By Jeremy Kauffman
A few years ago, Tokyo Extreme Racer Zero made the PS2's first generation hot list and garnered a legion of racing fans that were looking for something a little different. It was, quite simply, the right game at the right time. Capitalizing on the underground racing trend made famous by the real deal Tokyo hot shots and the inflated Hollywood egos of The Fast and the Furious, TXR0 hit the shelves a few months before Gran Turismo 3 and proved that an arcade/sim racer mix can work if you are willing to take a few risks. And now, just a few months before the release of Gran Turismo 4, Crave Entertainment and Genki bring us Tokyo Extreme Racer 3. Unfortunately, this new entry to the TXR series takes no risks, and does little other than deliver more, albeit a lot more, of the same thing at a budget price.
The action plays out like this: late at night, when the traffic is sparse and the racing is hot, you take to the highways and search for rival racers. When you find a potential competitor, you pull up behind them and flash your brights. If you are determined to be a worthy opponent (your competitive rank is based upon things like wins vs. losses, time on the streets, the status of your car, et cetera), your racing display kicks in and the race is on.
The racing display in the TXR series is different from most racing games in that among the speedometer, tachometer, and various other gauges are two power meters which look and behave like those in a fighting game. Your opponent's meter depletes as long as you remain in the lead, and it depletes faster if you put more distance between your cars. The meters also deplete with crashes. If you graze another car during the course of a race, it will take a slight dip. If you run head on into a lane divider or oncoming traffic, your meter will be devastated. Once one of the power meters reaches zero, the race is over, prizes are awarded, and it's off to find your next rival. The races are quick and intense, with skill being as much a factor as speed. Unlike many racing games you can't just hit top speed and blaze through the course without a care. A single nick can sometimes decide a close race.
Whereas TXR0 focused only on the highways of Tokyo, TXR3 has broadened its scope to include the cities of Nagoya and Osaka as well. There are, in fact, two hundred miles of faithfully re-created Japanese highways to travel. Your rivals on these mean streets number over six hundred, significantly more than the previous title, so many, in fact, that TXR enthusiasts will have days, likely weeks of gameplay ahead of them. And while we are playing the numbers game, there are also fifteen different licensed car manufacturers and over a hundred cars to choose from. Following actual underground racing tradition, the cars consist of everyday names like Nissan, Toyota, and Volkswagen, which have been suped up to out muscle everything on the road. The crazier, flashier, and more outlandish, the better.
The gameplay options are fairly standard, and include Quest Mode, Free Run, Time Attack, Two-Player Versus Battle, and a Replay Theater. Quest Mode is where the bulk of the game lies. This is where you prowl the streets, creating rivalries, tallying wins, collecting prizes, and upgrading your cars to create masterpieces of high-octane perfection. You begin the game with only a few sections of the Tokyo highway available for racing, and unlock more of sections, more highways, and additional cities as you defeat your rivals. All of the upgrade options can be accessed in the game's easy and intuitive garage. Here you can purchase and sell cars, install or replace parts, and augment nearly everything. Each part and configuration has a purpose and affects your car's performance in terms of power, drive train, body, aerodynamics, and so on. The look of your car goes beyond a simple paint job and decals. TXR3 includes a skin editor that gives you much more control over the aesthetics of your ride.
That is where the arcade racer with short, sprint-like races and power bars meets the simulation game with a nearly infinite array of available modifications, upgrades, and adjustments. Usually, the two genres don't mix well, but in this case as the rivalries get meaner and the arcade action more intense, the upgrades pay off. Motorheads can take pride in creating the best-performing, and/or most obnoxious cars on the road, limited only by their imagination.
All of this has made the TXR series unique among racing videogames. The problem with TXR3, however, is that all of this was available in the last game. Sure, there is more terrain to cover, more rivals,more of everything, actually. But there is nothing here that pushes the series into the next generation. This game has the same strengths and weaknesses, the same problems, as the last game, and I have the same complaints, plus a few more.
TXR3 retains the same funky physics engine that has plagued the series from day one. The control response is drifty and requires a lot of tweaking to remedy. And while the various modifications available have a significant effect on a car's performance, all of the cars perform exactly the same off the lot, which of course is not the case in real life. An unmodified Volkswagen sedan does not perform exactly like an unmodified Mercedes-Benz.
The environments may have been rendered with great care and attention to detail, but racing at the same time of day, on the same type of terrain, in the same cities gets monotonous after a while. I know that the developers are playing by the rules of real underground racing here, and it wouldn't do to have players weaving in and out of rush hour traffic, but it still makes for a game that contains no real variety in gameplay, or even in eye candy. And the graphics in TXR3 are not only sub par to every other racing game currently on the market, they are worse than the previous game released nearly three years ago. That is unforgivable. All other aspects of the presentation are good, though, with the eclectic electronica soundtrack being one of its standout features.
The biggest problem lies with the AI. I championed TXR0 as having some of the best AI that I had ever seen in a racing game at that time. Opponents were ferocious, bumping and jostling for position, ready to downshift and out maneuver you in tough situations. The opponents in TXR3 still forego the traditional, follow the optimal course line with little or no variation route, as seen in most racing games. Only this time there are obvious starting points for both your opponents and traffic in each encounter, and when you restart a rival race you will see that they follow a very specific scripted path. I am not sure if this is just more apparent to me now than it was then, racing games and their fans have grown after all, or if it is specific to this game. I do know, however, that I was not nearly as impressed this time around. One would hope that the AI would improve over the years, not languish and become stale.
Finally, there is the added problem that the TXR series is not nearly as unique as it once was. Games like Midnight Club 2 and Midtown Madness are similar in style or intent. While those titles may not offer the kind of in-depth modification system that TXR3 has, they do offer online gameplay. So does the upcoming Gran Turismo 4, which belongs to the franchise widely considered to be the king of all racing sims. Forget the obvious advantages to online gameplay, like having real rivalries with real players. Forget going global, matching your carefully crafted muscle car against others from all over the world. Instead, TXR3 is cheap, part of the under $20 set. Granted, there is a lot of game here for the cost. TXR fans and racing game enthusiasts will likely get their money's worth and then some. Still, while the TXR series is getting bigger, other racing franchises are getting better. I was hoping for more. I would rather have seen a true evolution of the series than a low sticker price. Maybe next time.