Reviewed: February 15, 2004
Reviewed by: Mark Smith
Released: December 9, 2003
When you mention the words “racing” and “Namco” in the same breath most gamers will instantly identify the Ridge Racer series on the PS2. 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. Now, for the first time ever, this arcade driving goodness can be experienced on the Xbox, even the things may have changed just a bit. This isn't your father's Ridge Racer. This is an evolution.
Rather than relying on their tried and true racing formula from the past decade, 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 APEX. 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 Xbox, 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 had already raced a few laps on the PS2 version of thsi title so I waqsn't nearly as surprised as a lot of other unsuspecting Ridge Racer fans might be. 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 a standard gamepad, but it gets significantly better when you hook-up a wheel. I hooked up the Mad Catz Universal Wheel and never looked back. It 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 and allows for some defensive driving, a required tactic in the later races. 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. Much like Project Gotham Racing you earn points for skillful driving and placing at the top of the roster. You can then spend these racing points (RP) on new cars and race events. There are dozens of cars to purchase and more than 160 separate racing events to unlock.
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 the PS2's Gran Turismo series, Evolution covers racing on GT circuits and rally “dirt” racing and even tosses in some drag racing. This mixes up the tracks and your style of driving and does a good job of keeping you on your toes. While the rally racing is nowhere near the realism of RalliSport Challenge it' s still nice to powerslide through most of a race and kick up a dust cloud from time to time.
The graphics in R:Racing Evolution are excellent. The PS2 suffered from some severe aliasing and shimmering but the Xbox has cleaned up all those flaws and delivers a spectacular racing experience. It even supports HDTV 480p mode for you high-end gamers out there. The opening movie and the first cutscene with Rena racing through town simply blew me away. It was big-screen CG quality. There is also a great replay system that allows you to watch the entire race from multiple camera view. The menus and overall interface are clean, simple, and easy to navigate.
The racecars themselves are much nicer than any of the previous Namco racing games, probably since they are now based on licensed vehicles and had to meet manufacturer approval. The tracks are based on several real-world venues, and racing aficionados will certainly recognize many of their favorites from other racing games.
Some of the environmental effects are breathtaking. Racing through a canopy of trees you can see sunlight filtering down through the leaves. Racing on dusty rally tracks kicks up a brown dusy trail behind your car. There are also real-time reflections on the shiny surfaces of your vehicle.
The Xbox manages a blistering 60fps throughout the entire game regardless of how many cars are on the track or what special effects are being pushed through the CPU. The draw distance is impressive and there is little if any pop-up.
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 Xbox Live 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. There is one guy near the end of the story that got on my nerves but he only appears for two chapters and you won't have to listen to him anymore. 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 Dolby Digital surround mix presents a very open and realistic racing experience. You can literally hear the cars coming up behind you and from which side if you have a 5.1 surround system.
The music doesn’t deviate from the standard ethereal techno tracks we hear in just about every other Namco 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. The music started to get repetitive near the end but it's so passive you can easily tune it out.
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. There is also a challenge mode that offers up more than 160 additional racing events. After finishing the story mode I had enough racing points to purchase about 80 of those events and one new car. That leaves a whole lotta work left to open up those remaining events and purchase the rest of the cars. Some of the unlockable cars, like the Dodge Viper are extremely cool and equally as expensive. If you plan on unlocking everything you can easily expect 30+ hours of racing with Evolution.
I love racing games and the Xbox seems to be quickly catching up to the PS2 in the number of titles available in this genre. I was pleased to see that the power of the Xbox was able to overcome many of the visual deficiencies of the PS2 version.
R:Racing Evolution is 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.