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One of the greatest mysteries of the PlayStation era was the unenthusiastic commercial response that Rage Racer was met with. A bold and sleek progression of the Ridge Racer franchise, it offered greater depth of customisation, more cars, more tracks and arcade gameplay tuned to near-perfection. Thus identifying a key factor for the lukewarm reception that greeted what was at the time the systems best racing game is difficult to fathom.
Could the muted visual style and simulation undertones have convinced fans that Rage had abandoned the series fun-fuelled origins? Indeed, it's quite possible that at the time of the games release in 1997, the more realistic racers were already starting to court the gaming public more effectively. Perhaps fans were disgruntled by the rather 'safe' Ridge Racer Revolution, or felt the series as a whole was no longer in vogue. All (or conversely, none) of these factors could have played a role in Rage Racer sinking, but if its attempts to provide more depth proved a turn off to fans, it was with a sad irony, as Rage Racer remains the most purely playable arcade road-racer ever to grace the PlayStation.
What's immediately evident is the ditzy glamour of the early games has been consciously set to one side. Rage Racer is sleekness personified; from the monochrome menus, to the purring tones of the announcer and grid-girl Reiko Negase's black pit overalls, it's been given a gritty make-over that seems worlds away from the bright skies, beaches and general luminescence of Ridge Racer Revolution. The darker, city-based tracks are nothing short of masterpieces both in terms of visual quality and design characteristics. The opening track, Mystic Coast, hints at what's to come; having traversed cobbles and a climb past a waterfall, the gamer is treated to a screaming descent that overlooks an immense harbour - all within the first thirty seconds or so of playing. This is swiftly followed by the game reverting to more familiar territory; all of the tunnels, sweeps and advert-hoardings you'd come to love from the earlier games appear as good as ever, and all this is just for starters.
The second course, Over Pass City, is the longest track in the game. Placing great demands on acceleration due to some quite biblical, alpine-esque ascents through a skyscraper-populated urban jungle, the importance of carrying speed through the preceding corners is at a premium and also justifies the great range of cars on show; thus the Lizard motors, largely useless on the other tracks due to heavy handling, suddenly gain a great advantage with their sprightly acceleration characteristics. The toughest challenges are saved for the third track, Lakeside Gate, with its jarring sequence of sharp sweeps; a tight, all-or-nothing hairpin right at the end and a hold-you-breath chicane that requires skill and nerve to take flat out - it makes for a fantastic test of concentration and skill.
It's all helped by razor sharp handling that's arguably never been bettered in a Ridge Racer. The powerslides are still superb fun and massively satisfying when judged right - something that will still require a fair bit of practice even for RR veterans, just because of the immense speed you have to cope with in the latter phases of the game. With the option to alter the grip levels of your car, cornering can be taken with a relative degree of realism - but where's the fun in that? The mix of cars is much better this time around with a great selection of American-styled muscle cars, trucks, saloons, super cars and nippy-handling run-arounds, all of which offering their own pros and cons that are exploited nicely by the courses themselves, and just to add extra spice to the proceedings, the very best cars use manual transmission only - meaning the player has to judge gear changes themselves.
Along with the self-explanatory Time Trial mode, Rage Racer's main attraction is the Grand Prix. Finishing in the top three in each of the three races opens up a new speed class, of which there are five (plus five more for reverse courses and an Extra class upon completion of both). In order to progress, the player must make use of the new customisation features, which allow the player to paint and alter the look of the cars and, with enough credits attained from high race finishes, gain a general tune-up in performance - crucial in progressing to the final stages. What's especially neat is that with these tune-ups, the cars also alter in appearance; some sprout rear wings, whilst others feature expanded engines, bigger exhausts and, in the case of one car, an entirely remodelled roof. By Class 3 the gamer is given an unexpected treat; a fourth track, known as the Extreme Oval. Here Rage Racer really gets to stretch its technical legs, as with no powersliding and little cornering to worry about, your main goal instead becomes edging around other road-hogging cars along the tracks banking at frankly ridiculous speeds. Impressively, even at the retina-blistering pace it manages, scenery pop-up is kept to a minimum and there is barely a hint of slow-down at any stage despite high-levels of detail.
Musically it once again delivers the goods, whilst the engine notes are gut-wrenchingly good. Each motor growls through the gears with a ferocious energy, and produces echoing howls as you rocket through tunnels, something that proves endlessly satisfying.
Minor foibles include a couple of things that Namco have been guilty of prior to Rage Racer and really should have sorted out - chiefly the lacklustre collision detection that makes passing cars that hog the middle of a narrow road nearly impossible at times, as you seem to bounce off them whenever you get even close. Also the absence of a split-screen two-player mode or even a link-up option is something of a disappointment, given that Ridge Racer Revolution at least included the latter.
But it doesn't dampen what is, was, and probably always will be an immensely enjoyable racing game. With all the races and upgrades on display there's plenty for fans to busy themselves with, and though on the surface it doesn't offer a great deal more than previous games in terms of statistical content, there is far greater scope for longevity in Rage Racer. With five standard classes, five more for the challenging reverse courses and ultimately a sixth for supercars, this certainly isn't something you'll finish in a hurry. Trophies can be attained by winning every race in a Class and there are also a number of secret cars to unlock, which will require weeks of practice to get near. Rage Racer is a supremely classy racer and even to this day, provides a masterclass in design and playability.
Rage Racer is the first title from the Ridge Racer series that I played. Unlike Ridge Racer and Ridge Racer Revolution before it, Rage Racer is not an arcade conversion and was developed exclusively for the PlayStation. That's not to say Namco have taken away from its arcade racing roots though.
In Grand Prix mode you start off with a bog-standard car. While it won't improve the performance, you can change the appearance of the car, or any of the other cars which can be bought with the money you win by finishing on the podium. The format for racing is that you pick a track to race on, with podium finishes in all courses allowing you to move onto the next class. Faster cars will then be required to compete. Earnings can also be spent on upgrades and there are four car manufacturers, each whose cars have the edge in one department. Given it may be necessary to repeat races it helps to spend carefully.
What is neat about the courses in this game is that they all use the same part of the track around the start/finish straight area. It's when you get to the tunnel after the initial ascend that there is one of three routes open depending on the track, with all eventually pouring out onto the final straight. There are only 4 courses in the game, which are then run backwards to make the most of the tracks, but they are well designed with the ascends, descends and bumps providing the odd airborne moment. In Over Pass City there is one notable climb up the hill which reminds me of being driven up those near Sauchiehall Street, but at speed!
Being arcade racing, you do get to throw your cars around at nonsensical speeds which makes for fun. There are two notable ways for taking tight corners as shown in the manual. What I liked about the game was the challenge it represented, in particular later on when you have to muster the manual gears to use the fastest cars. I usually depend on automatic transmission but in this game I went for it, and I liked the feeling of just about having everything under control, even if it was a handful!
The Artificial Intelligence is alright, the other cars can be a doddle to pass, but should you not capitilise you can find them snapping at your heels. The collisions are poor though, it does pay to block them but hitting another car from behind results in the cars bouncing off each other in an unrealistic manner. The only other mode in this game is Time Attack which, not only is it not too productive, but it gets annoying quick because Reiko Negase (the Ridge Racer) as the announcer has a moan if you are off the pace even if it is fractions of a second.
Presentation-wise, it is dark and moody, which can also be said about the actual in-game graphics. Rage Racer does run smoothly, the scenery is certainly varied although there is the occasional slight pop-up. I was able to listen to and enjoy the music, although the sound effects in particular the slide and collisions aren't great. What is missing from this game though is that there are no multi-player modes, which makes this a great single player racing game with challenge to boot.
One of the few games to make use of the NegCon controller.
The player starts out with a very basic (read: slow) car that has trouble climbing hills. After winning a few races and earning some credits, either the car can be upgraded or another car can be purchased. Each car can be upgraded five times, leading to some highly fast-moving vehicles. The game now uses a class system to break up the races: Each class has three or four races, and each class has a certain number of cars that are available for purchase. After completing the races, the player moves onto the next class, where the rewards (and hence, the difficulty) are much higher. Each car can also be customized, from body color to the logo on the hood. You can use preset graphics (such as skulls, wavy lines, and the RR logo) or a custom graphic that the player designs using the built-in editor.