Official web page: https://www.bandainamcoent.co.jp/cs/list/criticalvelocity/index.php
Critical Velocity, then, was released by Namco around the same time as Ridge Racer 6, so in late 2005. While Ridge Racer 6 was really just a more beautiful HD version of Ridge Racers on the PSP, Critical Velocity is more forward thinking - surprisingly so considering its older target format, the PS2.
Rather than make another circuit-based arcade racer, Critical Velocity is a free-roaming driving game with story missions. You assume the role of a group of vigilantes known as the Stormers, who also work alongside the police department of the fictional Priyo City. I can’t profess to comment on the quality of the story since I can’t follow spoken Japanese at a regular speed, but story-aside the game is very entertaining, with the plot acting as background context for its missions.
There are 26 story missions serving up challenges around the game’s impressively varied map, which starts off in the urban centre of Priyo City with its narrow alleyways and side-roads, but steadily expands to become much more. There’s is a desert area with stunt-focused jumps, a movie studio set, an airport, a forest area with winding countryside roads and hills to hurl your car off from, and a resort area with the beach and a special surprise - more on that later.
It’s the presence of these new locations that complement the mission designs to test almost any driving challenge you can think of (and the game certainly becomes very difficult in the second half).
Indeed, without the variety of the newer locations the early game is rather dull, and the predictable early mission types don’t help matters either. But rest assured it does get better - much better - when things open up, which doesn’t take too long. And the missions become more unique. At the beginning you’ll be rolling your eyes, but soon enough you’re engaging in more varied activities like filming a stunt movie, rescuing civilians from a burning tunnel, navigating a perilous factory, or chasing a suspect to the top of a multi-story cramped car park before escaping before they can.
Another thing I found impressive was how characteristic the different cars were. Changing cars can make a real difference to whether you can even beat a tough mission at all - they handle appreciably differently depending on the terrain you’re tackling or whether the task at hand requires acceleration or a high top speed.
This is all pulled along by the game’s nitrous system, which encourages the sort of dangerous driving pioneered by Konami’s Thrill Drive. Making a near miss with oncoming traffic fills up the nitrous gauge by a fair amount, but not so much that you have an infinite supply of the stuff. There’s still a big emphasis on well-planned drifts, and smart weaving in-and-out of traffic and other danger zones. There’s some really devilish use of traffic where targets you’re chasing have a strong penchant to ram into oncoming traffic and lead them your way…and intersections always seem to have cars to avoid just as you approach them.
The handling model is weightier and heavier than almost any Ridge Racer title, but that’s fine. The game isn’t trying to serve up a frictionless instant gratification playground that Burnout Paradise brought along in 2008, where skilful driving is reduced to a statement of fact. Critical Velocity, with its emphasis on precision and careful driving, serves up a more considered take on open world driving, where you’ll often find yourself pausing the game to bring up the map and plan a good route during a mission. The collision detection on both vehicles and objects is not generous, the traffic and often does its best to get in your way. Driving fast - with caution - is a big part of this game.
Oh, and I just have to tell you all that Sunny Beach in the Resort Area is actually Seaside Route 765! Had my mind blown mid-mission when the target vehicle led me over a bridge and -boom- right on the iconic track:
All in all, this is a racer that’s certainly worth your time. It’s not perfect, and it’s not quick to impress, but its character shines through if you stick with it, and it provides a stern challenge to boot. Think of it almost as a ‘what if’ for the a future of Namco driving games if they weren’t stuck making identikit PSP Ridge Racers sequels at the beginning of the next generation.