What you can say about Ridge Racer Unbounded, with equal amounts of conviction and fear, is that it’s the most drastic change the storied franchise has seen since it was introduced way back in 1993. Developed, by Finnish studio BugBear Entertainment, this is a game as much about destruction as it is about racing. And more about destruction than the series stalwart drifting mechanics.
It’s a far cry from the pure drift-racing focus we’re used to from the series and a move that will either heighten your confused outlook on the series or, if you’re eager for more Split/Second: Velocity-esque action, get you more excited than you’ve ever been for a Ridge Racer.
No matter what your outlook, though, Namco had few options other than a complete overhaul. The series has been steadily losing its audience and its identity since the launch of the PlayStation 2, and only a total rethink was going to give it a chance to make the ground back.
Much of what BugBear has brought to the table works, much of it doesn’t.
Your primary concern here is building up a power meter that opens up a world of boosting, opponent ‘fragging’ and environmental destruction. Power is primarily acquired by drifting and launching yourself off jumps, which acts as a nice incentive to indulge in some of the core aspects the series has built its name on.
Drive into an opponent with your power boost activated and you’ll send them into an uncontrollable triple-spin that sends them to the back of the pack. Drive into certain buildings with boost activated and it’ll crumble in a chaotic explosion of rubble and flame, resulting in a short cut and means of avoiding your aggressive competitors. Or you could just use your boost to actually boost, which is the boring option but does come in handy during last gasp sprints to the finish line.
The basic formula is undeniably entertaining and offers enough variation for different tactics and boost timings to play a part in your success or failures. However, there’s not enough variation in the race types and environments, which results in a humdrum experience of repetition after the first ten or so races.
While there are different ways to effectively use your boost power, not using it means you have no chance whatsoever of winning. It makes for a one-dimensional experience in which your actual racing ability plays a distant second to your prowess in building boost. Overtaking without boosting, fragging or smashing through buildings is extremely rare – the AI seemingly balanced in such a way as to make it all but impossible.
Compared to Split/Second’s blend of environmental destruction and arcade racing it’s more than a little disappointing. Split/Second used destruction as a fancy, optional and wholly-welcome extra that added a dollop of spectacle to a racing system that was well balanced and addictive. Unbounded’s destruction provides a forced spectacle, the kind of thing that soon outstays its welcome because you’re forced to use it to succeed.
No matter how fun something might be, no one enjoys being forced into a specific path or idea.
Because your opponents have access to the same boost abilities you yourself can deploy, you’ll find yourself the victim of an unavoidable and podium-destroying attack almost every race. All too many times you find yourself happily racing along in front of cars scrambling to catch up, only to find yourself (without any warning) flying into the air following an opponent boosting into you from behind. When you respawn on-track you’ll have lost five positions, lost all chance of winning and lost the will to retry the same event.
The nature of arcade racers’ AI means that this is a genre that’s never truly ‘fair’, but to find yourself suddenly without hope of winning due to unavoidable situations is a step too far. If Unbounded took itself less seriously, perhaps this kind of thing could be laughed away as all part of the joke. But it does take itself very seriously, and if you’re going to take yourself this seriously you’d better make sure you deliver a fair experience.
It’s not all bad, though. Multiplayer rids Unbounded of its AI frustrations and provides plenty of opportunity to skank one over your friends with a last minute boost or by smashing through an office block. While the same reliance on your boost meter exists in the online arena, the frustration is lessened knowing that you’ll have a chance to repay any defeat in the following race.
Unbounded’s track editor represents the kind of beautiful simplicity you wish was replicated throughout the entire game. By linking together different track blocks atop asimple grid, new races can be built in a matter of minutes and represent a quality often superior to those that ship on the disc.
The best thing about the track editor is that it allows you to build tracks with wide sweeping corners that celebrate and reward your ability to drift the heavy-feeling cars in one smooth motion. Too many of the default tracks concentrate on right-angle turns and narrow passageways, so it’s nice to have a chance to fix that.
Still, it’s difficult to praise Unbounded too much on the fact that its best feature is that it allows you the option to fix some of the mistakes that exist in the main game. While it’s inarguable that Ridge Racer was very much in need of a makeover, Unbounded’s formula is far from the required antidote. The focus on destruction has overshadowed everything else to the point where other elements are merely along for the ride. It’s all well and good designing a game with a specific focus in mind, but not when that focus renders everything else pointless.