R: Racing is a difficult game for me to write about. I've long held the PSone's Ridge Racer Type 4 up as one of the most exhilarating and enjoyable racing models ever developed, and R: Racing's stark departure from previous Ridge titles meant that my first few hours in its company were spent moaning and groaning, punctuated by the occasional accusatory glance aimed at the heavens. This isn't what I expected. Or wanted.
Roughly ten hours later though, I've polished off the single-player Racing Life mode and completed a fair number of the game's single race Event Challenge tasks, which are unlocked by gathering RP (effectively the game's currency) through various racing achievements like perfect cornering and effective overtaking manoeuvres. And at this stage, my initial stance has shifted a bit. While I'm still thoroughly disappointed that it's not the next-generation Ridge Racer I'd yearned for, I'm finding each trip round Suzuka, Monaco and the game's other courses that more gratifying now I'm more comfortable. Reviewing the game (closer to its March 26th release date) will be a case of deciding whether the latter day benefits of initial tolerance and dogged persistence outweigh the distinct disappointment any racing fan is likely to feel struggling against the game's slip-slidey handling for the first time.
For now though, I'm left charting my first stumbling drifts in the world of R: Racing, and it's a tale of much more suffering and woe than it should be. Having avoided contact with R: Racing almost completely, I imported it just before Christmas with no real preconceptions at all, played it for all of ten minutes and then decided to turn my attention to the clogged downstairs loo instead. It simply doesn't grab you. Cornering feels very hit and miss, and there's no appropriate helping hand (other than some tyre burns on the tarmac where possible) to influence your initial approach, which basically consists of revving for all it's worth and performing an emergency stop when faced with anything approaching a slight turn.
There are other issues too. R: Racing's biggest gimmick is your ability to unsettle rival racers by lurking in their slipstream, just as it unsettles you when you're belting into a corner with a speedy saloon in your rear-view mirror. This works by giving each of the racers ahead of you a sort of "stress bar," which goes from blue to yellow to red the longer you spend glued to his or her tail. When it hits red, he or she obediently loses control at the next corner, or screws up a gearshift allowing you to sweep past.
Have a brake
Coupled with the game's remarkably forgiving stance on collisions and damage (i.e. there's very little effect either visually or physically), even your early attempts to figure out the wacky handling will produce easy wins in the opening stages of Racing Life. And if they don't, you're never spared use of the "brake assist" function, which can be toggled before any race to effectively do all the cornering for you. It's difficult to understand why this feature was included at all - it's either a way of acknowledging and compensating the gamer for the initially frustrating physics model and road manners, or it's been included under the mistaken belief that people actually get their kicks racing quickly down straights and watching the cleavage-encrusted cut-scenes between 'chapters'.
Annoyingly, there is actually evidence to support the latter theory - the inclusion of a NASCAR-style oval track, which pops up far too often and is never difficult to dispatch (because unlike everything else, it requires no braking). It's even been used for the final confrontation of the Racing Life mode, and you can expect to lead it from the end of the second lap right to the end - a rather symptomatic anticlimax.
Having set the bar low, Racing Life subsequently manages to squeeze under it completely, packaging races in a daft yarn full of self-obsessed characters with predictable back-stories and motives. The idea is that crazy ambulance driver Rena has been spied by a racing legend, who invites her to join his racing collective, soon revealed to be rather Mafioso in its pursuit of victory. What follows is a sort of rags-to-riches tale, which sees hated rivals develop into friends when they witness Rena's driving prowess - a rather peculiar choice of narrative strand given how pedestrian your achievements would appear to the average racing spectator - and also sees her shadowy employers eventually force her to "do a Ferrari" and sacrifice first place on team orders.
Life as a bitch
However even this is handled badly. Up to the end of chapter nine (of 14), Rena just gets in a car and zooms to first place, bashing curbs all over the place and still somehow managing to find time to overtake the other five racers, but then with no prior warning racing guru Stephan buzzes over the radio that Rena must not finish first. She needs to drive precisely and come second, relinquishing pole position before the end. This should be point of divergence. It creates options all over the shop and gives the game a semi-serious edge. So the first time I was prompted, in my infinite mischievousness I decided to ignore orders and complete my victory, which I did. "If you can't obey team orders then there's no place for you here," the Game Over screen read. Retry?
It quickly became apparent from all the in-game banter (characters whinge at each other via some sort of communal radio) that close rival Schultz was the intended winner. In order to prove a point, I shoved him off the course early on and raced around with yellow and black striped anonymous also-rans lurching back and forward in my rear-view mirror. Then, as I half-anticipated, when I slowed down to let second place past me on the back straight, the bastard wouldn't budge. The chap in third bunched up behind him, and I literally could not get out of their way. Suddenly, Schultz' car comes blazing up behind us all and bumps its way past, after which point the idiots on my bumper regained their composure and hounded me to the line, where I finished second as God clearly intended. Cue cut-scene that doesn't really explain anything.
After all that, Racing Life faded out quite quickly, and left me with Event Challenge, Arcade and Time Trial modes to explore. Unfortunately, "Arcade" isn't quite the sprawling alternative that GT or Gotham fans might imagine - it's just a front-end to pick a track and a car and go, as is the Time Trial option. Event Challenge is more of a quest, offering you a bunch of faceless tasks that range from Gran Turismo-style license tests to regular races (that rarely deviate much from what you've already seen in Racing Life). You have to buy these with RP, but Racing Life leaves you well equipped.
Wrong way round
If you wanted, you could spend endless hours unlocking them all, but to be honest there isn't much incentive. By that time you're familiar with every track - of which there are about half a dozen big ones, a few rally courses, a rallicross head-to-head track and some other bits and bobs - and you've got a better handle on the physics, but the game still singularly fails to reward the player in any meaningful way. It feels back to front. Where I am now, I'm much better at coaching strong performances out of the decent cars, and even quite enjoy the temperamental Privateer-class classics, which feel like they're racing on ice. But I'm getting bored of the same tracks!
Ultimately, there is something here, it just needs to be coaxed out. If you can develop a running order that doesn't over-expose you to the same tracks, and never, ever use the brake assist toggle, then you may even enjoy Racing Life mode in its entirety, rather than just warming to it slightly in the latter stages. Yes, there is an awful lot wrong with R: Racing near the surface, from the daft presentational flaws like getting a "That guy's been on your tail long enough" pep talk over the radio after half a second's racing, to the more serious problems like the way you can ignore S-bends entirely and just drive over them without impediment (It certainly makes Monaco a bit easier, and that's not the only place it works). But on the other hand I am well beyond playing because I'm obligated to - I'm still playing it because, well, I don't find it too frustrating or stupid any more.
Granted, there are more bugs to bear (and I'd better save a few of them for the review, like the recurring rally sections, and my thoughts on the hit-and-miss visuals and so-called soundtrack), but on the whole you shouldn't dismiss this completely. I was quite right to be angry with it, but it's not a lost cause. It may yet find an audience, even if it's becoming increasingly clear that not even Namco has a handle on what made Type 4 such a defiantly blinding experience - the digital equivalent of being giddily spun round and round by the arms. For all my agonising over whether R: Racing is really that bad, it's probably going to be remembered as a solid, unadventurous genre title compared to Type 4's rollercoaster-off-the-rails.