RIDGE RACER 4 - TAKING IT TO THE LIMIT - March 1999
|Okay, first things first. Gran Turismo
fans can clear off right now.
Why? Well, (a) because I just don't like you, but much more importantly, because (b) this game simply isn't meant for the likes of you. This isn't Advanced Garage Mechanic Simulator - you can't fiddle with your gear ratios, you can't alter your wheel balancing, you can't upgrade your flange grommets and you can't fit a muffle spoiler on your big end to re-bias your torque. In Ridge Racer 4, there's only really one thing you can do. Race.
Y'see, that's the really weird thing about Gran Turismo. It might bill itself as "The Real Driving Simulator", but since when was crashing a TVR Cerbera into a Honda NSX head-on at a closing speed of 400mph with no side-effects other than a loss of speed and the need to turn round and zoom off again a "realistic" simulation of driving? What GT, with its obsession with tuning and testing and tweaking, simulates so accurately isn't the experience of being a top touring-car driver, it's the experience of being a Kwik-Fit fitter.
Namco's RR4 team, led by Motomi Katayama, take a rather different approach. Realising that the only thing you can "simulate" about driving is the irrelevant surface detail - because the true experience comes from the physical sensations of high-speed cornering and battling with the protesting steering wheel and the frisson of genuine life-threatening danger - they more or less abandoned the idea of technically "accurate" realism straight off. Instead, what you get in Ridge Racer Type 4 - as, indeed, in all the Ridge Racers - is a videogame that knows it's a videogame, and is proud of the fact. With that conceptual hurdle out of the way, RR4's designers have been free to go to town creating a work of sheer unadulterated gameplay, released from the constrictions of reality and hence - ironically - able to create a game so tense and fast and rewarding and flat-out exciting that it's a lot closer to the experience of racing a real car than any statistic-obsessed trainspottery "simulator" could ever dream of.
BUT WHEN ALL'S SAID AND DONE, IT'S JUST ANOTHER BLOODY RACING GAME, ISN'T IT?
More than any other console in history, the Playstation is blighted by a ridiculous overpreponderance of driving games. To the casual observer, it seems like about 60% of the machine's entire library is made up of barely-distinguishable racers, and unless you bought your PS sometime in the last 20 minutes, it's likely that you've already got a pretty extensive collection of them. So why the heck would you be interested in another one?
Well, the thing is this - pretty much since the original Ridge Racer, there's been a fundamental change in the dominant style of racing games, and not just in terms of performance-tuning. Pioneered by Sega games like Daytona USA and Sega Rally, but quickly picked up by everyone else, the model for console racers quickly became that of "realistic" (it's that pesky word again) handling, with vehicles that were as difficult to drive in a straight line for 50 feet as they were to get to the finish line before everyone else. Previous games mostly took road-holding as a given, with the challenge being in overtaking all the other cars without crashing into them, and the need for braking was almost completely unheard of, but now that all changed. When analogue controllers became commonplace, the problem got almost infinitely worse, with everyone and his pet chimp releasing games where your car steered like a greasy shopping trolley on an ice rink, somehow failing to spot in their quest for "realism" that if any car manufacturer brought out a real car that was as hard to keep on the road as the ones in Max Power Racing or V-Rally, you wouldn't be able to move on Britain's motorways for piled-up corpses.
Nevertheless, jittery, skittery cars with turning circles like oil tankers became the norm (with only Konami's wafer-thin but underrated Midnight Run carrying the torch for the old school), and fans of the old arcade-style racing have been left out in the cold for the last couple of years. The tight roadholding and precise, digital movement of the Ridge series - where the game always keeps you pointing in more or less the right direction and concentrating on the race rather than worrying about just staying on the road - have been out of fashion for too long, which is why RR4 is a breath of fresh air for those of us who like to keep real life and videogames separate. After all, if you want a precise and detailed simulation of what it's like to drive a real car, why don't you just go out and drive a damn car?
THE TRACKS OF MY TEARS
The one thing that's really set the Ridge Racer series apart from the racing-game crowd over the last five years, though, is the unparallelled quality of the track designs. Where other games are content to feature tedious, flat, antiseptic racing circuits (GT) or endless miles of featureless generic countryside (MPR), Ridge tracks have always been distinctive, dramatic and exciting, both to look at and to race on. The trademark style is the combination of heavily built-up city streets and the steep, winding mountain roads that supply the "ridges" of the title (with individual tracks usually encompassing both types), with some coastal scenery thrown in for variation and extra prettiness, but the real knack lies in the extreme memorability of the tracks. Unlike so many racers, where gigantic flashing arrows are needed to remind players when there's a corner coming up, a single lap of a Ridge circuit is usually enough to commit it to memory, so packed will it be with striking landmarks and memorable road sections. (Try for yourself - if you haven't played original RR for years, see if you can sketch out a close approximation of the track layout from memory alone. I bet you can, and I also bet you can't do it for any other racer of the last five years.)
But there's even more to it than that. Elsewhere in this feature you'll read that you have to win RR4's 8-race Grand Prix a whopping 64 times in order to access all of the game's available cars, and that 512-race undertaking might strike you as a rather forbidding, repetitive and, potentially, criminally tedious pursuit. But the Namco designers are way ahead of you. Because with every new car you access, the entire character of each track changes, and not just because you have to start braking/powersliding on corners you could previously whip round at full tilt.
On Helter Skelter (the game's very first course), for example, there's a small dip in the road just before a shallow corner leading to the last stretch. In the slow early cars, your car dutifully clings to the road into the bend, presenting no difficulties. Move up a couple of classes, though, and you'll be at the wheel of a much speedier vehicle, whose velocity will cause it to fly into the air at the dip, robbing you of control at the crucial point and sending you hurtling nose-first into the facing wall with a sickening crunch while two or three CPU cars whizz past sniggering. Only taking a completely new racing line (or a dramatic application of brakes, which you don't want to be even thinking about at the higher levels) will get you through safely.
And those same enemy cars have another critical role to play, too, because in Ridge Racer 4 the opposition are less like straight racing opponents and more like interactive, moving sections of the track scenery, as much a part of the course design as every hairpin bend or chicane. With each different car you drive, the opposition change vehicles and capabilities too, and their speed relative to you changes (while remaining constant to the particular course). What this means in practice is that the first time you race on a course, you might catch up with one CPU opponent on a long wide stretch, where it's easy to overtake him. Second time round, though, the different relative speeds might mean that you reach the overtaking position right at the entry point to a particularly nasty corner, forcing you to totally change your racing strategy for the lap.
Together, these two features mean is that every single time you go through the Grand Prix to get some new cars, you'll have to race each track in a very substantially different way. Some races will be all-out foot-to-the-floor jobs, while others on what's ostensibly the exact same course will have to be handled with a tight, restrained display of opportunistic guerrilla tactics. This is a game that's been specifically designed by the Ridge team to be played over and over and over again and yet be fresh and exciting every single time, and we love them for it.
THEY THINK IT'S ALL OVER
And yet, even after 512 races, it isn't now. You also get the classic Time Attack speed trials, reversed tracks and - crucially, and for the first time ever in a Ridge game - a split-screen two-player mode. And a phenomenal piece of work it is too - there's no loss of detail, no pop-up or fogging or shortened draw distance, and no slow-down, even when using the blindingly fast bonus cars. It's just you and your mate, hurtling around the best-designed tracks in the history of racing games in cars so fast that the onrushing wind strips layers of paint off them as they race. Life doesn't get much better.
Versus Mode was always the one critical ingredient missing from the Ridge Racer cake, but now you've got no excuses left. Of course, you don't need excuses. You don't have to listen to us. Nobody's going to force you to go out and buy a copy of Ridge Racer Type 4. If you want to stay in and fiddle with your simulated wheel nuts for the rest of your life, that's up to you. Of course it is. But you'll forgive us if we make our excuses and leave you now. We've got some racing to be getting on with.
In Japan, you can buy RR4 bundled with Namco's brand-new force-feedback analogue controller, the JogCon. Following in the footsteps of the company's previous weirdzo controller the NegCon (the wacky twisting one that sensible people recoiled from in droves), the JogCon is so named, we imagine, because the central wheel looks like the jog dial on a VCR, with a little depression that you're presumably supposed to put one of your thumbs into. (Why not one for each thumb? Who knows?) It's quite an odd idea in the first place (since much of the attraction of the Ridge series is their defiantly digital control), but in action it's even screwier. Since you're supposed to be putting both thumbs on the wheel part, you have to use your fingers (on the shoulder buttons) for accelerate and brake, which immediately means that unless you've got hands like shovels, your hands are stretched out in an unnatural and uncomfortable shape that's just itching to turn into full-blown RSI.
The stretch and multiple digit usage also means that your grip on the controller as a whole is substantially loosened - indeed, the first couple of times you take your finger off the accelerator to powerslide, you're quite likely to see the joypad go flying out of your hands altogether, since you'll only be holding onto one side of it with your pinky. All this is bad enough, but once you actually start trying to steer around some of the game's trickier corners, you rapidly find your thumbs tying themselves in knots (especially since only one of them has a little cavity to rest in), and your fragile grip on the pad in general gets put under even more strain as you stretch over to try to turn the wheel. The final insult is the force-feedback itself - it's slack and arbitrary, and prone to spinning the wheel all over the place with little or no apparent provocation, yanking control out from under you every time you think you've just about got the hang of it.
In short, then, the JogCon is a concerted and almost entirely successful attempt to take all of the fun out of playing Ridge Racer 4, and additionally, using it for more than about 10 minutes will almost certainly ensure you never play the concert piano again. Suggested safe distance? A wide berth. On the end of a bargepole.
|REAL RACING ROOTS 99
It's probably fair to say that the Playstation wouldn't be the phenomenal success story that it is today without Ridge Racer. Ridge was the state-of-the-art in coin-op racing when the PS was launched in Japan in 1994, so the last thing anyone was expecting was that one of the machine's launch games would be a near-perfect conversion of the arcade smash. But such it was (even more miraculous given the few short months the programmers had to knock out the PS version in), and the staggering graphics and perfectly-balanced high-speed gameplay saw both PSs and Ridge Racers fly off the shelves, prompting Namco into a PS sequel in 1995.
Despite the use of the word "revolution" in the name, Ridge Racer Revolution was little more than the same game with different tracks (but what tracks they were - tight, tortuous, twisting affairs, much harder than those in RR) which prompted people to start moaning about the limited number of courses in both games (basically, one-and-a-half each, although Revolution offered link cable owners the chance to play head-to-head races on the original RR tracks too). Which is a little bizarre in itself - after all, you don't hear people coming out of cinemas complaining that Titanic all takes place in one location - but the initiative was lost and other racing games came in to steal Ridge's thunder. A brilliant coin-op sequel (Rave Racer) inexplicably wasn't converted to any home systems (despite being used as a demo for an early PC 3D card), which left the way clear for another Playstation-only sequel.
1996's Rage Racer moved away from the shallow arcade values and brightly-coloured graphics of the earlier games and introduced a new, more "serious" look and a more in-depth game structure involving the accumulation of prize money to upgrade and buy new cars and work your way through a lengthy championship season. (Indeed, Rage's game structure is identifiably the template for Gran Turismo's, although the actual racing style is still pure Ridge.) To compensate for this more sober approach, Rage went to town on the track design, packing the courses full of insane hairpins, breathtakingly steep hills and dramatic scenery (climbing past the massive waterfall which provides the centrepoint to all three Rage tracks is still one of PS gaming's finest moments).
All three games still stand up incredibly well today - despite Namco's trademark lazy-arsed, huge-bordered PAL conversions - and at the giveaway prices you can pick them up for, you'd have to be a dribbling loon not to own the entire series.
|SHOW ME THE NUMBERS
With no fewer than 320 different cars available to drive (though to be fair, many of them are just slightly faster versions of the same model), R4 puts even Gran Turismo to shame. (And it's a much more fun selection too, ranging from the bog-standard saloons you start off with through turbocharged roadsters and all the way up to funny little three-wheelers, Formula 1 racers, rocket cars and ultra-futuristic supervehicles that look like Thrust SSC and go only slightly slower. Also, RR4's cars have fantastic names like the Assoluto Fatalita, the Lizard Reckless, the Terrazi Terrific and the Age Solo Antilope.) But how do you get hold of them all? Well, we've been sitting up all night for days on end playing the game and staring blankly at Japanese hint books, and as far as we can figure out, you're going to have to complete and win the entire 7-race Grand Prix at least 64 times over if you're going to get your hands on the full fleet.
It works like this: there are four different makes of car, with 19 "ordinary" models per make, plus a super-deluxe "Devil Car" for each. There are also four difficulty settings (represented by the four different teams you can drive for). Each time you win the Grand Prix with a particular make of car, you get awarded extra cars (for a total of 5 cars per Grand Prix if you get right through) depending on which of the four teams you're driving for, and depending on which position you finish the races in. Win the Grand Prix having come first in every race (and not having used any continues for the first four), and you'll have access to the team's fastest car in that group, which in turn will give you a chance at beating the Devil Car in the special head-to-head race called the "Extra Trial". (You actually get Extra Trials every time you win the Grand Prix regardless of positions, but the car you'll have if you didn't win every race will be so rubbish you won't have a cat's chance of beating the Devil.) To get some of the lesser cars, you'll actually have to deliberately come second or third in a couple of the earlier races, which is a bit weird. 4 manufacturers x 20 cars x 4 difficulty settings = 320. Here's a hot tip, though - seemingly, if you do get all 320, there's one more secret bonus car (called "PacMan") hidden away in there as a special treat for the insanely dedicated.
If all this sounds a bit of a drag, it's not. For one thing, RR4's design is so clever that every time you race a Grand Prix, it'll be different to the last time (see under TRACKS OF MY TEARS for more detail). And for another, the game is structured in such a way that you can knock off as much or as little of it as you want at a time. An entire 8-race Grand Prix only takes about 35 minutes to play through from start to finish, but you can save after every couple of races, which makes RR4 one of a very small number of Playstation games that you can actually meaningfully play if you just fancy a quick blast on something exciting while you're waiting to go out, rather than being forced to devote hours at a time to it. This instant accessibility gives away Ridge's arcade roots, but also shows a user-friendliness disturbingly rare in today's epic titles, which all too often demand that you put a whole bunch of needlessly tedious effort in before they'll deign to reward you with any actual fun. (Are you listening, Final Fantasy?)
|REAL RACING ROOTS 76
(A brief history of driving games)
Ridge Racer 4 didn't just come out of nowhere, of course. As well as being the fourth game in the Ridge series, it also represents the evolutionary pinnacle of racing games in general, combining all the best features from the most influential, important and successful driving games in history. NIGHT DRIVER (Atari, 1976) was the first successful racer, a bare-bones but hypnotically-compelling affair whose ultra-primitive 3D graphics (check) allowed it to reach mind-boggling speeds (check). While Night Driver was just you and the road, LAGUNA RACER (Midway, 1977) added the numerous enemy cars (check), while the awesome MONACO GP (Sega, 1980) ushered in the colour era and also the urban street-racing setting (check). POLE POSITION (Atari, 1982) combined the two styles and invented the ideas of nightmarish hairpin bends (check) and the lap structure (check), and was the dominant racing game until OUT RUN (Sega, 1986) came along and chucked some gorgeous scenery (check) and great soundtracks (check) into the equation for the first time. After Out Run, there seemed little else for race-game developers to do except tweak the formula until the end of time, save for the odd detour into what seemed at the time like the niche territory occupied by HARD DRIVIN' (Atari, 1990), whose more realistic physics environment (check) made it the first driving game in which you had the freedom to turn your car right round and go entirely the wrong way if you felt like it. This would later prove, with hindsight, to be a pivotal point (rimshot) in race-game development, but in mainstream terms the awesome VIRTUA RACING (Sega, 1992) came out of nowhere all dressed in fancy new polygon graphics (check), and introduced the notion of head-to-head multi-player competition (check) into the equation, with multiple selectable camera angles (check) and full action replays (check) coming along too as bonuses (limited replays had cropped up first in Hard Drivin', of course). The crucial powersliding (check) was pioneered by the original Ridge Racer and finely refined in DAYTONA USA (Sega, 1994), which brings us to the only non-arcade-based innovator in the field, GRAN TURISMO (Sony, 1998) with its hundreds of different driveable cars (check). Chuck that lot into a blender and (after inadvertently creating several dozen horrible mutants like Max Power Racing first) you've got RR4. Good work, Dr Frankenstein.
|HIGH SPECS PLEASE, WE'RE BRITISH
As if all this wasn't enough, lucky Japanese RR4 owners also get a bonus CD featuring Ridge Racer HS (for High Specification). This is a cut-down version of the original (you get all the head-to-head TT modes and the Time Attack, original courses and mirrored and reversed tracks, but not the basic multi-car Grand Prix or the night-time races) but boasting improved high-resolution graphics and a super-smooth 60fps frame rate. (To see how improved, Namco have even thrown in an even more cut-down version of original RR with the original graphics on the same disc. It looks like the work of an untalented child playing with blunt crayons in comparison.) It's pretty impressive as a technical display alone, but when you play it and realise what a stunning game original Ridge still is, it's a faintly astonishing freebie. It's almost as if Namco are saying "We're confident that Ridge Racer 4 is so good, we can give you this all-time classic for nothing in a throwaway gesture and still have you gasping at how fantastic the new one is".
At the time of going to press, neither Sony or Namco would confirm or deny whether the UK release of RR4 would include the bonus disc. But if not, we can only suggest you hotfoot it down to your local import shop sharpish. This is too good to miss.