Usually when game developers wish to go in a different direction than their past works, they usually create a whole new franchise to start with a clean slate. AM2 did this with Fighting Vipers to get away from Virtua Fighter, using an innovative armor system and other features to make the game feel very unique to their famous series. Namco has done the same with the Ridge Racer series with their latest racer, R: Racing Evolution. While many people will suggest that the game is in fact Ridge Racer VI, Namco has never given any indication that this was the next installment in the franchise, so we'll assume that it's not. R: Racing Evolution is quite different from past Namco racers that emphasized heavy powersliding and arcade-style play. Instead, we have a game thatís part arcade racer, and part simulation. Although it is a departure from previous games, that doesnít mean that the changes made make it a terrible game. On the contrary, it holds up rather well, itís just very different from what fans of the series would expect.
Like other modern racers, Racing Evolution features an extensive story mode called Racing Life, where youíll assume the role of cover girl Rena Hayashi, as she goes from ambulance driver (no joke) to world class racer. Along the way youíll meet new friends and also gain a host of rivals, including the well-endowed Gina. What makes Racing Life very interesting is how everything is setup so that you feel that you're part of a racing crew instead of a lone wolf out there on the course. During a race your pit crew will talk to you via radio and give you advice on turns and other drivers. Often times they will tell you when someone is on your tail or if youíre not hitting a turn properly. This also goes for your rivals, who will talk to their own pit crews when youíre approaching them. Throughout the story youíll not only compete on street courses and circuits, but rally courses as well. Your rally car obviously handles differently on the rugged terrain, but you have a co-driver accompanying you to give you information about the upcoming turns.
Racing Life also features an "Interactive Driver System", which is a fancy way of saying that your actions dramatically affect the behavior of the driver in front of you. Start approaching him and heíll remain calm, telling his pit crew that he can handle you. Stay behind him for a longer period of time and get into his slipstream, and heíll start getting worried. Soon enough, heíll start to crack under the pressure youíve applied and will eventually make a mistake, allowing you to take advantage and pass him. A handy meter above each car, which indicates how far off each racer, is from breaking down, handles all of this. Of course, it becomes increasingly difficult to execute this later in the game, so youíll have to be on top of him in order to lay into him.
On top of all of this, you can also customize your car to the nth degree. There are a ton of options that you can fool around with here. Everything from the ABS system to the shocks and stabilizers can be fine-tuned to your liking. You can even turn on a handy dandy Brake Assist if youíre having trouble with a particular course. The Brake Assist will basically brake at the right time during turns so that you can clear them without trouble. All you have to do is worry about your steering and acceleration. This is great for new players to use so that they can get accustomed to the mechanics of the game, as well as other players who just want to get through Racing Life as quickly as possible with the minimum amount of effort.
Of course, racing games live and die by how good the cars handle. Unfortunately handling the cars can be very clumsy at times. The physics of the cars are slightly off whenever youíre entering turns, which can lead to some very frustrating moments. You could be entering a corner at the optimal speed, hit the brakes to drift into it, and itís very possible for you to not drift at all. Instead, your car will simply go into a straight line. For rally courses the exact opposite happens. Instead of not turning, at times youíll actually turn too much and crash into a wall, inflating your time. The Brake Assist is also very wonky in this game. Often times itíll brake for you when itís not necessary or when you donít have nearly enough speed for an optimal turn. The most puzzling omission from the game is the Reverse setting. Usually racing games map Brake and Reverse on the same button, or at least give you an option to downshift to it while in Manual mode. Racing Evolution does neither for some odd reason, so if youíve spun out and are facing the wrong direction, you simply canít three point turn and drive off, you have to do a complete 360 degree turn. Fortunately, despite some glaring flaws the sense of speed in Racing Evolution seems spot on, especially if youíre playing in first person mode. I feel that itís a little bit harder to judge just how fast youíre going in this game compared to other recent releases, but thatís simply due to the lack of objects that are on the race course to give you that sense of speed. Whenever you do pass something noticeable (say, a bridge), you do feel that you are going 130 m.p.h.
Due to the game being developed with the Moto GP engine, Racing Evolution is not looking nearly as good as its competitors, namely Project Gotham Racing 2 and Need for Speed Underground. In fact, itís not even looking as good as Gran Turismo 3, which was released over two years ago. While the noticeable aliasing can get annoying at times, itís the art direction that really makes this game less than spectacular visually. Almost every track out of the fourteen available in the game couldíve have benefited from some spicing up, whether it be better use of lights, a change in the time of day (only one course takes place at night) or a change in weather. As it is, none of the tracks change at all, which makes them feel lifeless and - dare I say it - sterile. Come to think of it, only one course (based in Monaco) has any real personality to it. The FMV sequences on the other hand, are excellent. Everything from the opening movie to the cutscenes during Racing Life are vivid and full of personality. Itís a shame that the rest of the game couldnít keep up. Like previous Ridge Racer titles, the soundtrack for Racing Evolution is top notch. Despite being a techno-heavy soundtrack, itís still very pleasing to the ears, although the chitchat of the pit crews can drown it out.
For those who love their little extras, youíll be pleased to know that Racing Evolution has tons to unlock. Not only can you unlock a ton of cars (around 50 in total), but you can also purchase Event Challenges that allow you to complete various scenarios in order to earn even more Racing Points to use towards purchasing new items. On top of that, you can also view all of the FMV from Racing Life once you have completed the mode, as well as the gorgeous opening movie.
I admit that I wasnít very enthused with the direction that Namco has taken with the game. I wanted more than anything a good, arcade-style Ridge Racer game. Nonetheless, I tried playing the game with an open mind. The problem is, that didnít allow me to dismiss some of the errors that were made in this game that were never an issue in previous games. The so-so handling of the cars as well as the overall bland look the game has never a problem in past Ridge Racer games, so itís a complete mystery why itís an issue here. Racing Evolution is definitely a competent racer, but given the field of competition for racing games this year, competent may not cut it, especially in the face of Project Gotham Racing 2, which has near perfect execution. If youíre really hungry for a new racing title, R: Racing Evolution will give you some good times for a while, but at best itís a rental.
· · · Reno