R: Racing Evolution
Namco takes on the racing simulation genre with R: Racing Evolution - does the Ridge Racer creator manage to dent the shiny bodywork of its competitors?
PS2, Xbox, GCN
Namco first previewed R: Racing Evolution at last year's E3, and Ridge Racer fans wasted no time in getting their hopes up about the style of the title - but just as the original announcement promised, this is a simulation, not arcade like Ridge Racer. Regardless, as a big fan of Ridge Racer V, I was delighted to hear that a pseudo-sequel was on its way.
The storyline of R: Racing Evolution chronicles the driving career of Rena Hayami, a cute and friendly ambulance driver with some serious driving skills. She's offered a chance to fulfill her racing dreams by showing how well she can race, but encounters sexy rival Gina Cavalli, and the storyline pits the two divas against each other - showcasing some nice CG in the process.
From a distance the gameplay seems similar to the Ridge Racer series, but on closer inspection you'll find a more realistic driving experience. The end result falls somewhere between simulation and arcade, lacking the speed of the latter, and the emphasis on fine-tuning found in titles like GT3.
The meat of the game takes place in the Racing Life mode, where you follow Rena in the highly competitive world of automotive racing. Here you'll meet up with your trainer who'll prepare you for what's to come. The mode is divided into 14 chapters that included racing styles like GT racing, Rally, and night-time drag racing, across 14 real and fictional tracks set in Japan, USA, Spain, England, and Australia.
I like the Ridge Racer look of the GT races - they offer some beautiful scenery particularly on the Monaco Grand Prix and Yokohama bayside tracks. While nowhere near as long or pretty as the other tracks, The Motegi Twin Ring Super Speedway is another very good Japanese track reminiscent of the oval tracks in Daytona USA.
As expected, it's the rally races that provide the most challenge. It's very tough to keep control throughout the race while steering and counter-steering like a madman (er, woman) through the dirt tracks like Windmill Hill and Water Bridge. The constant sliding of rally racing was never something I cared much for, even with the Sega Rally series, and R:RE's rally races don't do much to change my mind.
The drag racing is pretty cool but far too short and not varied enough. You race against three other cars on Surfside tracks that take place in areas I swear look very similar to Miami Beach. It actually takes a lot longer to start a race than it does to make it to the finish. Tracks that are at least 3 times longer would have made for a more rewarding drag racing experience; here they feel more short mini-games.
There are plenty of licensed vehicles - tones of manufacturers and highly acclaimed sports cars are well represented here. Some are immediately available while others must be unlocked, and all of them can be fine-tuned.
R:RE seems to have had more influence from the Moto GP side of the development team rather than the Ridge Racer team, both of which worked on the game. Although many of the early races are too easy, handling can become pretty tricky during courses with lots of consecutive sharp corners and drifting is usually the order of the day - but some tricky controls will sometimes see you drifting straight into a wall.
The brake assist function can be toggled on and off, and while sometimes unpredictable, it does help when entering a steep curve and are sluggish in braking; brake assist will pick up the slack and automatically apply a certain amount of brake pressure to get you through.
All in all, while Gran Turismo may supposedly have better physics, I felt that the vehicles in R: Racing Evolution controlled and handled more to my liking. There was no excessive sliding throughout the tracks and for a brief moments, when the cars obtained top speed and scenery flew by, I almost thought I was playing the next Ridge Racer - but reality set in after the inevitable hairpin came along.
Although a minor issue, I found it a bit odd and disappointing that you're not allowed to drive in the opposite directions. The minute you spin the car around to drive in the opposite direction the game will automatically spin your car back around heading the correct way, which kind of sucks if you're like me and tend to get a little enjoyment from driving the wrong way and colliding with rival drivers head-on after you mess up a race.
The AI system uses a Pressure Meter that increases every time you approach and remain near a rival driver. When the meter is full, the driver in front of you will break down and react to the pressure. It's almost like having a police car driving behind you for a while with no flashing lights or siren on, and you're nervously sitting there trying to drive as carefully as possible while sweating like a pig. With the pressure system, the aggressive drivers will try their best to get away from you while the more timid ones will freak out and lose control. This is a great part of the experience.
R: Racing Evolution took a little while to get into, but soon I was still speeding through the courses in anticipation of what comes next, a testament to this racer's replay value. The load times are brisk and the gameplay addicting, and while fans of the Gran Turismo series may not like the lack of super-tuning on offer here, at least you won't be obsessing for months over equipping your car with the right mufflers, tail pipes, rims, tinted windows, air conditioning, adjustable seats, etc.
Graphically, R: Racing Evolution serves up the type of beautifully artistic and stylish visuals that gamers have come to expect from Namco. Plenty of high quality, very well modeled and glossy cars, and wonderfully detailed courses. Tracks like the Water Bridge Circuit and Yokohama Minato Mirai Circuit are very easy on the eyes and contain highly detailed environments that use up tons of geometry and display a bevy of lush textures. Another personal favorite, the Monaco Grand Prix course has boats docked out in the bay, a cramped city of moderately tall buildings, and distant mountainous backdrops, all coming together to provide Monaco with a very nice tropical look.
The dynamic lighting effects have been put to good use and are highly impressive. The lighting effects are especially nice in the woods where low levels of sunlight penetrates through the small but dense forest of trees, creates haze and even shadows on the road ways of some of the other courses. Even with all of these wonderful graphical touches, R: Racing Evolution manages to maintain a rock solid 60 frames per second with no noticeable hiccups and has excellent draw distance with no nasty pop-up.
The game's awesome visuals are heightened even more by the fantastic replays shown after every race, allowing you to kick back and view the action from different viewpoints. There are also lots of great CG cut-scenes throughout the game that help progress the story. These pre-rendered cut scenes are absolutely gorgeous and there's an option to rewatch a collection of the movies you've unlocked. Namco's CG artists deserve some major kudos.
On the downside, the spectators look awful as (unlike GT4 Prologue) none of them move. There's not much in the way of weather and environmental effects. Some aliasing problems are noticeable. And sometimes the cars look a little out of place - they don't seem to blend in well with the roads, as though they're hovering over the tracks instead of actually interacting with them. Interestingly enough, the cars that tend to present this problem were always the least impressive designed cars. Coincidence maybe? Who knows? Fortunately that problem stands out with just a handful of cars, everything else looks outstanding.
Probably the most disappointing aspect of R: Racing is the easily forgettable soundtrack. The music is comprised of some really generic techno & electronica oriented tracks that attempt to drive the game but end up making me want to drive straight into a wall instead.
What happened to the great sonic offerings provided in Namco's previous racers? They took a few steps back with the soundtrack of R: Racing Evolution as I found nothing remotely enjoyable about it. The sound effects are above average, but the engine sounds of the cars even allow you to judge the distance of rival cars during a race, and while it's a nice little touch, you can also use your eyes to better judge such things.
The voices are probably the highlight of R: Racing's audio department. The racing announcer constantly warns you of approaching turns and also mutters other stuff like, "Don't let him get away with that!", after nearly getting sideswiped by a rival driver. The voices aren't limited to just the excitable announcer, the in-game communications allow you to monitor incoming transmissions from rival drivers and crew members, although it's a little hard to hear what's being said some times. Most of the time it's just useless banter, but there are a few instances where your coach will actually say something useful and earn his keep
All in all, R: Racing Evolution is a pretty solid effort from Namco, a fusion of driving simulation and arcade styled racing. With plenty of cool cars to purchase and unlock, a charming storyline, great graphics and sound effects, as well as some nice features that no other driving sims have, R: Racing Evolution is definitely worth a rental if you're game. It may not be the Ridge Racer successor or spin-off that I, as well as many others had hoped for, but as long as you go in NOT expecting Ridge Racer, you may well love it!