Reviewed: September 30, 2004
Reviewed by: Arend Hart
When examining Street Racing Syndicate, it’s nigh impossible to avoid drawing comparisons to EA’s Need For Speed: Underground since from a distance, many aspects of Street Racing Syndicate appear to mimic last year’s Underground epic. Sadly, that’s not the real case here, as Street Racing Syndicate had been in development for quite some time prior to the release of Underground. Its unique and fresh street racing features were highly publicized in the press, and highly anticipated by the gaming community. Street Racing Syndicate was on the cusp of release – a guaranteed hit – when it’s publisher, 3DO, suddenly declared bankruptcy and collapsed.
All was on hold until Street Racing Syndicate was eventually auctioned off in the 3DO bankruptcy. Namco quickly snagged the title and promised a quick release – a risky maneuver at the time considering Namco already had R: Racing Evolution waiting in the wings. The quick release did not arrive – which came as no surprise – Namco was probably too busy trying to figure out how to keep afloat after the dreary release of Evolution.
There was little-to-no news from the Street Racing Syndicate camp for nearly six months, where it was presented at this year’s E3 – but by then, the excitement was already gone – the public having already seen their fill of Fast and Furious styled street racing many months before in EA’s blockbuster hit Need For Speed: Underground.
Now, just over a year after Namco took over, and nearly two years after its initially scheduled release date, we finally see Street Racing Syndicate hitting the shelves – a game that while technically solid and wonderfully deep, is no longer all that unique in the sea of racing games, street or otherwise. It’s a shame, because had Street Racing Syndicate been released a year ago, the press would have been all over it. As it stands however, Street Racing Syndicate is coming up against some very strong competition in the likes of Burnout 3: Takedown and Need For Speed: Underground 2, and it just can’t cut the mustard against those two powerhouses.
While the comparisons to Need For Speed: Underground are inescapable, Street Racing Syndicate’s gameplay is really closer to that of Crave’s Tokyo Xtreme Racer series of titles, which have been kicking around since the Dreamcast days. And by closer, I mean that many aspects are nearly identical. That is not particularly a bad thing, because the Tokyo Xtreme series had some truly groundbreaking features for its time, it’s just that the execution and presentation were off. Street Racing Syndicate on the other hand, takes that same Tokyo Xtreme formula and improves on it in almost every way, and then puts it all in one very solid racing package.
Street Racing Syndicate features both single player and multiplayer options – I’ll stick with the single player first and discuss the multiplayer later. From the menu screen, players have the option of choosing either Arcade or Street mode. Arcade matches are great for a quick fix, but you won’t get the full enjoyment from the game until you delve headfirst into the uber-long Street mode.
Street mode places you on a dealership’s showroom floor where are presented with a handful of entry level cars to choose from, and a pocket full of cash which you won during an opening sequence race. Most are Asian compacts, and each has it’s own strengths and limitations, leaving you to pick one that best suits your style. I was quite surprised by the initial selection of vehicles, which included some higher-end rides, i.e. the Subaru Imprezia, at astonishingly affordable prices. You pick your pony, choose a color, and hit the road.
Once out of the showroom, it’s time to hit the garage where you can use any leftover cash to buy a handful of performance and cosmetic upgrades – everything ranging from full body kits to engine mods, stickers packs to nitrous systems – it’s all here, you just need to have the cash. Navigating around the garage menus does take a bit of getting used to, as the whole process of picking, purchasing and installing parts is a tad nebulous. Add that on top of the 3-5 second delay (during which it clears the data readout screen) waiting for the dyno to calculate the resulting performance characteristics as you cycle through each available modification, and it’s a bit hard to compare the effects of two different mods side-by-side without either cycling back and forth four or five times, or physically writing down the before and after results and then making a decision.
Unlike the Gran Turismo series, simply buying the highest priced product does not necessarily guarantee the best performance – sometimes actually reducing your current performance. Therefore, as you progress through the game, it does pay to spend time in the garage trying different combinations of mods to find the best total package.
As for the cosmetic upgrades, you have the choice between stock body kits or universal bolt-ons as well as paint and vinyl options. I particularly like the visual effect shown when you make cosmetic upgrades – seeing the car morph from before to after is quite satisfying, especially later on in the game when you begin paying for body repairs and you actually get to watch as dents are bumped out, hoods are straightened and glass is repaired.
We have a car with a handful cool mods – now it’s time to cruise the streets. Street Racing Syndicate features large, detailed cityscapes of LA, Miami and Philadelphia, with both night and day lighting. Racers must contend with a slew of commuter traffic, delivery trucks and police cruisers littered throughout the level. The object is to cruise the streets accepting or rejecting the various challenges that await, all the while building respect points – points awarded for stylish drifting maneuvers - and betting cash. There are a number of challenges available, all with their own unique rewards.
If cheese is what you need, you have a few options – the Roll-Up Races, Street Challenges, and Sanctioned Events all pay off in cash. Roll-Up races have you flashing headlights at any of the scattered drivers cruising the city with large “Race Me” icons floating over their rides. These usually pay the least.
If you need even more cash, there are the Street Challenges, where progressively more and more skilled AI drivers sit parked on street corners and alleyways awaiting your arrival. Drive up to them and they challenge you to a race. If you win the race, you take the cash, lose the race and you end up paying. These races pay a bit more.
Finally, if you want to really rake in the dough, there’s the Sanctioned Events – a series of three sets of three races (nine races in total) against three other competitors. The ante (the amount you must pay to take part – like an entry fee) is high, but so are the winnings – and with the option to run side bets against other racers (you are betting you will beat that particular racer – you don’t necessarily have to finish first), the stakes the pretty high. The races take the form of either point-to-point or the more common lap races, and you’ll find that the drivers get a bit aggressive towards the end of the race.
So if the Sanctioned Events are so profitable, why even mess with any of the other events? Because you will need enough cash to ante up – and cash doesn’t grow on trees, buddy – plus, there is this little hitch they call the respect points. You see, the game sets respect point minimums on each of the Sanctioned Events. So, you may have enough cash to ante up, but you can’t get in without the respect, so it’s off to the street to do some drifting.
How the game calculates the respect points based on the drifting I will never know, as it seems more arbitrary than anything, but the gist is that as you powerslide in and out of corners, on and off two wheels, etc., the game begins racking up the so-called respect points (think Kudos from Project Gotham). Chain together a couple of good drifts and you start gaining multipliers on your respect points. As long as you avoid walls and other drivers, you’ll be awarded the points at the close of the combo, hit either and all you get is a damaged vehicle and a loss of respect points.
Driving crazy means damaged vehicles, damaged vehicles mean expensive repairs, expensive repairs mean you need cash, you needing cash means you need to race Sanctioned Events, racing Sanctioned Events takes respect points, you only get respect points by driving crazy…you get the picture – it’s a vicious and addictive cycle.
There is one other way to get respect points, and this one’s a little weird. In the Respect Challenges, scantily clad women scattered throughout the city challenge you complete a series of missions for the opportunity to call them your girlfriend – yes you heard that right, you are tasked with choosing girlfriends. The way it works is that the girls challenge you to, say…get twenty five respect points in one minute by catching air only. Now it’s your job to book out through the city, find an appropriate ramp-like structure, and jump it however many times it takes to get the 25 points. If you complete the challenge, the girl is yours. Yes, they are that easy.
Eighteen young ladies, and you can collect ’em all. Once you have them, you lock them away in your warehouse. Every now and then one will get feisty, maybe a little jealous, and ask you to “hang”. Now here’s where the weirdness comes in (as if it wasn’t weird enough already) – the act of “hanging” consists of you watching a song-long video of some of the most embarrassing single-person dancing ever caught on film. I mean, we all know that if a woman is going to dance alone and not look silly, either it needs to be really dark, or she need to be really naked – but we get neither here – just some fully dressed girl making kissy-faces at the screen and playing with her hair. Jeeze… Anyway, that’s how you get respect points.
So basically, that’s the game, progressing through this vicious cycle, trying to keep your head above water – your car constantly needing repair, working to get more cash, needing respect points, dancing with your squeeze, on and on. And it’s pretty addictive in all.
With a great racing dynamic from the folks at Eutechnyx Limited, the developers behind one of my personal favorite racing games from the old PSone, Test Drive Lemans, Street Racing Syndicate is kinda-sorta half way between arcade and simulation. At first try, the cars seem sluggish and unwieldy, but after modding and tweaking the suspension, they handle pretty darn well. The AI drivers, although a bit on the rubber-band end of the spectrum, pose some good exciting challenge, and the crash-n-bash endings are always exciting.
I do wish that the controls featured more pronounced support of the Dualshock’s rumble feature, as you often don’t realize you are hitting curbs – which do affect your driving and often send you out of control. I mean, I would’ve sworn Gran Turismo had different rumble patterns for different cars idling at the start/finish line even back in the PSone days, this one might give you a jolt upon hitting a wall.
The multiplayer portion of the racing features a bevy of online racing options. Although the online portion is broadband only (no dial up), there is LAN play (direct adaptor hookup) and split-screen modes. I tested out the online multiplayer – my first foray online with the Sony console, and I must say I was pleased with the service. Piped through GameSpy, I was able to set up a profile, including a gamertag of sorts (all fear the FlyingDutchman – yeah, sure) and get online quite quickly…and free.
Let me just say that Street Racing Syndicate online is brutal, and if you don’t have the cahones – or a souped up hot rod – you better stick to the single-player…these people mean business. Especially since Street Racing Syndicate has an included Pink Slip race for online. This means that you are wagering your single player Street Mode ride – the one you spent $40k upgrading – the one you raced through three sanctioned events (27 races) and 10 respect challenges – yeah that one, one race and it’s gone. And considering your opponent has little lag on his machine, and a car that trumps your horsepower 2 to 1, you need to be careful when messing around with pink slips.
This brings up one warning – watch the online game mode carefully, right up to the start of the race. I was in a couple of race lobbies over the weekend where the race was set as a quick match (just run for place) and just moments before the race launched, it suddenly turned into a pink slip race. I quickly backed out, but it’s apparent that there are grievers baiting and preying on noobs who don’t expect, or even know that, something like this can happen. You don’t want to lose your ride after putting so much work into it, so be careful.
Graphically, Street Racing Syndicate looks great…when it’s standing still. That’s not to say that it is terrible in motion, but it does suffer from frequent slowdown – getting quite choppy at times. There were times I thought I had a flat tire because the screen was chopping so badly – and hell, maybe I did, but with the weak vibration signal, I couldn’t tell.
The overall look at night is very much like Need For Speed: Underground – shimmery-wet roads, warm neon glow, speed blurs, etc. The daytime looks great, with clouds overhead, jets passing over, etc.
The cars feature great damage effects, what with the headlights breaking, fenders smashing, hood crumpling. It all looks great. You can even see the color of the brake calipers you picked in action.
The menu screens are very small and hard to read, meaning that sometimes you don’t know what the heck your are supposed to do next, but once you memorize the pattern, you don’t let that worry you much.
Horrible, horrible cookie-cutter alterna-rap-metal mixed with some of the best engine rumble this side of Gran Turismo. Little nuances, like the hollow echo of the tunnels and the stereo-locational effects on the challengers really adds to the sense of realism. It apparent that someone took care in making the sound effect – but the licensed soundtrack is, well, turned off on my PS2 right now because frankly, I couldn’t take it after the first three hours of the same song over, and over, and over…
Street Racing Syndicate is a solid title that packs a lot of value. Online or off, there is a lot of racing here – I still haven’t finished all there is and I’m a dozen or more hours into it myself. It’s highly addictive, but like all games, things do get a bit repetitive after a while. The nice thing is that once you are established in the Street mode – with enough money and cars that you can afford to lose once in a while – Street Racing Syndicate becomes a game you can pop in every few days, knock off a couple of races, and then go back to whatever else you happen to be playing.
I haven’t heard a whole lot of excitement over Street Racing Syndicate since its release, so I have a sneaking suspicion that it may follow in the footsteps of R: Racing Evolution and drop down to the $20 range soon – meaning you might want to hold off on a purchase until then. Still, not a bad deal for the asking price, and I plan on keeping it around for a while.
In the shadow of Burnout 3: Takedown and the soon to be released Need For Speed: Underground 2, Street Racing Syndicate is bound to be lost in the shuffle. It’s a shame, since there really is a solid game here – it just that the timing is all off. Like I said, a year ago Street Racing Syndicate would have been neck-and-neck with the competition, but in the here and now it’s bound to go down as just another “also-ran”.
I like the game, and I highly recommend it for a weeklong rental: you need that long to really flesh out the fun. I think you’ll really enjoy it.