The mainstream press likes to trot out EA's Road Rash series as an example of what horrible games people are playing these days whenever the subject of video game violence is brought up. Why? Because the player must often punch, kick, or drive fellow racers or, going one further, pursuing policemen, into obstacles such as oncoming traffic to win the race. It's sensational cartoon violence almost at its best, and it's been with us for so long it seems almost a given, which goes to show that people who only observe the games will never understand how fun and perhaps innocuous they are to play.
And it's the gameplay, not the violence, that's noteworthy in the latest leg of the Road Rash order. This model boasts improved 3D graphics, more realistic handling, wilder and more varied tracks, better fighting, and improved animation, which it accomplishes with varied degrees of success. While the gameplay is much the same as before (avoid oncoming cars, signs, and other objects; hit people on the head, snag their crowbars or pipes, hit them on the head again; stay on the track, get money for winning, buy better bikes; and so on), it's a formula that's difficult to grow tired of and essentially works here, too. And a few of the characteristics have been recognizably brought to the next level.
The control, for example, is much more concise than before. With the basic Sony controller, it's solid, manageable control, while with the dual analog controller, it's a dream. It's so much smoother in fact, it's almost an entirely different game. The analog really excels on some of the more twisty mountain pathways, and when you throw in a bike with a better turning radius and superior handling, you're set. The racing controls are also very responsive to split-second reactions, which are occasionally necessary as you can jump moving cars and such by popping a wheelie at exactly the right moment.
The courses are formed from connecting points, or various stretches, in a large environmental grid. In one race, you might run from point A to C and then from C to F and F to I before the race is complete. Then in another race, you might race from I to F and F to E then E to A - using different stretches within the same grid system, though sometimes in a different combination and/or direction. This reusing of track sections doesn't end up as cheap as it might sound - since it melds different courses together, with a lot of bits to meld - and provides a fair amount of value in its overall variety.
But even though the graphics, track design, and just about every aspect of the title comes out well, it's still a PlayStation game, so of course there's pop-up. But with the careful placement of some nice graphical tricks, it's not overt or overwhelming and ends up being roughly as unobtrusive as in EA's Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit. And while it's sometimes a strain to distinguish the cars from the visual noise in the cityscapes, the designers had the foresight to make oncoming cars honk when you're in their lanes - a treatment that corrects this problem most of the time.
Road Rash 3D starts off fairly easy, but soon becomes quite challenging. It's a difficult game to master, but not to the point of being mind-numbingly frustrating, like, for instance, Midway's Top Gear Rally for the N64. In fact, it's a pretty forgiving racing game. You can crash once or twice and still come out in first place if you play your cards right the rest of the race. And since the tracks become very long, very quickly, it's necessary to have a margin of error on your side.
As in the first CD version of Road Rash, the musical score for 3D is composed of tunes from actual rock bands. The earlier rev included the likes of Soundgarden, Hammerbox, and Paw, and now it's the Mermen, Sugar Ray, CIV, and a few others. The soundtrack doesn't have the highs of the original, nor does it have the lows (it's hard to figure out in which category Paw's Jesse would end up). At its worst, however, it's decent music to have playing in the background, but that's about the best it gets, too.
While the glitches in RR 3D are not abundantly obvious, the title is not flawless. The weakest point in the chain would have to be the game's fighting element. What was once a fairly large part of RR gameplay has now been trimmed back to an infrequent slap in the face with a two-by-four. The competing racers spend their time beating on each other instead of taking you on, though perhaps that's for the best since as the player, your moves take so long to follow through that you'll be flat on your back before your swings or kicks even come close to connecting.
So what's really keeping Road Rash 3D from being positively incredible is the occasional graphical glitch, the lack of a two-player mode (included in some of the earlier RRs), and the reduced fighting element. In the end, Road Rash 3D's a great single-player racing game; it just turned out less Road Rash than most die-hard fans of the series would have liked.