Namco’s Ridge Racer series has had a long run since appearing in the arcades over ten years ago, but since its many iterations on consoles, the series has not changed the basic drift formula very much. Where once, and maybe twice mastery of the drift controls were a must, later games introduced varying styles of vehicles to accommodate player styles, so grip cars were also introduced. There’s always been a slick presentation with these games, with an onus on swift progression and unlocking things whether that be new cars, or circuits. It’s been a while since the last Ridge Racer game on consoles (I reviewed Ridge Racer 6 way back in 2005), and so now in 2012 we have Ridge Racer Unbounded to contend with.
The core racing remains with the same principle as RR6 where you’re circuit racing around tracks but unique to this game set in the fictitious locale of Shatter Bay which seems to be based on New York, although somewhat different in many ways. The idea is to hit a button as you approach corners and then slide round them without hitting the walls or buildings to maintain momentum and speed. What makes a return is the boost feature which builds a meter every time you either drift or slipstream an opponent. This is key to winning races, and what’s imperative is using the boost at the right times rather than wasting it. The core mechanics are very much rigid and if you attempt to race in a more conventional manner, you’ll end making tasks harder than they should be. I found the drifting aspect to be a little cumbersome at first, but I stuck with it and once I learned the elements of correct positioning, and counter steering to avoid spinning out, the races became fast, furious and edge of your seat bouts as opposed to pad throwing bundles of annoyance. I have to stress this with the utmost importance. The AI is unforgiving, and there’s little in the way of easing the playing in gently. You’ll get owned in the very first race of many races spread across Shatter city, but the idea is to learn and use the points to unlock more vehicles. The city is divided into regions – which you can unlock more as you progress – and within each area you can participate in various race types and events such as drifting for score, timed runs or even using a giant rig to smash up cop cars.
What’s new in Unbounded are the city circuits filled with destructive buildings and objects which are used to create short cuts and gain boost bonuses. You’ll also gain extra boosts for completing various bonus actions such as speed drifts etc. With 11 opponents on the track at times, you’re facing off against some stiff unrelenting competition, which if I recall correctly were pretty cheap in RR6. It’s hard to say if they’ve improved the player chances, but with the all new Burnout style takedowns in races makes for a different dynamic to what RR fans will be used to. Namco has copied the Burnout games, but for the most part it works well as you boost into opponents and take them out momentarily – I did encounter a number of cheap deaths at the finish line from time to time but once you learn how to get ahead, not smash up your vehicle against walls, and try to not get too many opponents trying to revenge smash you, then races become a lot smoother, and rewarding. There is a real skill to driving despite it initially looking like a mad destruction derby, and what’s paramount to success is learning the circuit, short cuts, and gaining the all important boosts so you can clear the pack and race ahead.
Graphically, Unbounded does a good job of conveying sports cars, which as usual for the series are based on real life cars in the RR way of design as seen since the first game. The city itself is varied with its themed regions and filled with colour but perhaps lacking in overall polish. There are pedestrian vehicles, even various times of day which add a pleasant sheen to the overall look but something is missing to raise it to looking spectacular rather than just “good”. The sensation of speed feels right, and the destruction element is quite cool, albeit a little over the top. What’s annoying is the slow motion cam when taking down opponents vehicles, which can be skipped but if left can leave you heading into a wall with no chance to turn. There’s an option to turn cinematic moments off in the options which is advisable once you get to the more serious racing events. There’s some neat crash imagery when sadly you career into a wall or get taken out, which whilst slow, emphasise that you made a costly error which is usually hard to recover from. At least you bow out in style, not as good as Burnout the game tries to emulate, but still worthy all the same.
Audio is grand, with a nice mix of Ridge Racer tunes from the past remixed, and some other dub-step and drum and bass flavours to suit the street racing essence on offer. There’s a narrative at various points as you complete parts of the city,spoken by the token RR girl, but these can largely be ignored because the story element isn’t really the focus here. Other sound effects are spot on, but in all honesty it’s the driving soundtrack that keeps things as fast and furious as the on screen action.
There’s a fair number of events to race through and due to the strict nature of the competition, you’ll probably repeat races over and over until you beat them. It’s a tough campaign right from the get go, especially if gaining three stars for first place wins is your calling. If you finish beyond third, you’ll have to play again. Choosing the right vehicle for the job is very much an important aspect of the events you participate in.
Aside from the career mode, there’s multiplayer for the same deal against humans, and the much talked about player worlds where you can spend little or lots of time with the circuit editor to create your own madness. The tools are very easy to use and with some patience and dedication (you need to unlock track parts via the career mode), you find much reward in your creations which can be shared online. There’s a fair number of tracks on offer as you’ve got lots of creators out there showing off their wares – expect the weird, challenging and wonderful in your travels.
Ridge Racer Unbounded is a pretty slick game that unfortunately is let down by the opening moments due to simply not giving newcomers a chance to shine at the game early on and then ramp up the difficulty later to suit. In this regard I can see many players giving up due to not winning the first races, but this will be doing yourself a disservice. Unbounded requires a distinct understanding of its rules, which once are carved into your essence, just clicks into place and becomes a fast and enjoyable racer well worth checking out.