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In Memory
Sean Pettibone

 

 

Namcoís brilliant Ridge Racer series has set the standards in racing on the PS since launching along with the system in 1995. Youíll be happy to know that the legacy continues with R4: Ridge Racer Type 4 (or R4 for short.) This title is unquestionably, the finest and most ambitious arcade style racer on the PlayStation. R4 takes what was great about the first three games and adds sim features, incredible graphics, more tracks, sophisticated track designs and improved AI to create one of console gamingís best racing experience.

R4 adds serious depth to what was a solid racer. Players face quite a challenge with over 300 cars to win. Players start by selecting one of the 4 distinct racing teams. This is important because R4 adds in a cool new RPG type of interaction to the racing. Youíll have to select carefully as each team has managers who has their own style and motivation, making each team itís own challenge. Youíll need to pay attention between races, the manager will critique your driving, offering their feedback, advice and the occasional talking to when you barely beat another racer. This is cool and helps to immerse you further into the game.

Each of the teams has its own standards and difficulty. On the tougher levels, a prickly manager may occasionally deny you a new car if they feel you havenít performed well enough. Each team is distinct. This allows you to win different cars, even with the same manufacturer. Once you select a racing team, you can also select from one of 4 different manufacturers as well. Each of the manufacturers has their own race style of which are tuned to excel at either drift or grip style racing. The grip cars are good for beginners, while the drift cars obviously become more fun once youíve mastered the drift technique. This comprehensiveness and diversity of car designs gives R4 an excellent amount of depth. Adding these layers of strategy makes R4ís replay value quite high, if you desire new machines.

Once youíre done selecting your team and manufacture, the goal of R4 is basically unchanged from previous games: you must win the grand-prix mode. This involves racing through a series of 7 courses. These are split into three smaller heats, in the first you only need to finish third to move on. To advance on the second heat, you need to finish second and in the final stage, you need to race almost flawlessly, since only a decisive victory will let you move on to the next round. If youíre good enough to beat an entire level, youíre awarded with several new modes, such as mirrored-tracks and even a special time trial where you race against a super car. Of course, defeating the super-car automatically places that vehicle in your garage. When you qualify for another race heat, youíre awarded a new car. Players have to do this for each of the 4 racing teams. There are more than 300 cars you can earn in the game, making for one long challenge.  While other games in the series had one main track that branched into different areas, R4 provides 8 unique courses, add in mirror-courses and the total number of tracks leaps to 16.

The courses are huge, featuring stunning environments and impressive attention to detail. Making the tracks even more challenging are more dramatic curves, tight winding roads with huge hills and accompanying dynamic jumps. R4 also has much longer tracks, which increase the endurance and challenge. While the previous games had tracks that were different branches of the same course, R4 significantly improves with more diverse tracks, which arenít interconnected plus these new courses take place on a wide variety of terrain, ranging from cities to steep mountains. This helps immeasurably in making long play-sessions more enjoyable, as the original got a bit tedious after awhile. R4ís track layouts have much more sophistication, with speed ovals and more difficult courses providing ample challenge to the driver. Of course, any racing game would be really boring without anyone to race against. The computer controlled cars show more aggression than they have in previous games though their actions and placements are still, to a large degree, very predictable. In other ways, R4 is a more difficult game. Since the cars control with more realistic physics, players need to be more alert to the more aggressive racers in the game. This new emphasis on realism has the effect of making this installment the most addicting yet for players who loved the adrenaline action of the first three but wanted something more substantive. 

The limitations of the Playstation are unfortunately, really starting to show in the anemic visuals many games implement, lets face it Ė after seeing a Voodoo2 card in action, going back to the PSX hardware is a large comedown. However, Namco has proven time and time again that they are the masters of Sonyís box. This is readily apparent, because R4ís graphics are visually astonishing and brilliant, stretching the limits thought nearly unreachable for the PlayStation. The light-sourcing is absolutely stunning, with light reflections realistically changing the appearance of your car. The palettes of colors this time show a degree of sophistication, showcasing brilliant subtle transitions and realism throughout the courses. R4ís night courses are particularly eye pleasing, with street lights realistically glowing and lighting the environments. Namcoís designs of the courses are the best yet with brilliant and realistic environments making a fantastic series of settings for the racing action. A high degree of detail is apparent in the detailed textures of the mountains and landscapes of the game. Even more astonishingly, the backgrounds arenít static, with flying planes and helicopters hovering overhead and flying birds flying in the distance Ė all rendered about as realistically as any PS game has ever done. The car models are also brilliant, with stunning reflections bouncing off their shiny exteriors, dramatically more realistic car bodies giving the cars on the track a highly convincing appearance. The cameras in this edition are more dynamic, with more dramatic angles making the replays that much more exciting. Adding to the realism are the blurring tail-lights of cars in the distance - a stunning graphic effect that succeeds in giving R4 a completely convincing sense of driving at high speeds.

R4 also shines in the control area. This is the first installment in the series that supports analog controllers, making a vast improvement in responsiveness. Steering the tight turns and maneuvering to avoid tight corridors is a joy in this installment. While the controls in the previous games were excellent, fans of the RR series will notice the how much better R4 controls. Any gamer that has played other Racer games will feel right at home with R4ís dynamics of power-drifts combined with heart-pumping pedal to the metal action. The carsí responsiveness is dramatically improved with better physics and more convincing reactions. In the earlier games, the cars seemed a bit off, but here they seem more real-world, they respond the way youíd expect them too and thus controlling them is more intuitive. Itís difficult to judge the realism of R4ís more fantasy-oriented cars, such as the 3 wheeled vehicles but, the overall impression the game exudes is one of realism.

The music in R4 is pretty good though not as good as in the earlier games. The upbeat housey music suits the action of the game, but lacks the drama of Ridge Racerís harder edged tracks. Another positive is that you can select which track before each race, giving you control of your car Ďstereoí and also allowing you to avoid any songs you dislike. The sound effects of the cars skidding and roaring engines are pretty good as well. The announcer is also typically, a tad over-excited during the race. Some people find this annoying, but I found the updates on the race exciting. An overbearingly happy announcer might seem out of place in something like Need for Speed or Gran Turismo but fits the feel of the Racer series well.

While ďType 4Ē is incredible on itís own merits, Namco has also included a bonus disc. In addition to some demos, this also includes the complete(!) original game plus a new deluxe  60fps version of the now-classic original Ridge Racer. This also allows the player to see for himself how far the series has come in just four little years. While the original game has held up well, the newer version looks and feels much better, with smoother graphics and control. Many of the glitches in the original conversion have been fixed and some minor improvements have been implemented. This addition of these freebies just makes this package a must-buy for any racing fan. However, If youíre lucky enough to spot the limited edition version with the JogCon, donít hesitate as. As an analog steering device, the JogCon provides players with an entirely new level of precision racing control. This controller is basically a standard controller with a dial in the center. What you basically do is keep your thumbs on the shift buttons and control the dial using your thumbs. The device uses force-feedback and realistically apes the resistance youíll get when you crash. You can set the JogCon to different degrees, and the tension is surprisingly convincing. The JogCon is a comfortable and highly precise peripheral, its ease of use makes it a worthwhile purchase.

With each installment in the series, Namco sets the bar that much higher Ė and R4 is no exception. Ridge Racer Type 4 is a quantum leap for the series. R4 retains and refines the drift style arcade racing thatís become the seriesí trademark while adding a level of sophistication thatís virtually unparalleled. While Gran Turismo may be more authentic through pushing the simulation elements further, R4 still retains the edge when it comes down to generating that actual excitement and adrenaline rush of racing. R4ís visuals are amazing, showing more detail in car models and the incredible lighting effects than any other PS game to date. While some complained about the linear nature of previous Ridge Racer games, R4 has incredibly imaginative courses and some very cool car designs. This is a highly polished, balanced game with only a few minor flaws. If you havenít played this game yet, youíre missing something great as this is an incredibly dynamic and addicting experience that looks to be unrivaled for quite some time Ė at least until Namco releases itís next Ridge Racer game. 

 

 

Driver takes its inspiration from the dramatic car chase scenes from 70s cult police films. Instead of taking on the role of a cop, as is typical, youíre on the other side of the law. You are the getaway driver and the wheelman. Or are you? In the plot is is discovered that youíre character Tanner is actually an undercover cop trying to infiltrate the mob. Any more plot details might ruin it. Driver has an intriguing concept. As you can tell by the plot, Driver has a unique approach to the racing genre, it mixes in strategy action and stealth underlying an interesting plot to make the gaming experience that much more satisfying. These elements and the mission and goal based play mean that this is far from a traditional racing game. Driver is set during the 1970s and has an evocative environment and setting while also implementing state-of-the-art features and gameplay elements.

The fleet of vehicles in Driver features a large assortment of 70ís style muscle cars. The game also has an accurate portrayal of civilian vehicles in traffic. The physical appearances of the cars are very impressive, with each showcasing good lighting effects and stuff. Also exciting are the details in each city, such as Miamiís long palm tree lined boulevard and the ubiquitous cable cars indigenous to San Francisco.

With a high intensity game such as Driver, the ability to control your car is essential. Driver delivers a satisfying experience in this department. As the controls and car physics are tight and very intuitive. Getting good requires practice but performing extreme driving techniques such as 360s and 180s is a simple once you understand the mechanics behind the maneuvers. The cars are responsive and perform well to your motions Ė the game supports the dual-shock controller, but its use is nearly mandatory as the precision control makes Driver worlds easier to enjoy.

Driver comes from Reflections, the same team that created the legendary Destruction Derby series, itís not surprising that the game uses very familiar physics models and a tweaked graphics engine. It has been updated but the feel of the crashes is similar. The effects of damage are also surprisingly similar with small triangles exploding from your car during a collision.

To increase Driverís longevity, there are a few mini games. These diversions are all fun and enjoyable and would be worthwhile as stand-alone games. These include a pursuit mode in which you have to ram a bad guyís car off the road, this is fun though it is diametrically opposed to the rest of the game.  The Getaway mode is good practice as you are now on the other side of the law and have to shake off their Ďtailí. There is also a skill-intensive ďCross-Town CheckpointĒ mode in which you have to capture flags set up on the streets in a certain amount of time. Driver also features a handy training mode that helps acquaint drivers with the basic control and dynamics of their cars. The training mode is also useful in practicing for your first mission Ė an Ďauditioní for the underworld to prove your driving skills in a grueling gauntlet of tasks that must be completed before the timer runs out. Once youíve beaten this, the real game begins.

The main thrust of Driver is its immersive, exciting story mode. In this setting, players are given missions to accomplish. This gives Driver variety and entertainment value, as the plot is somewhat intricate and helps to motivate the player. The actual game is easy to get into. The layout of the screen is excellent as well uncluttered, the map helps to give you a clear idea where you are and the position of police. The gameís missions are fairly simple usually, get from point A to point B in a set amount of time without getting your car wrecked by the police. This is a difficult task because there are a lot of pigs floating around the city all looking for you and your car. The way that the missions are designed is ingenious and itís a high compliment to the designers that the plot enables what otherwise could become repetitive driving action to feel more like an action packed police flick with many intriguing plot twists. In most racing games you just go round and round without a point, here there is a lot of strategy and character motivation to help drive the player to more levels and this also helps to keep the excitement level high.

Once you complete a mission, you then have the option of saving your progress to the memory card, but this isnít what should excite you. Driver also allows the player to view a playback of their mission, and gives the player the ability to play back these using various camera angles and heights. The ability to control this is astounding and allows you top create your own little action sequences. It goes without saying that while possibly a little superfluous, this movie creation feature is quite cool. The interface in this mode is a bit top-heavy, but worth getting to know.

The sounds in Driver are very well done, the voice acting in particular deserves high marks due to the quality and depth of characterization that it provides to the player. Gamers will quickly find themselves entirely immersed in the plot. Driverís sound effects are excellent, with accurate burnout, engine, with standard and hand-braking accurately portrayed. Driverís honking horns and police sirens are also well produced. Driverís main soundtrack attraction is its high quality, funky disco-style soundtrack that makes your feet shuffling while youíre hustling. The funky tunes really evoke the disco era, and the soundtrackís switch to more urgent faster beat tracks when you are being pursued feels movie like and helps to draw up your adrenaline during the big chase. The music is quite good, though just donít keep your speakers up loud, people may think youíre a leftover freak.

The most impressive technological achievement of Driver are its expansive and interactive dynamic environments. The realistic, large detailed cities represented in virtual form include Miami New York San Francisco and Los Angeles. Since the game takes place in the 70ís, there isnít a frickiní Starbucks to be found anywhere in these urban jungles. These are really huge areas and exploring them takes a lot of time. Each city is fairly unique and it pays to drive around and case it before you play to learn the ins outs and shortcuts of each metropolis. The cities all have a realistic traffic system, which means there is oncoming traffic and accurate street layouts. The little things make a huge difference, while the accurate stop-light system adds only a little to the game early on, it definitely adds to the realism of the game in later levels. There are even onscreen pedestrians who run away when you steer your car to the sidewalk. These areas are huge, and when I say huge, I mean true size of the city huge. Itís a great accomplishment that they were actually able to squeeze in four full-scale cities into a single Playstation disc. Even more importantly, it also helps the gameplay because these large environments help to keep the game fresh and exciting by allowing you to see different parts of the city during your missions.  

The graphics in the game are excellent, if a little blurry. They visuals arenít up to the standards set by Gran Turismo or Ridge Racer 4, but to cut Driver some slack, the game is simulating a full city, not just a track. For a design this ambitious, the gameís performance is more than acceptable. Driverís environments display detailed bitmaps of an impressive number of convincing buildings. Driverís street designs give the player a lot to think about and their versatility adds lots of longevity to the game. Thereís good amount of variety in the cities with long straight boulevards, intersections and short cuts shown accurately. Driver also accurately simulates night and day driving to help make the visuals more interesting. There are loads of different cars and they all look great as well, their variety of vehicles also helps to make the street travelling seem more realistic as well. Buying the game even more pints are the collisions and crashes, which like those in The Destruction Derby series veer from the merely average to the truly spectacular. One of the coolest holdovers from the DD series is the realistic way that the cars show damage, the physics here are truly impressive as trunks crumple, wheels go out and collisions do a lot of believable damage. This gives Driver a cool edge and adds a bit of excitement to the game.

This is a great game, though there are some annoyances that slightly hinder the fun. The graphics in the game feel a bit washed out and blurry Ė a feature endemic to PlayStation titles lately, itís more a function of hardware limitations and advancing technology than a lack of talent. The game does have a few issues with how it plays, some of the missions are very difficult and must be replayed often in order to figure them out. Driverís mapping function is a great help, but sometimes it leads you down the wrong street causing you to lose a mission, basically you have to memorize which streets lead where. The biggest problem with the game is that Driver demands almost flawless performance from the gamer at almost every turn Ė giving players the bare minimum time, making one minor mistake destroys any chance of successfully completing the mission. Still, with perseverance and gaming skill, most players will be able to eventually beat the missions.

These minor problems aside, Driver is a successful game in many regards, it weaves several pretty standard ideas together to create a hybrid that feels fresh and exciting. It achieves its goal of simulating the classic cop chase movie sequences of the 70s, yet still is good enough for you to enjoy if youíve never really gotten into those movies. As you may have guessed, the best part of the game are the dramatic chase sequences, which are very exciting and get the adrenaline pumping and heart racing in a real hurry. Trying to escape the cops with sirens wailing behind you while youíre rushing to your destination or trying to get some of your buddies to a safe house is quite fun. The thrill of a police chase vicarious thrill gamers can now experience thanks to Reflections without that bad hangover called ď25 to life.Ē Thereís nothing like rushing down the streets of the city against oncoming traffic while trying to shake a cop. The cops arenít stupid either as they also set up roadblocks that you can smash through. There are also points in the game when many cops chase you at once. Thus making for one of the better adrenaline rushes the PlayStation has produced. The missions and the environments in the game are truly excellent. Driverís combination of bareóknuckled action, strategic elements and great atmospheric environments combine for a highly addicting game. Driver is justifiably rushing up to the top of the sales charts. In case Driver has slipped by your radar, jump in and keep your head down, because youíre in for a wild ride.

- Michael Palisano