Like World War II games in the FPS genre, street racing games have really taken off in the racing genre lately. It isn't hard to see why - just about every breathing male (and the occasional female) between the ages 16 to 25 have some sort of love for cars, and while fantasy arcade racers like the original NFS titles are fun, they don't quite compare to the rush of taking a highly accessible car and modding the crap out of it until it is race worthy. Street Racing Syndicate is one of the latest of such games to hit the PC from the guys at Namco and Eutechnyx, and while it offers some intense racing, it fails to deliver anything significant over what we have already seen.
Unfortunately the first impression of SRS on the PC is not a positive one - that being the undeniable signs of a console port. This impression is brought upon by the game's menu system; lets just say it clearly wasn't designed for use with a mouse. The feel of a port generally never lets up throughout the entire game in SRS, and while it is never necessarily a game killer, it definitely doesn't do the game any favours.
SRS consists of your usual modes - a career style mode called "Street Mode", a series of quick races and time trials, and multiplayer online powered by Gamespy. It is safe to say most gamers will probably, at least initially, spend most of their time in Street Mode. This is your typical career mode where as you build a reputation and upgrade to faster and sexier cars as you progress. Like NFS:U2, it is played out in a city which seems to be stuck at midnight, and you drive to locations yourself (although there is an option here in SRS to "jump" to locations, which is a nice time saver).
A significant bulk of playing SRS's Street Mode will be spent in the garage customizing your rides. Whether it be performance or cosmetic, there are quite a few options available. Unlike some street racers though, there are definite gaps between cars models, so even with every upgrade the shop has to offer installed, a cheaper car won't be anywhere near as fast as a more expensive one - naturally, this means it is highly unlikely you'll finish the "Street Mode" with only one or two cars. Just about everything you would expect is on offer here, whether it be suspension and brake upgrades, to turbo and nitro systems, so be prepared to spend some deep thinking minutes tweaking your ride to find the best combination possible. Luckily, there are descriptions of each item and your car's performance numbers are updated in real time to compare items, so even if you have absolutely no idea you can still see what's appropriate easily enough.
There are two basic currency's in Street Mode - respect and cash, both of which are earned from competing and winning in events. Respect is basically just a way for the game to regulate what events you can and can't participate in, whilst cash obviously regulates what cars and items you can and can't purchase, which cost roughly what you could expect to pay in the real world (when purchased new anyway). The actual amount of cars on offer isn't that impressive though, at least the amount of unique cars isn't - while there are 50 cars included, the amount of actual models is far less. For example, Nissan have 2 unique models; the 350Z and Skyline, which both have a 4 to 5 sub-models that only differ very slightly. The lack of a huge range of unique models creates a sense of restrictions when it comes to selecting cars towards the end of the game - there are only probably two at the max that are going to be any good in the later stages of the game, making most unique models redundant pretty quick.
Before rounding up the analysis of Street Mode, it must be said one more "currency" exists, and that is "girlfriends". You earn girlfriends by completing tasks for them around the city, but these are dull, repetitive and quite simply dead easy, and seeing as each girlfriend comes conveniently packaged with a sexy dance video clip (the girls are real models, not polygons :)), it is clearly obvious that this is nothing more than a bit of easy to obtain eye candy for the heterosexual male audience when they bore of the game's other modes.....which isn't necessarily a bad thing, just a pretty "yeah, well we could have done it in our game too" sort of thing that doesn't really achieve anything.
Surprisingly enough, the game actually does a pretty good job impressing with its driving model, particularly when you consider it is an arcade racing game. For instance, you will notice the difference between lightly modded cars and heavily modded cars. You will also notice the difference between 4WD cars and cars with Rear Wheel Drive. You will also quickly notice this game isn't about holding down 'accelerate' and never letting go - you will need to get a feel for your car and learn when to brake and slowdown into corners. For an arcade game, the handling actually comes off as somewhat realistic in some regards, making it quite challenging at the same time. One aspect which could have made SRS that much more realistic though is crash damage - whilst it exists visually (i.e. cracked windows, warped metal etc), it doesn't seem to have any real affect on driving ability.
The semi realistic racing isn't the only factor in the game's reasonably high challenge level - the CPU drivers are also key contributors. Even if your car has a huge advantage over the competition spec wise, it won't always be a breeze. As you progress further expect to see races where all 4 cars are within 3 seconds of each other after 3 laps, it is a very intense game and the CPU drivers are very tough. At the same time though, they can be very stupid and seem to suffer from some quirks - for instance, a few tracks have a "Y" split in the roads, and despite ample time before hand, some CPU cars seem to drive right into the barrier splitting the two roads. You will also often see solo spin outs around tight corners, which is fine on perhaps the lower levels, but not so acceptable when playing against drivers who are meant to be challenging. It is at least good to see no sign of "catch up" though, so when a car is well and truly behind, it will stay that way.
Unfortunately, while the mechanics are here, there is really very little variation when it comes to racing in SRS. Granted, you will come across point to point races, one on one drags and traditional lap races, but these are all basically the same fundamentally, which creates an all too strong presence of repetition pretty early on in the game - SRS is definitely enjoyed more in short, periodic doses. It also doesn't help that most of the game, bar a few tracks here and there, is played out in the same night time city environment (again, very similar to NFS:U2). The same scenery over and over again does become rather bland. One area where SRS could have made a difference variation wise was the police system, seeing as it is primarily ignored by this genre. They do exist in SRS, but only when you're travelling around the city looking for races, not in actual races. With this in mind, they're really much more of an annoyance than a cool feature, which is such a shame.
As mentioned before a lot of the game does feel like a port and the visuals are another example of this. While the cars themselves do look reasonably nice, the environments and character models (such as the 3D representations of the girlfriends) do look basic and generic for a PC game. This is a genre on the PC which has high visual quality standards and while SRS isn't exactly ugly, it doesn't redefine any of these standards either, not by a long shot. The game also doesn't look very "sharp" - even when playing in high resolutions you get a feeling of "blurred vision" usually associated with low quality textures and "jaggies". Perhaps it was deliberate, but there is certainly a lacking of "crisp" in the visuals regardless. As far as the controls go, we had no problems setting up SRS to use our gamepad and map any function to any button (or axis) we wanted, which is a relief.
So, is SRS a poor man's NFS:U2? Whilst it does share quite a few similarities, it isn't necessarily a replica, but on the other hand it is definitely not its superior. SRS does have some intense racing on offer and the amount of content is impressive, however there just isn't anything here that really strikes out as unique - the cars and modifications are all pretty expected, the environments and racing modes are all generic, and the unique features, such as "girlfriends", don't add up to anything significant. SRS is a solid street racer, but certainly not at the top of the list in the genre's hierarchy - it will likely appeal to fans of the genre more than new comers but probably won't keep the majority of either demographic occupied for long due to its repetition.