The year was 1993. Bill Clinton had yet to define “sex,” Jurassic Park sat atop the box office charts, and Whitney Houston’s Bodyguard infused soundtrack was the top selling album of the year, back when people bought music on these things called “CDs” and “cassettes.” It was a simpler time.
But along with hypercolor shirts and extremely bright and colorful sweaters, the malls of America featured a new game at the local arcade, Ridge Racer. Since its debut nearly two decades ago, the series has been on almost every system of note, from consoles to handhelds to mobile devices. It may not carry quite the name recognition as other, similar racers like the Burnout or Need for Speed games, but the franchise is anything if not resilient.
For the most recent offering, Ridge Racer: Unbounded, Namco Bandai handed over the development to Bugbear Entertainment, a developer that already has a fair amount of experience with racing games of this ilk, including a few rally games, as well as the FlatOut racing series. The result is a new feel for the Ridge Racer series, for better and worse.
Welcome to Shatter Bay
The setting of Unbounded is Shatter Bay, a fictional city with plenty of variety. You are a part of a group called the Unbounded that races around the city and—you know what, to hell with it, it’s a racing game. You choose your missions and go for it. The story is little more than an afterthought.
The city though, is a character in itself. You race through several unique districts, each featuring a handful of race types that you unlock by earning points from previous races. Along with unlocking races, you also open up a huge assortment of selectable cars, many of which are unique to a certain type of race. There isn’t a whole lot of customization, but there is a lot of variety, and the more cars you earn the more reason you have to replay earlier races. It is nothing you haven’t seen before in a racing game.
As for the races, longtime fans of the Ridge Racer series are going to wonder where their racing games went. There is a very different feel to this game than previous Ridge Racer titles, even the very recently released Ridge Racer for the Vita.
It is a weird and bizarre choice by Bugbear here to not include a tutorial. You might think that most racing games are the same—go straight, go fast, rubbin’ is racing’, etc., etc.—and there is a lot of truth to that. But until you understand how the game works, you are missing out on what makes this game fun.
The drifting mechanic feels totally different than in other Ridge Racer games, and it will take some skill to master it. Your first races will acquaint you with numerous walls, as you use them to stop your skid. Shockingly, slamming into a wall sideways at high speed is typically not a good way to win a race. Who would have thought? And yet slam you will as you try to learn the finesse-based drift system. It will take time.
Once you do though, the game opens up and you see what it is all about. The game revolves around the use of a power bar, which you fill up through drifting and destroying smaller objects, which is pretty much anything other than walls. Once you fill your power bar, you can hit it and frag opponents by hitting them, cause certain things to explode, and create shortcuts through specific buildings. The trick though, is linking it altogether to create one lo combo that will keep your power bar at, or near full.
The problem is, Bugbear offers you nothing in the way of explaining this, and picking it up as you go will certainly scare away many.
Domination races, where you can smack opponents around, make up the majority of your time in the campaign. There are plenty of other modes, but domination is where you will spend the majority of your time, both because they are not easy and you will find yourself going old school to restart the race after a few bad corners, and because they are the deepest and most engrossing type of race. The other races are typical arcade racer fare: time trials, non-combat races, and drift attacks to name a few.
Create your city
There is, of course, an online multiplayer (there may actually be a legal ruling that there has to be a multiplayer component to every AAA game created these days—or at least it feels like it). The thing that sets this multiplayer apart from most other, similar racers is the level creator.
As you play the campaign you will unlock more and more elements that can be used online to create your own track. They are a bit limited, and the interface can be a pain, but there is more than enough to design a unique track.
Once you have your courses set and verified, you can then chuck them online and wait for your friends to descend upon them like hungry piranha that have tasted blood in the water, as they—and anyone else for that matter—attempt to dominate you scores.
The new look and feel of Ridge Racer
From the first moment you fire up Unbounded, it is apparent that this game is heading in a different direction from the rest of the franchise. Unbounded is set in a dark and grimy looking dystopian city, which stands in contrast to the typical Ridge Racer levels. The actual graphics are solid, but with the new look comes a new thought process on the tracks.
The tracks in Unbounded are designed very specifically for the style of racing Bugbear is hoping to create. The courses are tight, even claustrophobic at times, and harsh right angles are a common occurrence. When you understand the way the drifting works with the power button, shortcuts, environmental destruction and such, it makes sense. But it is still a right angle in a racing game.
The level design may be deliberate, but it is also unforgiving and forces you to play the game its way. This can make it feel a bit stifling at times. That feeling is further increased by the enemy AI, who are out for blood and aided by a magnetic attraction to your car that will continually negate any real lead you have. Add in the power meter that your opponents also use, and you can be caught totally unaware as someone slams into you from behind and frags you.
It can be frustrating. So, so frustrating.
Otherwise the racing feels good and handles smoothly. The drift has a logic that operates outside of physics, but it is consistent and a deliberate gameplay mechanic.
Bugbear set out to relaunch the Ridge Racer series, and it did just that. It’s just a shame that they didn’t tell anyone exactly how they were doing it. Learning the physics of the game can be an incredibly aggravating, controller-smashing experience, but once you do, once it clicks, it will all make sense. It doesn’t all work, and the level design can prove to be a bit stiff and clunky—even when it is deliberately designed that way—and the AI is so evil that you may worry that opponents are plotting to leave the game and continue their pursuit of you in the real world, but there is a method to the madness.
If you have the patience to learn how Ridge Racer: Unbounded thinks and moves, the new Ridge Racer has a logic and gameplay model that feels fresh and unique. Beyond that mechanic though—which is an admittedly major piece—the rest of the game feels very familiar. The race modes are familiar incarnations of typical races, the progression system is standard, and even the level creator has been done before. But put it all together and you have a new and intriguing direction for the Ridge Racer franchise, which is older than many of the people that will play it.
Score: 8 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Namco Bandai)