R: Racing Evolution is the latest in a long line of racing games developed by Namco. But this time around they’re offering something that fans of their previous efforts might not be expecting. This game attempts to blend the two arcade/simulation sub-genres into a single experience. Not quite MotoGP and not quite Ridge Racer, Evolution offers up the configuration and customization options that you’d expect to find in a simulation game and the pick-up-and-play friendliness of an arcade style racer. It’s a risky proposition to attempt to cater to fans of two separate styles of racing games, but Namco has found a pretty good balance here, even if the sum of its parts are considerably less exciting than the game as a whole.
In traditional Namco style, R: Racing Evolution boasts a pretty interesting gameplay dynamic that could easily be considered a gimmick, but is nonetheless entertaining. What we’re referring to is the game’s unique spin on drafting: the pressure meter. When you are driving behind another racer, you will take advantage of his slipstream, allowing you to go faster. A small meter will appear above the opposing racer and the longer you stay in his slipstream, the more the meter will fill. When the pressure meter is completely full, it will start blinking red and the computer-controlled driver won’t be able to deal with the pressure and will most likely crash or spin out.
This gameplay dynamic certainly helps to differentiate Evolution from other racers on the market, but there is a disappointing lack of strategy and skill involved with applying pressure to the opposition. Most every time you ride another racer’s slipstream, you’ll easily overtake their position long before the meter fills. Only six cars can race at the same time, so staying ahead of the pack isn’t too difficult. And since driving in their wake nearly guarantees you’ll overtake them, there isn’t much of a challenge to winning races. But it’s Evolution’s reliance on computer-assisted handling that really makes staying in the pole position such a cakewalk. You can pretty much keep the acceleration button mashed down during the entirety of any race, reassured by the fact that the computer will automatically apply just the right amount of braking around every corner for you. You can turn this feature off in the options menu, but by default the computer will take care of the braking and handling chores.
The main mode of the game is called racing life. Here, you’ll play as a young, nubile Japanese woman named Rena who got her start driving ambulances and finds herself in a professional racing league. There are 14 chapters in racing life with pre-rendered cut-scenes lodged between each one. The cut-scenes alone make this mode worth playing since they are all very well rendered and sport some genuinely impressive character models and interesting story elements. Each story sequence pretty much boils down to an excuse to show off Rena’s and her rival’s ample chests, so while you’re busy ogling at their assets, you may not even mind that the actual gameplay of the racing is incredibly simplistic.
Aside from racing life, the other modes in the game allow you to choose from different types of races, cars and tracks. Rally racing puts you behind the wheel of cars on off-road tracks where a copilot constantly shouts out the various hazards or turns coming up. Drag racing is another included racing style but is hardly worth mentioning since all you really need to do during these races is slam on the acceleration and hit the nitro button when the on-screen indicator tells you to.
Each race that you complete will net you a certain amount of points that can be spent to purchase and upgrade cars or unlock new tracks. The different featured cars in the game are of a real-world variety and modeled after existing rides. There are a handful of rally vehicles, some American muscle cars, and an assortment of Japanese sports cars. Expect to see automobiles from manufacturers like Chevy, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Audi, Ford, Hummer, Dodge, and Alfa Romeo.
While the gameplay in R: Racing Evolution will probably prove to be too simple for simulation fans, the difference in handling from vehicle to vehicle is actually quite varied. Ultimately, the differences in top speed and acceleration are the determining factors of whether you’ll win a race or not, but the variations in handling, depending on the car you’re driving, directly affect the level of pressure you need to apply to do so. Namco has done a great job integrating the Dual Shock’s button sensitivity into the game’s controls and translating it to the on-screen action.
Visually, R: Racing Evolution sports some genuinely impressive car models. Viewing the various rides from the selection menu, you’ll get a good look at the level of detail Namco has given to each one. Aside from some slight aliasing, the cars look almost photorealistic and the reflection techniques are spot-on. The tracks featured in the game utilize some very realistic background additions and do a great job of purporting believably rendered environments to drive around in. The frame-rate seems stable, even when multiple racers are simultaneously being processed. Not even the split-screen multiplayer races can get the game’s solid graphics engine to choke.
In terms of sound, Evolution certainly gets the job done despite a few glaring aural annoyances. There is plenty of voice acting featured during any given race as you’ll constantly be inundated with verbal bashings by opposing racers and instructions by your pit crew leader. The pit leader’s comments are useful to driving a flawless race, but the comments by other racers seem a bit unnecessary and tend to repeat too often. The sound effects are good. Each car seems to emit different engine and exhaust noises, but regardless of which car you’re driving they all seem a bit underplayed and hallow in terms of purporting an exciting sense of power.
Overall, R: Racing Evolution is a fairly entertaining game for the duration of the racing life mode, mostly because of the impressive pre-rendered sequences, but if you’re looking for a racing game with the simulation style goodness of MotoGP, or the frenetic action of Ridge Racer, you’d be well advised to look elsewhere.