Reviewed: January 16, 2004
Reviewed by: Travis Young
When you mention the words “racing” and “Namco” in the same breath PlayStation gamers will undoubtedly have flashbacks to their favorite racing moments in the ongoing Ridge Racer series. Born in the arcades and quickly ported to the PlayStation, this is the premiere arcade racing game that throws simulation to the wind and lets the driver experience the ultimate in adrenaline-charged racing action.
The Ridge Racer franchise has seen many sequels, both in the arcade and at home with Ridge Racer V being the latest installment released when the PS2 launched back in October of 2000. For whatever reason, that game didn’t do nearly as well as its prequels. Perhaps gamers where expecting a next-gen racing game for their next-gen hardware.
Rather than relying on the apparently stale racing formula, Namco has gone back to the drawing board to create a new more in-depth racing experience that is part Pro Race Driver and part Gran Turismo. R:Racing Evolution is a bold move in a new direction and one that is certainly necessary for Namco to compete in the deluge of racing titles currently available for the PS2, but can Namco escape their own legacy and will gamers accept a racing game that deviates from their once successful formula?
R: Racing Evolution is unique action-racing experience that for the first time uses licensed cars and authentic, real-world tracks. R: Racing Evolution also tells a story, one that chronicles the intense competition and deep rivalries found only within the professional racing circuit. New exciting features such as the Interactive Driver AI System and in-game radio communications bring players closer to racing action than ever before.
R: Racing Evolution Features:
I must admit when I cracked open this game I was expecting the next installment in the Ridge Racer series and I was in for a rude awakening. I’ll warn you right now that if you are looking for the traditional arcade racing action from the previous games then move along. Evolution, as the name implies, aspires to a higher level of sophisticated racing. The only problem is that it falls within a dangerous area where it’s “too real” for classic Ridge Racers and “not real enough” for those looking for a Gran Turismo racing experience.
For any racing game, control is paramount and Evolution plays well enough with the Dual Shock. Gameplay gets significantly better when you hook-up a wheel. I tried both the Mad Catz Universal Wheel and the Saitek RX600 and they worked great and gave the game a more precise level of control when played from the bumper cam – sorry, no cockpit/dashboard. There is a rearview mirror which gives the game an immediately edge over Pro Race Driver. Overall, the controls are an odd mix of simulation versus arcade gameplay that probably won’t feel right for anyone looking for a game at either end of the spectrum.
One innovative gameplay twist is the new Pressure Meter that appears when you approach a car. This meter slowly fills and changes color to indicate the level of psychological pressure the other driver is under. The more pressure the more likely they will make a mistake and give you the break you need to pass and win the race. It’s a great concept and adds much to what would otherwise be a traditional racing experience.
Much like the gameplay and control, physics are a unique blend of realism and arcade. Evolution is in its own “reality” that is slightly more sophisticated than Ridge Racer but pales in comparison to the more serious racing sims. You can draft behind cars and slingshot around them, you can drift through turns, and you can tweak settings to assist you with braking and shifting.
Standard racing modes apply including the Arcade and two-player Versus mode along with Time Attack and the new Racing Life, the story mode that follows the adventures of Rena, a sexy ambulance driver that gets the break of a lifetime and ends up racing with the big boys (and girls). The story element is an interesting twist and the movies are visually stunning, but the plot doesn’t really affect the racing and the entire story is not that long. It falls short of the soap-opera epic quality of Pro Race Driver, which is a shame because this game has a better racing engine and I would have enjoyed a longer story.
Again, in an attempt to mirror the gameplay from Gran Turismo, Evolution covers racing on GT circuits and rally “dirt” racing. This mixes up the tracks and your style of driving and does a good job of keeping you on your toes. There is even some drag racing thrown into the mix.
I was pretty excited about the graphics up to the point where I got my first fly-over of the racetrack. The opening movie and the first cutscene with Rena racing through town in her ambulance were breathtaking. I would have sword I was playing on my Xbox, but as soon as the game graphics took over the infamous shimmering and jaggies of the PS2 reared their ugly head and I was forced to admit that this game looked only marginally better than Ridge Racer V. Considering that game is pushing four-years old we should expect more from our PS2 and Namco.
Once you get down to the racing the visual flaws aren’t as apparent and the cars and tracks look authentic enough. The racecars themselves are much nicer than any of the previous Namco racing games, probably since the cars are now based on licensed vehicles and had to meet manufacturer approval. The tracks are now based on several real-world venues, and racing aficionados will certainly recognize many of their favorites.
The framerate manages to hold up throughout the game with only a few dips on the larger and more complicated tracks. Of course the race field is limited to six cars, so this eases the load on the CPU. Apparently, R:Racing Evolution is also available on Xbox and GameCube, but as of this writing we have not received copies to make any comparisons.
As previously mentioned, the movies are outstanding; all of them, and the replays look really nice too. The menus and overall interface are clean, simple, and easy to navigate.
Evolution is a very vocal game, much more so than any other racer. You are constantly getting radio chatter from your pit crew that reflect their approval or disapproval of your performance, and other drivers will taunt you throughout the race. I would have really enjoyed a taunt feature of my own to add to their pressure gauge, or perhaps even support for the USB headset to enhance the communication system.
With so much speech I actually get to comment on voice acting, something I normally don’t get to talk about in racing reviews. The performance of Rena is excellent as are those of the supporting cast and even the random voices of the other drivers. The movies are particularly well scripted and the in-game radio chatter is usually dead-on with the action and even a bit humorous.
Sound effects include a variety of engines noises, but all of the cars sound very similar and all have that high-pitched super car whine that drones and wears you down over time. There are realistic sounds of tires burning out and squealing around turns and the metallic thump as you bump other cars or scrape the wall.
The music doesn’t deviate from the standard racing rock themes we hear in just about every other racing game. There is a descent selection of tunes, some good and some bad, and you can pick or disable the background music before each race.
Most gamers can finish the Racing Life in two or three sitting or about six hours. The other modes offer nominal gameplay value and the two-player racing is enjoyable when a friend drops by. Even so, I’d have a hard time recommending this game as more than a rental, at least until the price drops to around $30.
I expect this title will fare better on other systems that are lacking the huge racing library the PS2 is privileged to, but I can’t help but admit I did enjoy R:Racing Evolution on the PS2. It’s a unique racing experience that isn’t quite arcade and certainly not simulation. As long as you know what to expect going in you won’t be disappointed and you might even be a bit surprised.