R: Racing Evolution
One of the first truly accurate arcade-to-console ports, the original Ridge Racer was undoubtedly the biggest racing title to be released during the PlayStation’s early years. Because of the new CD-ROM medium, the home version of the game was able to capture the same vivid graphics, slick opening movie and addictive techno/hip-hop soundtrack found in the arcade iteration. The Ridge Racer series quickly became enormously popular among gamers all over the world, but this fame wouldn’t last forever. As the nineties came to a close, the arcade industry was in serious trouble. Major companies like Sega, Midway and Namco cut spending to their arcade divisions and, consequently, fewer and fewer arcade-to-home translations were made. Thus, Namco’s famous arcade racing series began to fade from the limelight, to be replaced by more realistic simulations like Gran Turismo and Sega GT.
As is often the case with things that were once wildly poplar, Namco found it hard to just toss out the Ridge Racer name and move on after the series’ fame diminished. So, instead of releasing a full-blown blockbuster in the true arcade style of the series or completely conforming to the public’s newfound desire for racing simulations, they indecisively created a game that falls into the fuzzy area between arcade and sim. This game, titled R: Racing Evolution, is a solid effort that does many things right, but it never quite achieves the same level of fun as the original, nor does it have enough realism to appeal to diehard sim fanatics.
The meat of R: Racing Evolution’s (henceforth Evolution) gameplay comes in the way of the Racing Life mode. This fourteen-chapter story-driven mode places you in the role of ambulance driver-turned-professional racer, Rena Hayami; a young, curvaceous Japanese woman with a penchant for leaving her racing suit unzipped provocatively low. A healthy number of high quality CG movies, pre and post-race dialogues and in-game radio chatter do an admirable job in propelling the plot forward, but the story just isn’t stimulating enough to keep you more than moderately interested. There are a handful of exciting moments when Rena attempts to best her racing rival Gina, but even these are thwarted by the fact that Gina’s character isn’t given enough backstory and is treated shallowly (she is initially introduced by a three second long close up of her breasts bouncing). A little sex appeal never hurt anybody, but in Evolution it comes at the expense of a deeper, more involving story.
Thankfully, when you do get a chance to touch tires to tarmac (or gravel and dirt as you will see later) the game plays very well. Gone are the floaty, sweeping power slides of past Ridge Racer titles (though many may argue this is a bad thing), replaced with decidedly more realistic handling that allows you to feel the weight of your car shift upon entering/exiting turns and braking. In fact, those familiar with Sega GT 2002 should feel right at home with Evolution’s driving mechanics because both games play very similarly. Besides the fundamental handling change, another sim-like addition to the game is the ability to tweak you car’s performance in numerous different ways. Steering responsiveness, shock compression, shock rebound, spring stiffness, ABS sensitivity and much more can be adjusted and readjusted until you have the perfect setup, and all the changes you make will logically impact your car’s handling on the road.
After each race is completed in the Racing Life mode, you are awarded RP (Reward Points) depending on how well you performed. In another ode to Sega GT, these points can be used to either reduce the weight or increase the horsepower of your cars via step-by-step upgrades. RP earned in Racing Life can also purchase you events in Event Challenge, a mode that allows you to tackle a wide array of different race situations like tournaments, tours, rival races, time trails and a few others. In fact, though Racing Life is the main game mode, about 70% of Evolution’s lifespan comes from time spent unlocking races and earning medals in Event Challenge.
Unlocking such a large amount of races would be a tedious endeavor in many other racing games, but Evolution nimbly sidesteps this pitfall by adding rally and drag racing in with the traditional circuit-based street competitions. The beautiful thing is Namco didn’t just sloppily throw these separate race types in, but actually spent time and effort refining them into worthwhile additions to the game. Drag racing is unique because it places just as much importance on timing as it does with the sheer power of your car – just like in real life, jump the gun and you are promptly disqualified. The rally racing segments don’t stack up to the likes of Rallisport Challenge or Colin McRae when it comes to gameplay authenticity, but they capture the spirit of the sport well enough to break up the monotony accompanied with racing around the same paved courses over and over again. Mainstream race fans will probably get the most enjoyment out of these new race types though, as they won’t expect the perfection that hardcore petrol heads will.
One way Evolution is very similar to its Ridge Racer forbearers is the way competition with other racers is handled. Unlike in more realistic titles like Gran Turismo, timed runs are not made before each race to judge where you will be on the starting line. Every time you begin a competitive race your car is placed at the back of the pack. This can be highly annoying; especially during race series’ where you have the highest cumulative point total, yet still get stuck in the rear at the outset. This glaring annoyance is slightly alleviated by the inclusion of the Pressure Meter – a great new feature that keeps track of the psychological impact you are having on an opponent. As you gain ground on a car ahead of you, an empty bar pops up above their vehicle. Stay right on their tail, swerve from side to side or even nudge them and their Pressure Meter fills up. When it reaches maximum they become so preoccupied with you that they are susceptible to making simple mistakes, and often end up making a poorly timed turn or losing control of their vehicle. Sim nuts will probably scoff at the arcady nature of the Pressure Meter, but it really does inject a good amount of strategy into the races.
There are few niggling gameplay issues that hold Evolution down. First, the crashes are terrible. Actually, to say the crashes are terrible would be to imply that crashes actually happen in the game, so maybe I should rephrase that: the lack of realistic crash mechanics in the game is terrible. In fact, there is absolutely no way to damage your car during a race, so you can implement the infamous “power slide into other cars during corners to cut in front of them” technique that works well, but feels terribly cheesy. Of course, it’s hard to criticize Namco too much for this, as even the great Gran Turismo series has failed to address this annoying issue.
Besides the lack of car damage, another problem is the tracks are much too linear. Even the most flimsy looking barriers on the side of the track will act like concrete blocks if you careen into them, so it is nigh impossible to get off the course. This is mostly an issue during the rally races, because one of the thrills of that particular sport is the risk of falling off a cliff to your death (or worse, paralysis, first degree burns, loss of a limb or – oh you get the picture). There is one particular rally course that has a section in which you can “fall off the track,” but this basically consists of dropping a few feet down into a small stretch of dirt that promptly forces you to merge back on the track. Booooorriiinng.
Visually, Evolution is appealing, but not without its blemishes. The cars themselves, which are renditions of real life vehicles such as the Chevy Corvette, Nissan Skyline GT-R, Mitsubishi Evolution VIII and the Ford Shelby GT500, are breathtakingly gorgeous. Real-time reflections morph and glisten off the cars’ slick, irregular surfaces and perfectly modeled shadows are dynamically cast onto the environment depending on the vehicles’ location in comparison to the nearest light source. These effects are especially noticeable during the amazing replays, which are some of the best I’ve seen in a racing game due to their polish and authenticity. If a replay is shown from the viewpoint of a helicopter, the thumping blades of the chopper can be heard and the camera jumps around realistically. If the camera is located underneath a car, it vibrates violently and even has a different tint because of the clear plastic protecting the lens.
It’s just too bad that the same amount of effort wasn’t put into the game’s track environments. I’d like to pose a simple question to the developers at Namco: where the hell is the anti-aliasing? It is absolutely shocking how much flickering takes place during a race; if you are even slightly inclined towards epilepsy stay far far away from this game. Of course, the aliasing isn’t noticeable when you are looking at a static environment, but considering this a racing game, don’t expect that to be the case all too often. Other than the aliasing issue, there is just a general lack of texture detail used for the game’s environments. Anyone used to the high-quality bump-mapping in Rallisport Challenge or Project Gotham Racing 2 will be completely unimpressed by the textures found in Evolution. On the positive side of things, the game’s 14 real life tracks, like Monaco’s Circuit De Monaco, Japan’s Twin Ring Motegi and Australia’s Phillip Island GP, are all modeled accurately right down to the barrier billboards from Panasonic, Nikon, Suntory and other companies.
One of the most memorable aspects of the early Ridge Racer games was their funky and addictive soundtracks, but Evolution doesn’t manage to live up to this legacy. While there are a few noteworthy tunes like the catchy T Minus Ten and Divas, most of the 11 songs offered are fairly mundane techno offerings that you’ll likely forget immediately upon shutting off your Xbox. The opening theme and its remix (used for the staff roll) are both classy tunes with beautiful vocals, but again, they are the minority. Namco also committed the cardinal sin of Xbox racing games by failing to add custom soundtrack support. The general sound effects in Evolution are handled well, especially the quality voice acting for Rena and the other characters in Racing Life. Engine noises vary realistically depending on whether you are driving a rally vehicle (with its patented souped-up vacuum cleaner whine) or a roaring V8 muscle car, but they can sound slightly tiny when compared to other racing games.
In the end, Namco’s indecisiveness when developing R: Racing Evolution is its biggest weakness. Its odd mishmash of old Ridge Racer elements, Sega GT-like simulation features and new gameplay additions make it unique, but also simultaneously alienate old school Ridge Racer fans while not providing enough realism to please hardcore Gran Turismo junkies. That’s not to say the game isn’t worth your time though, as it does feature tight driving mechanics, a fun two-player mode and that famous classy Namco presentation. Overall I do recommend the game, but only cautiously. Just be sure you do realize the gameís weaknesses before making the purchase, that way the strengths will be much easier to appreciate.