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.
Unfortunately multiplayer 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 bargain bins.
This 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.