It’s tough to argue that Ridge
Racer isn’t in the middle of a slow, possibly permanent slide into irrelevance. It's having a hard time finding its footing in a genre dominated by realistic
sims like Gran Turismo and Forza, and where even the most arcade-y new games
enjoy some combination of sophisticated physics, detailed damage modeling, and
wanton carnage. So it’s easy to see where Namco’s coming from with Ridge Racer
Unbounded - this is its attempt to make Ridge Racer relevant again.
Unbounded takes its cue from
games like Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit and developer Bugbear’s own FlatOut
racers, emphasizing adrenaline-fueled, macho braggadocio and brutal, smashmouth
tactics over the blue skies, easy goin’ vibe of Namco’s ‘90s racers. (The game
is so gritty and dark that it’s sometimes difficult to see the road.) Unbounded’s
brief talky bits straight-up instruct you to destroy, demolish, and “dominate”
your opponents, which in alpha-wolf lingo apparently means “getting first place
in an event.”
Your hunting ground is the
city of Shatter Bay, apparently named by the same folks who brought us products
like Axe Body Detailer. It’s split into nine districts, each of which offers
seven underground racing events. You only need to place third in any given
event to proceed, but place first in all seven and you’ll “dominate” the
district, which may or may not involve peeing on the fire hydrants. This is all
tied together with a hilariously perfunctory fiction about an underclass uprising
by...recklessly racing cars? Something like that. Rest assured that you’ll
never hear of this silliness after the intro.
That’s just as well, because
it lets you focus on what actually matters: the racing. Bugbear is an old hand
at this, which is immediately evidenced by the weighty feel of the driving
physics and the aggressive, intelligent-feeling AI opponents. Unbounded
successfully sells the illusion that you’re piloting several thousand pounds of
metal and plastic at 150 mph, and the collisions - be it with walls or other
cars - feel nearly as meaty as those in FlatOut and Burnout.
Of particular note is the
sensitive, slightly odd-feeling handbrake, which facilitates the
corner-spanning drifts for which Ridge Racer used to be famous. The feel here
is completely different, to the point that we spent our first couple hours just
trying to get a handle on how to successfully drift in Unbounded’s strange new
world of physics. Once we got the idea it was fine, but the learning curve may
be substantial if you come in expecting typical Ridge Racer physics.
The learning curve’s tough
in other ways, too. It took us the better part of an hour just to place in the
first race, and we briefly wondered if we’d bitten off more than we could chew.
You win experience points just for racing, though, so continual play eventually
unlocks better cars to help you over the hump. The AI (thankfully) falls short
of the ferociousness seen in FlatOut 2, but it’s definitely playing to win.
Once you get used to it you’ll appreciate its aggressive edge and lack of
cheat-y “rubberbanding.” It’s tough but fair.
In addition to the normal
12-car races, there are high-speed races, drifting contests, halfpipe-laden
time trials, and cop-smashing semi-truck rampage events. While these add
much-needed variation, Unbounded is at its best when you’re racing 11 other
cars. The time trials in particular are just annoying, with each stunt ramp threatening
to send you careening into a run-ending wall. Despite the great AI and
respectable carnage, single-player starts wearing thin around the third
district; there simply isn’t enough variety in tracks or environments. Early
races had our hearts beating hard as we struggled to preserve our one-second
leads; this intense feeling faded as familiarity took hold.
may not fill the gap, as Unbounded’s online game feels like a ghost town. We’d
wait upwards of 10 minutes just to find another player, much less the seven
needed for a full race. There are well over 1,000 player-made “cities”
(collections of up to five custom courses) available online - which you can
download and race in - but it seems difficult to actually find many people
playing in them. It’s neat that you can make your own courses, but it’s not
much more than a novelty when you’re the only one driving laps.
Ridge Racer Unbounded almost
works - it’s so close. Bugbear clearly knows what it’s doing, but seems hampered
by the odd, shoehorned-in license and a repetitive single-player campaign.
Unbounded’s testosterone-drenched theme and crazy destruction might appeal to
the mainstream, but its considerable difficulty and lack of extras will send
them packing just as quickly. Only enthusiast racing fans who appreciate
Bugbear’s FlatOut legacy will have a chance at dialing into this one, and even
then they’ll know that FlatOut 2 and Burnout do the destructive racing shtick
better. Who is Unbounded for, then? It’s unfortunate, but our best guess is the
game was reviewed on Xbox 360 as the lead platform. We also played through
sections of the PS3 version to see if there were any distinct differences, and
we found no technical shortcomings during our playtime.