After getting the year off to a lackluster start with the PS Vita launch title, Ridge Racer, the venerable drift racing series has returned with its next big title, Ridge Racer Unbounded. Or has it? See, the thing about Unbounded is that it’s a completely unfamiliar experience for anyone accustomed to Ridge Racer. It barely seems to justify the series’ name plastered on the packaging, as there’s almost nothing to connect it to the rest of the series. This doesn’t mean the game itself (developed by FlatOut creators Bugbear Entertainment) is bad, quite the opposite as it turns out, but it does mean there’s a lot of adjusting to do.
To start with, forget about the traditional Ridge Racer gameplay the series has been reproducing over and over for the last decade. Those arcade-style controls that saw cars sliding around corners like butter on a pancake at the drop of a pin are all but gone. In its place, the cars now handle completely differently. Drifting can only be accomplished by holding down a button while turning a corner, and doing so builds up your ‘Power’ meter (which becomes a ‘Boost’ meter in certain cars). It’s here that the game becomes something of a mix between Burnout, FlatOut and Full Auto. You can try completing a race the traditional way, drifting around every corner, building up your Power meter and winning on speed and technique, but it won’t get you very far here. In fact, you’ll be surprised at how hard Ridge Racer Unbounded starts off. That’s because you’re not playing it the right way.
Unbounded is all about destruction. To start with, your Power meter’s real use is as an insta-kill device for nearby rivals. Activate your Power anywhere near them and they’ll spin out of control, as the camera changes to a cinematic view of their demise and the game informs you that you have ‘Fragged’ your opponent. To win races, you’ve got to take advantage of any opportunity to build up your Power meter, then use it to destroy every car you come across one-by-one to make it to the front of the pack. This mechanic is very reminiscent of the ‘Takedowns’ from the Burnout series, but with that said – they work well there and they work well here, too. Races get tense very quickly, and with being Fragged an always-looming threat, you’re constantly on your toes. If I was cliche enough to use the word ‘edgy’, I would say this is the edgiest the series has been in years.
The whole game takes place in the streets of Shatter Bay, which as you might have guessed by this point, looks nothing like any Ridge Racer location we’ve seen before. There’s no grassy hills on the outskirt, wind farms or seaside towns, just gritty streets and underpasses. The city’s several districts form the different tracks you’ll be racing along. Shatter Bay feels like a lot of cities, like Los Angeles and New York crammed into one, but doesn’t really have its own distinct personality and as a result many of the tracks feel very same-y. However, they are all filled with destructible items, which also help build your Power meter. You can crash into boxes, tear through explosive canisters like paper and break away pillars holding heavy structures that never seem to fall. There are special targets (mostly buildings) in every track marked with ‘Destroy’ labels that you can only crash through in Power mode, which provide you with badly-needed shortcuts and extra points. One of the most annoying things in this game is spotting a ‘Destroy’ target, boosting towards it with Power mode and running out of Power just before you hit the wall – resulting in death.
Running into things is a common annoyance in Unbounded, as mis-judging a corner or swerving into what you think is part of the road will often send you straight into a small alley or enclosed block, which you’ll have to back out of or reset your car’s position in order to continue the race. Getting stuck like this puts a major damper on the enjoyment you squeeze out of the game, and means you’ll have to memorise the layout of every track to avoid this happening. Another grievance I have is the way the Frags work. Unlike Burnout’s Takedowns, which require you to ram a car into another object in order to send them spinning, you only need to activate your Power mode near a car to detonate them immediately. Other cars, of course, can do this to you as well, and your only indication of where cars are in relation to you (seeing as there’s no rear-view mirror or map, just a distracting ‘look behind’ button) is a vague red haze that appears on-screen. That means, at any time you are liable to explode instantly, to be gleefully told by the game that you were ‘Fragged’ by an opponent you never saw coming.
There are a variety of gameplay styles thrown at you, including standard ‘Domination’ races, ‘Shinto’ races that involve a single make of car with Boost meters and ‘Drift’ races that require you to build up points by drifting as frequently and vehemently as possible. You can pass, complete or ‘dominate’ these events, earning you new cars and access to new areas of the city. It isn’t as expansive a single-player mode as seen in games like RR6 or 7, but you never get bored, and if you’re stuck on one particular event it’s really easy to switch over to something else and focus your efforts. In addition to the single player there is a multiplayer mode for up to eight racers online, and a track creation tool. This tool, in particular, is really easy to use, as you simply plonk down blocks of city to make up a track, add an overpass if needed, then race along it to test it out or add roadside objects. It does speak to the city’s lack of personality, though, that you can mix and match blocks from several different templates and never notice that much of a difference as you move from section to section in a race.
With the amount of destruction on-screen in Ridge Racer Unbounded, the game runs at an impressive clip. Cars can also be fully wrecked, with sharp collisions into walls often warping their structure so much you wonder how they can still drive. I don’t want to keep harping on with this point, but most of the cars on display feel more current than the pseudo Ridge Racer-y feel we know and love, although you do unlock some more futuristic designs later in the game. I also think I like the idea of how the Power boost looks more than the actual result, as activating it results in a long-exposure style glow behind a car’s tail-lights, which looks cool from a distance but clips into cars who race behind them, and are really just a static floating texture. Still, the game as a whole comes together well, visually, with over-exposed skies and gritty roads. The only link back to past games comes in the form of the soundtrack, which is filled with tunes from many Ridge Racer games.
I did run into a few bugs, particularly when restarting a race several times. The game’s camera sometimes feels the need to dip below the road-level and into the other-world beneath, and other times it hangs on a weird side angle that makes it almost impossible to drive effectively.
I think many gamers would agree that the Ridge Racer series needed a shot in the arm, as the last – what, five? – titles have essentially been the same game remade over and over again for different platforms, using the same cars, tracks and mechanics. Unbounded isn’t a shot in the arm as much as it is a complete body transplant. It’s the equivalent of scooping the franchise’s brain out and slipping it into a different body, then figuring ‘what the hell?’ and replacing most of the brain, too. All that aside, it’s a pretty good game that mixes mechanics from several other racers out there – probably the most obvious one being Burnout. If you enjoy that series, then it’s likely you’ll enjoy Ridge Racer‘s new facelift. Fans of Ridge Racer may cry bloody murder, but if they can put aside their fear of the new and unusual, they’ll find a tense and fun racer that has a lot of potential if sequels are ever made. Burnout 3: Takedown is still better, though. Burnout 3 was awesome.