Here's a tricky one: What does Namco's R: Racing have in common with Hideo Kojima's whimsical Zone of the Enders PS2 shoot-'em-up? Anybody? You there at the back? No? The answer is that in both cases the actual game was far less interesting than a bundled trinket found elsewhere in the box. In ZOE's case, the accompanying Metal Gear Solid 2 demo was more than enough to rob us of £40. And in R: Racing's case, it's the Miyamoto-penned Pac-Man Vs. multiplayer game that dominates our thoughts whenever we peer at the shiny GameCube box perched atop the TV.
Middle of the Pac
With Pac-Man Vs. in the GameCube box, and only superficial differences like analogue gas pedal controls separating the three console versions, R: Racing is certainly a better prospect on the Nintendo format than any of the others. Even at that, the pill-muncher's presence might not be enough to tempt you - R: Racing arrives in Europe on the same day as a slew of superior games, and a few hours with the American version earlier this year didn't exactly leave us gagging for more. Oh there was gagging involved - just not the right sort. Even now, it's difficult to see Ridge Racer fans taking to this with any great enthusiasm. Which is a shame really. If you put the hours in, R: Racing isn't actually all that terrible.
Sure, it doesn't look all that fantastic, particularly brushing shoulders with the likes of Project Gotham and Gran Turismo, and thanks to a rather unwanted Brake Assist option it's also remarkably easy to just give up when the going gets tough and rely on the AI to slow you down in time for the corners. But, approaching it fresh and with no preconceptions, it forces you to think about the troublesome process of cornering a lot more than its contemporaries. Power sliding is just not an option here. Hurtle into a corner at breakneck pace and no amount of twirling the back end around is going to stop you flying off into a sand trap and winding up facing the wrong way.
It's a style of driving that seems to be at odds with a lot of other racing games doing the rounds at the moment, slotting in somewhere between Gotham's approach to cornering and Gran Turismo's relentless pursuit of realism. Ridge Racer Type 4 isn't in the same ballpark - it's barely even the same sport. And by the time you finish Racing Life, the game's story-driven single-player aspect, the chances are you'll be on the cusp of warming to this bizarrely unorthodox reliance on brakes and racing lines. It's just a shame you'll also be complaining about the god-awful AI racers, the jumbled storyline full of European and Japanese characters with mock-American accents, and the sheer mediocrity of the experience as a whole.
R: Racing is a good enough game in theory, it's just poorly executed, and it merely serves to underline just much Namco has lost its way since it shipped Type 4 back in 1999. Even now that game is joyfully accessible, thoroughly exciting and endlessly rewarding to play. It could have done with more tracks, but the quality of the racing mechanic - particularly in multiplayer - was more than enough to put it on our All Time Best Racing Games list. R: Racing meanwhile is terribly inaccessible. There's no tutorial, just a lot of voice-overs telling you that you corner worse than a Driving School blooper, and the manual seems to be talking about an entirely different game.
"We went all out to deliver the exhilaration and tension that make up a superb racing game." Eh? After a couple of hours here it feels more like you all went out and left the cleaners to program the bloody thing. There's no sense of exhilaration at all, and once you realise that you have to slam on the brakes for every corner, even the hardest difficulty setting has trouble providing any measure of tension. Played on Normal mode there are scant few occasions in Racing Life when you won't sail over the finish line between 10 and 20 seconds ahead of your nearest rival.
Even the gimmicks that aim to fuel our interest in the thing - the storyline, diversity of racing styles, and the 'pressure' bar - merely serve to fuel our furrowed brows. The Racing Life story charts the tale of a young female ambulance driver turned pro racer, who has to motor her way to victory, outpacing her arch rival (also female) and subsequently... Zzzzzzzz. Who cares? The actors don't. The CG cut sequences are very nice to look at, but nothing interesting ever happens, you never lose, and the only incident worthy of any note is when you're forced to obey orders and pull over on the last lap to let a team-mate win. Even this comes off badly - you'd expect the story to branch depending on your decision, particularly given the tone of all the sequences up to this point, but instead your only reward for "going rogue" is a Game Over screen. Genius.
R is for Rethink
As for the diversity of racing styles - you could have fooled us. While it's true there are countless options to customise your vehicle using the in-game RP currency, there's no obvious reason to bother because all the stock cars are generally adequate. And while it's true there are NASCAR-style bowl races, track races, street races, rally races and even rally cross events, the only key difference between them all is braking a little harder in some cases than others. (That and a co-driver competing for the title of The Worst Pace Notes Reader In Gaming History.) If anything, the game's so-called diversity just makes it trickier to unjumble the cornering system as you play.
And the pressure meter aspect? A pretty poor excuse for the state of the AI, that's all - these elasticised chaps swing between good and bad on a Pendulum Of Inconsistency, and after a while tailing them (if you actually have any trouble getting past anyway, that is), they're 'forced' into an error that sends them off at a corner or some such. What's more, you only ever face five of them in a race.
Yet, gah... Despite all our various complaints, R: Racing is a game that we were still quite comfortable tinkering with a good 15 hours after picking it up. There's no question that it's a deeply flawed game, even if you can suppress your disappointment at the state of the Ridge Racer franchise. But once you get over the slightly unusual way it plays, and stop laughing at the cut-scenes (the tough talking Gina in particular), you realise that it does have some redeeming features. Event Challenge mode, for example, is a nice experience-driven way of getting your hands on spicier vehicles - like the classic cars, which are so frustrating to use at first that it's vaguely exciting when you finally manage to haul them round the track to victory. Or the drag racing aspect, which may be inferior to Need For Speed's equivalent, but still manages to entertain to some degree. And although there's a tendency to use the Suzuka circuit until you're sick of the sight of it, racing around Monaco towards the end is a pleasant change of pace.
You know the score...
R: Racing certainly isn't the ARGH Racing our pun-smiths were hoping for, but it's not exactly a return to form either. Most of the time it sits somewhere in the middle - the graphics are okay, the handling is all right, the challenge is just about there if you play it long enough, and of course the GameCube version has a copy of Pac-Man Vs. stuffed inside to make up for the lack of online multiplayer options. In other words, it's just like all those other racing games you read about but never buy. Except, in this case, it's a tacit reminder that Namco has slipped so far down the field that it's actually being lapped - by games we bought almost five years ago. Oh sod it: ARGH!