R: Racing Evolution|
By: Matt C. on January 12, 2004
With five Ridge Racer games under its belt, Namco has finally decided to ditch (for now, at least) the pure arcade-based gameplay found in its flagship racing series in favor of more simulation-based gameplay. As the name suggests, R: Racing Evolution is intended to be a step forward in the Ridge Racer series, with more mature handling and physics, and real-life cars. Although some people would argue that R: Racing Evolution is actually a step backward, Namco still makes a fine attempt at pushing its legendary racing series to new heights. As a person who prefers simulation racing games over arcade ones, I'd be happy as a clam if Namco continued to take the series in this direction.
With only 32 real-life cars on its roster, it's obvious that R: Racing Evolution's focus isn't to take down the ultra-realistic Gran Turismo series. Instead, Racing Evolution's gameplay is about 20% arcade, and 80% simulation. As soon as you take the game for a spin, you'll notice that the controls are more forgiving than Gran Turismo 3. However, this does not mean that inexperienced racers will breeze though the game. You'll still need to learn how to brake correctly, as each car will oversteer/understeer fairly realistically. Rally racing is also pretty realistic, so don't expect to be able to drift around corners like a bat out of hell.
Before each race, you'll be given the opportunity to make adjustments to your car. You can tweak the shock absorbers, front/rear springs, front/rear stabilizer, front/center/rear LSD, final drive ratio, front/rear brake strength, the ABS, traction control system, steering response, the max HP/torque, and the car's overall weight. Don't worry through -- modifying your car isn't as integral as it sounds. As long as you know how to adjust the final drive ratio (which helps determine if you want your car to focus more on acceleration or top speed), then you should be fine.
There is even a braking assist system, which automatically deploys the brakes before hairpin turns. It completely drains every ounce of fun out of the game, but it should give inexperienced drivers a well needed boost in confidence. Not only that, but the difficulty can be changed for each race.
R: Racing Evolution offers five modes of play, including Racing Life, Event Challenge, Arcade, Time Attack, and Versus. Racing Life is the meat of "Evolution's" gameplay and it places players under the racing helmet of Rena Hayami, a young Japanese woman who becomes a paramedic after moving to America. She eventually receives an offer to join a professional racing team. Once on board, she meets Gina Cavalli, who just happens to be the head driver of an opposing racing team. From the start, Rena and Gina do not get along and they instantly become rivals.
As you can see, the plot can be summed up in a couple of sentences, but it still had me intrigued from the get go. Unfortunately, despite its potential, the Racing Life mode was not executed very well. Although "Racing Life" consists of 14 chapters, it ends far too quickly and it left me feeling unsatisfied. The story never really picks up and character development could have been better. Perhaps I shouldn't be complaining, as most people don't want an all out soap opera in their racing games, but a more compelling storyline would have been nice.
Once you complete the short-lived Racing Life mode, you can test out the Event Challenge mode. Here, you can use Reward Points (money) earned from the Racing Life mode to purchase new cars and performance upgrades. Sadly, the upgrades only go as far as HP/Torque and weight reduction.
Once upgrades have been purchased, you can then buy your way into tournaments, tour races, one-make races, and other challenges. There are at least 150 challenges to enter, so this mode will keep most players very busy.
One aspect I really like about R: Racing Evolution (aside for the realistic handling and the fun rally stages) is the Pressure Meter. Whenever you approach an opposing driver, a meter will appear above his or her car. The longer you tailgate that driver, the more the meter fills up. Once it becomes completely full, the driver has a much better chance of making a mistake at the next corner. If the other driver manages to get away from you, the meter returns to zero.
Of course, this isn't very realistic, as most real-life race car drivers are trained to deal with the pressure of an opponent riding on his or her bumper, but the Pressure Meter is still a welcome feature to the game. It's a truly amazingly experience to start out in last place, and then steadily make your way to the lead position using the Pressure Meter and good ol' fashion drafting. In R: Racing Evolution, you'll never feel like you have an unfair advantage over the AI-controlled cars (unless you put the game's difficulty on easy), and they will never magically get a "speed boost" if you manage to get too far ahead.
The car models in R: Racing Evolution are not quite as good as the ones found in Gran Turismo 3, but Racing Evolution's vehicles still look better than most other racing titles. However, even though each car has a nice level of detail to them, they never present the feeling that you're watching a real-life race when you view them from the replay footage. On the good side, Namco has done a great job on the reflection mapping, because you can see just about every object in the reflection of the car's surface when you drive past them. It also did well on the CG sequences, which are presented between races in the Racing Life mode.
Unfortunately, the game's 14 real-life and fictitious courses do not hold up as well as the car models. When looking into the distance, you'll notice a large amount of "flickering", which can be distracting at times, and it makes the game look out-dated. The courses have some nice detail to them, such as the Yokohama circuit -- with a ferris wheel and looming skyscrapers, but the aliasing and "flickering" issues still hold the game's visuals back a couple notches. On a positive note, Racing Evolution runs at a steady framerate.
R: Racing Evolution adds a little variety to its sound by allowing in-game communication between the pit crew and rival drivers. When opposing drivers pass you, he or she will taunt you over the radio, or they express their frustration when you manage to pass them. If you take a corner too fast or too slow, the pit leader will make you aware of your mistakes. Or if you take a corner well, he will let you know that you are driving correctly. Although the banter over the radio becomes repetitive at times, it somewhat gives you the feeling that you're racing against real people.
As for the music, it mostly consists of techno beats that actually aren't all that bad. It doesn't make me want to run out and purchase the soundtrack, but it works well here.
Namco's first stab at a true car-based racing simulation did not come out perfect, but it still made a nice attempt at evolving its Ridge Racer series. The Racing Life mode (which isn't the first time someone has added an actual story to a racing game) and the lack of available car upgrades is disappointing, but the time I spent with R: Racing Evolution was an enjoyable one. The end of the Racing Life mode suggests that there may be a sequel, so I personally hope that Namco makes it a reality within the next couple years.
If you need something to tide you over until Gran Turismo 4 arrives, go ahead and give R: Racing Evolution a try.
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