There are two things that are immediately clear playing Ridge Racer Unbounded. The first, is that this is no ordinary Ridge Racer game. The second, is that it’s the best game in the series since the original Ridge Racer revolutionised the arcade racing genre way back in 1994.
Since it’s début on the PlayStation 1 the popularity of the series has been in steady decline. The manic drifting, thumping soundtracks and trailing beams of light that had made Ridge Racer iconic became routine and gamers started to drift to more visceral arcade racers such as Burnout and Need for Speed.
This trend may have been what led Namco to hiring former FlatOut developers, Bugbear, to create Unbounded. It certainly must have been in Bugbear’s minds because Unbounded seems like a pastiche made up of the best elements from Burnout, Need for Speed, FlatOut and Split/Second: Velocity.
The core of the game is almost directly lifted from FlatOut, with minor tweaks applied to make it just a little more drift-happy. Ridge Racer veterans wont be able to just start winning racers. Cars feel a lot weightier than in previous Ridge Racer games and kicking out the back-end and holding a drift takes immense skill and concentration.
Unbounded is an extremely difficult game to get the hang of, but once the first hurdle has been leapt there is a satisfying difficulty curve and the game manages to be one of the rare racing games that feels challenging without resorting to cheap AI. It’s intelligent, versatile and viciously aggressive.
Beating the computer requires thought and a tactical use of boost. Generated from drifting, smashing through objects and getting air, boost is a versatile weapon. It turns your car into a speeding wrecking ball, capable of destroying opposition with a touch and smashing through pre-determined short-cuts with ease. Choosing between using boost to take down an opponent or using it to craft a short-cut on the fly is often the line between winning and losing.
Destructible scenery can be another determining point in success or failure. Low walls, boxes and other light objects can be ploughed through with relative ease, slowing cars only slightly but there is a real random element to what else is destructible. It can be difficult to decide whether to attempt to crash through a wall or veer off and it’s not uncommon for a race to be lost because of a wall that turns out not be as weak as it seems.
This is most frustrating during the Shindo racing events, a simpler type of race where your boost is reduced from an offensive power-house to just an increase of speed. There are also three other race types that are available in Unbounded – Frag Attacks, where you have to take down as many cars as possible; Drift races, where points are scored for going sideways and Time attacks, which are either classic races against the clock or crazy stunt masterpieces.
The Shindo races, frag attacks and drift races feel fairly uninspired. Almost like they have only been thrown in because these are the types of modes that arcade racings seem required to include. One half of the time attack mode, the one where you have to complete a race in a certain amount of time, suffers from the same fate. However, the other type of time attack is inventive and downright fun. In this mode you have to take on a stunt course, which might include slaloms, chicanes and big jumps, while collecting tokens to reduce your time.
The single-player campaign benefits greatly from the variety of game modes. Mastering each event is key to achieving your goal of “Dominating” Shatter Bay, a fictional city in America. Shatter Bay is split into districts which are unlocked as you progress by winning races. Sadly, there is almost no unique features in any of the districts. They are all just part of another generic American town. There are no winding mountainside runs, or long drag races through the desert. This monotony is reflected in the tracks which are almost indistinguishable from one another. Each one is just built up of pieces from the last and re-arranged in a way that one could consider new.
The reason for this happens to be one of Unbounded strengths – the track editor. Many would suspect the track editor to be something just thrown in to capitalise on the content-creation craze that Halo 3 and LittleBigPlanet popularised. However, Unbounded‘s track creator is one of the most comprehensive pieces of kit seen in any game. Allowing to place jumps, obstacles and whatever chaos you can think of to create your perfect track. Even better, you can also create your own special events for your tracks so you get to choose how people enjoy your track.
It seems strange that the track designers haven’t taken full advantage of the track editor throughout the single-player campaign. And it’s a shame because the monotony of the track design is one of the only flaws in what is otherwise a remarkable game. It may be more Burnout, FlatOut and Split/Second: Velocity than Ridge Racer but Unbounded, once the steep learning curve is overcome, manages to be one of the best games in it’s genre.
Verdict – On Target
Platforms Available – PC, PS3, 360
Platform Reviewed – PS3