Right, let's get this out of the way early on: Ridge Racer Unbounded has nothing to do with the original series which showed off the true power of Sony’s little gray box of tricks all those years ago. Got that? Good, because Ridge Racer Unbounded can’t be judged against the games which have gone before it and neither is it right to. No doubt the massive shift in focus for the series could be used as a stick to beat Unbounded with from those who don’t immediately see its charms. Pushing the name to one side however and judging purely as the game stands is the only way to truly appreciate it. Doing anything other than that with Ridge Racer Unbounded does the game a disservice.
Despite that though you might still be wondering why your first couple of hours in Ridge Racer Unbounded feels more like a trip back to Split Second or Burnout rather than the bright clear skies, beautiful beaches and sweeping corners that graced the older titles. This really is a million miles away from the older entries (and the recent PS Vita release) and, frankly, it is a welcome step as Ridge Racer had lost its relevance in recent years. Clearly Namco have felt the same way and the fact that they have so readily headed in a new direction means fans of the series shouldn’t lose much sleep over it. Credit to Namco too for recognising that things needed a kick up the backside and doubly so to them for picking Bugbear Entertainment to head up production.
The Finnish studio have a fine reputation when it comes to racing games thanks to FlatOut (although they are not responsible for the latest version). Cleverly though they haven’t relied entirely on their old series and have instead pulled, chopped and stolen from a few different sources to craft something highly enjoyable. And yet, despite this, the opening couple of hours don’t do Ridge Racer Unbounded a great many favours. The cars feel too heavy and the drifting just doesn’t seem to work at all. Give it time and things eventually start to click into place and the layers of the game start to peel back one after another. Its only then, the best part of two hours into the game, does Ridge Racer Unbounded’s real charm start to push to the fore and the old expectations of the series start to drift away. A large part of this is down to the drifting which takes time to master but a lot of it comes down to the challenging AI which really kicks up a gear in the later stages of the game.
The drifting, the legacy of the series, is as good a place as any to start from. Instead of using a combination of braking and throttle to make the backend of the car come out to play Ridge Racer Unbounded throws in a drift button. Dabbing this like you would a handbrake yields little to no success. Instead you find yourself understeering into a wall. It is only when you start to become a bit more aggressive with the system does it start to reward. Combined with the accelerator, and a great deal of care and practice you can start to glide your car through the tightest of corners. Even with practice failure to pay attention at a corner means your car will bite back and send you into a world of pain. It can be a difficult system but it is a rewarding one. Get the drifting right and you fill up your boost bar which can be used to unlock shortcuts and take out opponents.
While Bugbear Entertainment have played around with the drifting mechanics the destruction elements are where they have most obviously cherry picked from their peers. Filling up the boost bar allows you to punch holes through buildings to find shortcuts and smash your opponents to pieces. These parts, despite being undeniably good, somehow aren’t quite as polished as the drifting, certainly in isolation at least. For a start taking down your opponents is rather unsatisfying and a little too easy at times - merely boosting into the back of your rival will be enough to send them off course. Meanwhile forging shortcuts through the buildings is enjoyable enough but Split Second’s mammoth set pieces were more polished and spectacular than Ridge Racer Unbounded’s. While the set pieces are perhaps not as stunning as many might have hoped there is still an amazing level of destructibility in Ridge Racer. Low walls, support pillars, parked cars and steelwork can all be smashed into and broken. You end up doing all of this a great many times during a typical race and it means that despite the shortcuts and takedowns being a little underwhelming on their own it all comes together as a glorious whole.
Doling out the carnage during races gives you extra points and being successful allows you to level up quickly which in turn unlocks new districts, cars and components for the track editor. The main campaign, like so many in modern games, does get a bit repetitive at times and you will see the bulk of the race types very quickly indeed and not all of them are that good. Thankfully domination mode, Ridge Racer Unbounded’s meat and drink, is very successful. Here you have to place in the top three to progress by any means necessary. Some of the domination races get really tricky later on in the game and it will often take more than a few goes before you eventually manage to find a way through. Throw in all the destruction and carnage you can do and no two races are ever quite the same and you are rewarded for mixing it up. The AI gets really tough later in the game but you are rewarded for trying. Finishing races gives you points which ultimately go towards levelling up. It may be difficult at times but perseverance and effort are recognised as you get more cars, and perhaps more importantly, new pieces for the track editor.
Unfortunately the other game modes are not quite so good. Shindo Racing sees most of the destruction stripped out in favour of straight up racing while Frag Attack sees you trying to take down as many cop cars as possible while behind the wheel of a big rig. There is also a time trial mode set on stunt courses with an added challenge of collecting floating icons which freeze the ticking clock for a few moments. Finally there is a drifting mode as well but none of them are as entertaining as Domination races. Despite that if you want to see everything Ridge Racer has to offer then you will need to become competent in each of them. For a start if you want to really see everything the track editor has to offer you will need to spend some time perfecting the main campaign modes.
The track editor is a real gem. Pieces fit together on a grid and afterwards extra spice can be added to them with ramps, explosive barrels and other elements. There is already plenty of content on-line from other players and some unique designs can be achieved. That said the track editor is perhaps also the source of some woe for the game as it would seem the main tracks have been created in much the same way. This does lead to some repetition in the main game with some elements repeated more than a few times. It is a minor niggle however as Ridge Racer Unbounded’s Shatter Bay is a fine looking city to do battle in. Once tracks have been created with the editor they can be unleashed to a wider audience with challenges set on them and people are allowed to beat your scores. Ridge Racer Unbounded’s track editor should ensure the game has a healthy life after the single player events are finished, but even that will take the typical player some time as they try to squeeze out each final ranking from the main campaign.
Ridge Racer Unbounded could have been a difficult sell on the surface. Reinventing the series was always going to be tricky and no doubt the shift in focus won’t win it friends with anyone who refuses to let go of the past. Those who do however will find a very enjoyable racer in Unbounded. Bugbear Entertainment have done a wonderful job in defining and reimagining Ridge Racer. Some parts of the game fall a little flat but for the most part the main campaign is an exciting experience. Sure Bugbear have lifted and cherry picked the best bits from Burnout and Split Second but they’ve packaged it together very well indeed. Individual bits in Ridge Racer Unbounded are not always fantastic - the set pieces are not as stunning as Split Second, the takedowns are not quite as satisfying as the Burnout series has managed and the opening few hours can be a frustrating experience to say the least - but put it altogether and it works very well. Everyone involved deserves a huge pat on the back for Ridge Racer Unbounded - Namco for having the stomach and recognition for change and Bugbear for reinventing an aging and tired series.
Can Bugbear Entertainment breath new life into Ridge Racer?