“What a show, there they go smokin’ up the sky, yeah,
Crazy horses all got riders, and they’re you and I”
-Alan Osmond, Merrill Osmond and Wayne Osmond, “Crazy Horses”
“The following is a contributor post by the Purple Prose Mage.”
It is 24th November 2000. “Can’t Fight the Moonlight” by LeAnn Rimes is the UK no. 1 single. How the Grinch Stole Christmas, produced by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, enters its second weekend at the top of the Northern American box office. Michael Parkinson is knighted a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Sony releases the PlayStation 2 in Europe – one of its launch titles is Rage’s Wild Wild Racing; along with Midnight Club, Moto GP and Ridge Racer V, it’s one of the first racing games for the console.
That’s an important context to consider for a game like this. Racing games can be divided into arcade gaming and simulation, generally speaking. About a third of them overlap into a mix of both, which is where Wild Wild Racing is on the genre’s venn diagram. You wouldn’t want to launch a console by throwing your players into something too hardcore, but you’d still want to give them a game that’s more challenging than what they’re used to from the previous generation and shows off the capabilities of the new one. So Wild Wild Racing, for all its imperfections, was well-timed to be the game that was needed in that moment: something easy enough to play casually but still tough enough to demonstrate the physics engine – and a physics engine demonstrator is what the game primarily exists to be.
We often talk about new gaming hardware like off-road vehicles; huge behemoths that can push further with more power and tackle greater challenges. So what better way to exhibit just what the new PlayStation 2 could do than with a game about off-road racing? It provided exactly the kind of strength needed for the raw power of its vehicles and its unforgiving environments. Oh yes. Launching Wild Wild Racing with the PlayStation 2 was a good call. Even playing it today, the hill-climbs really do feel strenuous, like I’m pushing with my own mental power. It’s not something I’ve ever experienced as strongly in any other racing game.
There are five tracks in total: USA, India and Iceland comprise the beginner championship; the Amateur championship adds Mexico; and the Pro championship adds Australia. Winning each championship unlocks the next one, etc. There are checkpoints along the track measuring your progress, though there’ll be less of them in each championship, whereas there’ll be more laps. At the start of the game, only three vehicles are available: Double Moon, Typhoon and Demon – all with their own strengths and weaknesses. You’ll find yourself racing with other vehicles, and they can be unlocked by completing quest challenges. In a quest challenge, the letters making-up the name of the next unlockable vehicle are spread across the track for you to find. At first, they’ll be easy to locate – just drive through the stage as you normally would – but as it goes on, it gets harder; one letter may be found in a shortcut but the next may be on the route you’d have taken without the shortcut, requiring you to double-back. When you’ve collected all the letters in the vehicle’s name, that vehicle is unlocked for you to use. This is also the best way to learn the tracks; their hidden paths and unique contours. In this game, being the fastest driver is only half the battle. It’s all very well if you’re in the lead, but it’s only maintainable by actually being able to handle the terrain and knowing the track’s ins and outs. Being aware of where the shortcuts are will allow you to anticipate them, and that’s a winning advantage. Also, every track has an uphill, flat and downhill section, which can each be attempted separately as time trials. That’s another thing that will help conquer each stage.
Once you’ve unlocked a vehicle, you might want to think about not jumping straight into a race. Instead, you’ll be much better off completing skill challenges. A skill challenge requires you to pull-off a driving stunt, such as finishing an obstacle course or pushing a big ball over a goal line. It’s a test of skill, and you’ll be rewarded with upgrades for your vehicle. Every vehicle has its own set of skill challenges that will help get to grips with actually driving the things. What you could do, in fact, is unlock all the vehicles you can and win all their upgrades before diving into the championship.
The structure seems a bit basic, and it is. It was designed to first and foremost demonstrate the physics engine, so only minimal consideration was put into the progression system. Even then, the PlayStation 2 was still two generations ago and it does show. Vehicles will overreact to small crashes by skidding into a complete 360° turn and the vehicles’ open wheels can easily become caught against edges. This might not be such a problem if hit boxes and collision detection were more precise. It’s difficult to tell whether or not the vehicles require a high degree of technical control or if the game is just harder than it should be.
Overall, Wild Wild Racing is a perfect example of two things. Firstly, it’s a perfect example of the level of expectation developers had for the PlayStation 2 and the kind of hardware it was capable of running initially. Secondly, it’s a perfect example of how technically uneven a game will inevitably be if released as a launch title due to the limited library of games its platform has ever supported. In other words, it shows the ambition behind the game and its new console but also shows how much of that ambition the new console couldn’t meet.
On 23rd March 2007, Sony released the PlayStation 2’s successor, the PlayStation 3, in Europe. On the same day, they also released one of its launch titles: Motorstorm. It, too, is an off-road racing game that was likely developed for the same reasons as Wild Wild Racing. I first discovered Motorstorm as a public demo in GAME, and can remember being reminded at the time of Wild Wild Racing.
The Purple Prose Mage is the author of the Racing Game of the Week column and also likes reviewing the latest book he’s read on his own blog at alexsigsworth.wordpress.com. This is a side-project he’s working on while he finishes his novel.
Did you enjoy this post? Consider becoming a Warrior of Light and join us in promoting honesty and quality to games writing through thoughtful, long-form critiques. We’re building a future for games writers to get paid and find a fairer and happier alternative to mainstream coverage and culture. See our Patreon page for more info!
Categories: Racing Column