As condescending as it sounds, R: Racing Evolution is almost exactly what you'd expect from a 'serious' GameCube racer. While the game is also available for Xbox and PS2, Namco's Ridge Racer spin-off plays just like an entry level, user-friendly, jack-of-all-trades introduction into a foreign genre. As such, it is moderately successful—particularly on Nintendo's under-supported machine—and it's a welcome change of pace from the rigorous, single-minded intensity of simulations like Gran Turismo 4 and GTR.
The typically soft and dreamy Namco presentation gives a good first impression, shaking off much of the stuffiness associated with modern racers. Unfortunately, entering the first race puts the trade-off into sharp perspective, since R: RE also lacks a great deal of the subtlety and sophistication of its peers. Even just revving up on the starting grid is underwhelming, with passable car models accompanied by wince-inducing 16-bit sound effects.
Once moving, the seasoned race fan will soon recognise a distinct lack of connection to the road. The cars may look reasonably sturdy, but they lack a realistic sense of muscle, with floaty handling, whiny engine noises and little force feedback—how a dramatic, skidding power slide should induce no controller vibration is beyond me. It just doesn't tighten your tendons like a Gran Turismo or a Colin McRae does, and therefore carries none of the addictive thrill of the best in the genre. In those games, you want to race well for the sake of enjoying and steadily mastering the cars, the tracks and even the simulation itself, and it doesn't even matter if the A.I. is non-existent or the game structure abominable.
Speaking of which, it actually took me a few races before I discovered why my wins were so curiously unsatisfying: unbelievably, a brake assist is enabled by default. All the player need do is hold down the accelerate-trigger and steer roughly in the right direction, and voila! First place every time. Now I'm not a hardcore race sim addict, and fully support ways to delicately dumb-down this often over-serious and over-complex genre, but there's a world of difference between carefully lowering the entry bar level and employing this kind of counter-productive and cynically artificial simplicity.
Only by switching brake assist off does R:RE become a respectable racing game, and it's certainly not without its sweet spots. There's always pleasure to be had in catching the leader's slipstream and using it to boost ahead of him, or in nailing a perfect corner going into the final straight. Indeed, when the game begins in earnest, it relaxes into a fairly comfortable stride and even, on occasion, dares to raise the player's initially downcast expectations.
Encouraging elements tend to be those that help bolster the genre's accessibility without compromising the experience for 'serious gamers'. The simple but effective Accelerate/Brake dual gauge display, for instance, offers a very handy visual representation of something that is usually left as an abstract for the player to guess at, and will be particularly useful for any GameCube players—because let's face it, how many times have the GameCube shoulder triggers ever been used to accelerate and brake? The near-constant pit chatter also reveals itself to be surprisingly incisive and relevant, offering very quick feedback on how that corner should have been taken, telling the player to "calm down" when they get too accelerate-trigger-happy, and spurring them on when they take the optimum racing line. There's even a pleasant sense of rivalry that emerges out of the inter-car squabbles with fellow racers.
Which brings us to the story. Yes, Namco saw fit to illustrate (in their own words) "the intense competition and deep rivalries found only within the professional racing circuit" by giving us an ambulance driver-cum-world quality racer heroine, Rena, who just happens to be a slender, big breasted woman suffering constant set-backs in her quest for glory because of the prejudiced men who run the industry. (Typical!) Even if it does draw sniggers from the racing hardcore, this could, in all honesty, have served as a neat framing device for the game. After all, even the cream of today's racing titles (Gran Turismo 4, Burnout 3) still struggle to hit upon a satisfying structure;even though this is possibly the single most important facet in just about every other type of game design. As it stands, however, the quite amazingly cheesy cut-scenes merely provide some slightly sexist eye candy between races, and a chance for the player to stretch their legs.
To be fair, R:RE's biggest fault isn't really its own, it's the quality of the competition. With time—and a few non-brake-assisted victories—the trigger control will start to grow on you, the soft fuzz of the background beats will grow on you, the random variety of races will grow on you, perhaps even Namco's buxom dolly Rena will start to grow on you. Nevertheless, it's impossible to excuse a racing game in which winning is such a hollow and mechanical experience. As the central deficiencies (car physics, handling, lack of challenge) also become more and more prominent with each race, most players will simply tire of its blandness, and decide to save the time Namco wants them to spend tuning their cars for an altogether better racing game.