of stage, you’ll spend a lot of time holding X to follow your teammates or another rider in the peloton. You could live dangerously and join an early breakaway but then you’ll need to learn the awkward way in which you rotate through a train with the AI.

Yellow Jersey and leading the way, at least for now

A train is a long line of riders, usually single-file, and it is considered polite that every rider in the train takes a turn at the front. This allows the riders following to draft the rider in-front which takes less energy and is a key tool to conserving energy for long climbs or sprint finishes. Teams will use trains to bring riders back up to the main bunch or as a way of bridging the gap to a breakaway to make sure that the rider they’ve singled out for a shot at the maillot jaune is kept fresh until the opportune moments arises for their tilt at the top. You’d think that, as this is such a key tool there’d be a relatively easy way to achieve this in-game but alas it is not so. Instead it's rather maddening if you’re riding solo. The only way we managed to pull it off convincingly was to follow the rider using X, wait for our turn up front, set our speed using the shoulder buttons or hold right trigger to just peddle and then cross our fingers that we could slow enough to get the rider behind to take their turn — but not too slow as to drop off the train entirely.

This was easier said than done and often we’d have to spend precious energy furiously tapping A (used to get your rider to step on the pedal and increase effort) to get ourselves back on the rear of the train. Sure we could refill our energy by coasting down hills or drinking one of the two drinks available to us, but using energy and refuelling at the right moment plays a key part in taking out stage wins. Use your energy up too early and you can go from first to thirtieth (or worse) quite quickly, especially if the stage ends in a bunch finish. 

First-person view adds a decent amount of immersion

You can somewhat mitigate this by choosing to fast-forward a stage. By opening up the team menu, you can hold the left trigger to manually fast-forward or pick one of the defined points on a stage for it to auto forward to. The team menu is also the place where you can define the strategy that your fellow teammates are riding to. You can get one of them to protect you or start a breakaway if you want them to try and sap the energy of your closest rivals. It’s relatively basic and we found it hard to get them to do anything useful leaving us to fight for victory on our own. The fast-forward function also doesn’t do any refuelling for you so it’s important that you don’t go too far into a stage. If you forget you could end up with a rider devoid of any energy left and therefore suffer a blow-out. Should this occur your rider will drop back and you could lose lots of places and suffer a verbal shot across the bows from your team manager.

Don’t worry though, the team manager has little to no effect on you or your team's performance. Whilst he may offer advice, strategy info and nuggets of information on fellow riders, he is little more than a very specific commentator. A lot of team management games will allow you to hire staff in order to provide boosts to certain aspects of your team and its riders, but not so here. Should you win a stage or perform better than expected, you’ll get a hearty congratulations. Finish plumb last or outside of where you’re meant to be, he’ll let you know just how disappointed he is. After a while, you just wish he’d shut up and appreciate the fact that our created rider is barely in his twenties and shouldn’t be expected to take out a win in their first season.

There’s something unnervingly intimidating about each and every one of them

Outside of being able to take on Le Tour and a smattering of the other classics such as Liège–Bastogne–Liège, the aforementioned Paris-Roubaix or the Critérium du Dauphiné you can set up your own team (Pro Team) or your own rider (Pro Leader). Both put you in control of your own made-up team to join the ranks of official ones. You can use the in-game editor if you wish to change things should any riders swap teams and you can even move the distinctive jerseys around for things such as the World Time Trial champion. All game modes, however, boil down to the same thing though, which is riding from point A to point B. The better you do in a Pro Team season the better riders you can attract and the better events you can enter. In Pro Leader, where your focus should be your rider, the same pretty much applies. Improving your stats is solely based on your performance and your ability to surround yourself with better riders is tied to your created team’s overall standings at the end of the season.

In Pro Leader, there’s no way outside of your performances in races to improve your ability. This led to season upon season spent in the wilderness with the same three events to take part in. In reality this would come as no surprise as a young rider would take years of event experience before they would get anywhere near winning Le Tour. From a gameplay perspective though it’s a slog, and not an overly fun one at that. Whilst each event mixes up the routes and occasionally throws in a time trial for good measure, if you can’t improve you or your Pro Team sufficiently your season will continue in this fashion ad nauseam. We also noticed that last year’s Le Tour winner, Tadej Pogačar, takes out the season winner’s jersey with alarming regularity. He’s a strong rider, sure, but he comes across as very overpowered, winning plenty of stages and season tours alongside the season championship.

Top step of the podium, didn’t happen too often for us

The lack of any other method to improve your rider is a massive oversight in our opinion. You can lower the difficulty but there should be the ability to enter your rider into one-off day rides that can help improve your stats. There are enough stages already present in the game for it to procedurally generate other events to enter that have no classification points tied to them where you can focus on improving a skill area such as climbing. They could have entries from other riders around your overall skill level meaning you have a better chance of winning something early on and therefore boosting not just your computer-generated rider but your confidence too. The focus on strategy in Tour de France 2021 is admirable in that it plays such a key part in its real-life counterpart but like any sim, it needs to take a step back just slightly from reality to make things engaging enough for casual players to enjoy themselves too.

As a recreation of a sport, Tour de France 2021 does a wonderful job at bringing the nuance of professional cycling to gamers around the world. However, it does so at the expense of enjoyment. Die-hard fans will likely find a lot to love and tinker with and will no doubt take to the tactical battles by way of the team manager like ducks to water. However, to most other fans Tour de France 2021 will come across as boring and soulless. By locking other events behind XP in the one-off events mode or by making progression through its Pro Team or Pro Leader mode exceedingly difficult even on normal difficulty, Cyanide Studios are effectively gatekeeping their own game from the casual masses. 

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The world of professional cycling was never going to be an easy sport to translate to a game. Cyanide Studios have made this even harder by making a game that seems to appeal only to the sport's keenest of fans at the expense of educating and rewarding the curiosity of new fans to the sport.‍
Pete Taylor

A long time gamer since the days of the mighty ZX Spectrum +2. The bug really bit when I got a Sega Mega Drive 2 and it hasn’t let up since. Huge racing fan but I also enjoy losing myself in a well-told RPG and management sims. It doesn’t have to be good-looking to win my heart, it’s what’s deep down inside that matters.