When The PlayStation made its US debut in 1995, Namco’s Ridge Racer was an essential purchase. The game’s slick visuals and power slide heavy arcade gameplay helped sell more than a few systems, and Namco followed up with two excellent sequels, Ridge Racer Revolution and Rage Racer. The introduction of Sony’s Gran Turismo raised the bar significantly for racing games by combining dozens of licensed cars with realistic graphics, a combination of simulation and arcade racing, and the ability to tinker endlessly with any of the cars in the game. Namco’s response was R4, which had even better visuals than GT, over 300 fictional vehicles, and polygon cutie Reiko Nagase (the intro movie is still one of the greatest in gaming). With the launch of the PS2, Namco was there with Ridge Racer V, which looked and played quite nicely, but wasn’t as deep as the previous installment on the PS One. Now, after a little bit of a break the series is back with R: Racing Evolution, and it’s definitely not your daddy’s Ridge Racer. Evolution is clearly a step forward for the franchise on all fronts. It’s the first game in the series available for all 3 major consoles, the amazing-looking cars are all licensed (as are most of the tracks), and the gameplay will shock and surprise diehard fans of the older games.
What we have here is a super-fun mixture of simulation and arcade-style handling with a fun story mode (Racing Life) that makes up just about 1/3 of the game. You play as Rena Hayami, an ambulance driver that gets a chance to join a racing team after a display of fancy driving while rushing a patient to the hospital. Rena joins the mysterious G.V.I. team and runs into Gina Cavalli, a racer on another team who warns her about G.V.I.’s intentions. Rena just wants to become a great racer, so she decides to let her driving do the talking, which is where you come in. Success in R demands driving precision, and you’ll want to play on Normal or Hard with the braking assist turned off for maximum results. Superb control (thanks to pre-race tweaking) means Easy mode is a cakewalk for veteran racers, but I highly recommend it for folks who don’t normally get into racing games. As you make your way through the Racing Life mode, you’ll open up cars that can be used in the other game modes. Before a set of races, you get to choose the car that you’ll be driving. Win all the races (or place high enough in overall points), and the car is yours to keep. You also earn RP (Racing Points), which can be used to buy and upgrade cars in the Event Challenge mode. The initial selection isn’t that big, but there are some really cool cars to be found, and more become available as the game progresses.
R mixes GT, Rally, and Drag racing, and you’ll have to become master of all 3 styles of racing to come out on top. One really cool touch is that you can use any of the cars on any of the tracks in the game’s Time Attack mode. Although I wouldn’t recommend running a drag car on the twisty rally courses or the Monte Carlo track. Your rival drivers have some decent AI, and the game features a “pressure meter” that shows their reaction to your driving skills. The other drivers will also taunt you when you’re passed or yell at you when you’re aggressive, and your team leader offers up additional praise or chews you out for poor technique. With only 14 chapters, Racing Life is a bit short, but the CG movies are excellent, and the voice acting is solid and pretty believable for the most part.
Still, once you’re done with the story, you’ll spend hours unlocking even more great cars to use in the rest of the game. You’ll find at least 32, and all are a joy to take for a virtual spin on any of the 14 tracks found in the game.
Graphically, R looks really great. The car models are easily on par with GT3, but like that game there’s no damage model like the one in Pro Race Driver or Colin Mc Rae 3. The frame rate is rock solid, and once you get used to not jamming on the handbrake at every sharp turn, you’ll find that the racing is just as solid. The game has the best version of the Monte Carlo course I’ve seen, and even the fictional tracks manage to pull of a nice sense of place. I’d have loved to see some night racing or rain/snow effects, though. The replay footage is quite realistic (love that camera shake!) without the stylistic overkill found in other racers. Clearly, Namco is aiming at the more mature Gran Turismo buyer and the gearheads who turn their noses up at games without licensed cars. Even if you don’t identify with playing as Rena, you can’t deny that the game definitely gets the job done when it comes to delivering an excellent racing experience. The sound effects are solid as well, and musically, there’s an extension of the cool R&B/techno-lite blend found in R4. I liked the music quite a lot (I’m listening to tracks as I write this review), although I’ll admit to turning it off during the races- I like to concentrate on the road in racing games.
The only minor caveats here are there are no I-Link or online features, and it would have been nice to see more cars on the track (I’ve been griping about this since the first Gran Turismo), though. Still, Codemasters’ TOCA series and Infogrames’ Le Mans 24 Hours should be required playing for racing game developers. Also, the story mode could have been a bit deeper- Rena is an attractive character, but her personality gets lost once you get behind the wheel. Maybe Namco could borrow a few elements from Square’s import PS One game Racing Lagoon, and give us a nice racing/console RPG combo one day. However, racing fans that don’t care about things like that and want another excellent game to add to their collection will want to grab R: Racing Evolution as soon as they can. The series is off to an awesome new start for the new millennium, and future installments will no doubt be even better.
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