Review: Ridge Racer Unbounded
Ridge Racer is back on the grid…or is it? High speed racing and drifting will be familiar to fans of the series, however the additions of explosions and burnout-esque gameplay certainly throws something new into the mix. Coming from Bugbear, the studio most recently responsible for the Flatout series (minus Chaos & Destruction), Namco have seemingly thrown them the Ridge Racer name and said ‘Do what you want!’. While it’s easy to criticise the game for not really being true to the franchise -which does honestly have quite a legacy-, is this change of direction good for the series, and could this new approach of letting another developer throwing in their six-pence into an established series be worthwhile for Namco? Let’s hit the Gas.
Forgoing the bright, colourful, and shiny environments spanning the globe that Ridge Racer players may be accustomed to, you’re instead grinding your way through the streets of Shatter Bay as part of a group called the ‘Unbounded‘ as you attempt to rise through the ranks. Ok, so the premise isn’t particularly memorable, but racers don’t generally need a story. Evoking familiar visual cues you may have seen from Black Rock’s Split/Second (R.I.P) in reference to the explosions and interaction with the environments, Unbounded offers a much more gritty approach in a more concentrated area focused on one city. Split/Second offered lots of spectacle and set pieces, but it wasn’t particularly gritty. Unbounded instead lets you know first hand that you’ve punched through a bit of concrete with satisfying sound and visuals to match.
For the most part, realistic racers are pretty easy to get into if you’re familiar with them. Arcade racers on the other hand such as Blur, generally have particular mechanics you’ll need to master before you’ll be hitting the podium positions. You’ll soon learn that aggression is the key in Unbounded, and it all comes down to the Power bar. Drifting, jumping, and bashing through the environment rewards you with the ability to punch through specially designed shortcuts, as well as wreck rivals in a style made popular by Burnout 3: Takedown. Wrecking is generally as simple as booting them from behind, though a simple side-swipe works just as well, and in turn rewards you with points which feed into the ranking system to unlock new cars and tracks. The XP system is implemented cross game, so no matter if you’re drifting in multiplayer, or smashing in single player, it all feeds to a central pot.
In terms of the Ridge Racer name, the only thing intact from its namesake it Drifting. Practising in the Drift events will be integral, as this ability is really important to both build your power bar, take corners better, as well as making the game a lot more fun. It’s risk vs. reward, as a feathered trigger finger will be needed to maintain your angle. It’s not all high speed and drifting though, the AI is always just behind you to keep you on your toes, and can easily wreck you in return if you’re not careful.
Learning the environment is more important here than your average racer, and you’ll want to learn early on what you can and cannot smash through. Your average wall or dividers won’t cause you an issue, even while drifting sideways through them, and the pillars and columns that litter the road side won’t even cause you to slow your pace. The buildings are what you need to look out for. Sure, it sounds pretty obvious, but you need to be careful when drifting, as not all side roads are blocked off, meaning that you may end up face first into shop front if you’re not careful. Larger objects, such as billboards or buildings that can be smashed through are clearly labelled, and require use of your power to punch through. The environment also plays into the gameplay by providing many HUD elements that would normally obscure the screen. Effectively plastered onto objects in the environment from bridges to road signs, information such as lap number, time behind next opponent, a lap timer and your current score are easily observed in a fashion used in Splinter Cell: Conviction.
Situational awareness is relatively important here, and Bugbear have implemented some subtle ways of conveying this to you. Along the lines of the HUD on buildings, in a style reminiscent of the hit indicator seen in nearly every FPS on the planet, you’re able to know when and where a car is coming up behind you, giving you the chance to swerve to block them, instead of resorting to looking back. Unfortunately, there’s no warning if upcoming vehicles are using their power bar, which does result in some unexpected ‘fragging’ of yourself. Destructibility plays a large part in the game, but don’t expect anything dynamic along the lines of Battlefield 3 or Red Faction. This probably works in Unbounded’s favour though, as a track littered with unpredictable scenery could become troublesome.
Pleasantly surprising is the variety of events you’ll encounter as you make your way through the main single player mode ‘Dominate’. Drift, time trials and domination races may be your standard affair, but the time attack mode presents something pretty unique. Offering up a focused linear run full of jumps and half pipes which wouldn’t seem out of a place in a Tony Hawks title or Track Mania, you’re tasked with getting from A to B while grabbing pickups to freeze the timer. These are the type of events you’ll find yourself retrying in an attempt to get the best possible score, and are often unpredictable as you’ll occasionally pull off a perfect barrel roll by accident and continue on as if nothing happened, well, except for a giant grin on your face. The unexpectedness can also bite you in the ass just as easily. They never quite go all the way however, and while insane air and quarter pipe esque corners are nice, there’s no sign of the more extravagant loop the loops or barrel rolls. Frag attack is often just as intense, and gives you the chance to decimate the local police force’s cars through use of a giant truck…Yup, plain simple fun.
While it certainly looks very flashy and sounds great -thanks to the dubstep filled soundtrack-, as much work as Bugbear has done to streamline the interface, there are a few quirks worth mentioning. It’s a little niggle, but the menu’s aren’t responsive if you’re holding a trigger down, so you’d best not pause the game at high speed, less you’ll have to quickly jam the trigger after resuming. A few technical issues also got in the way, in particular the camera occasionally pulled some strange angles during boosts, and there was one time during a race in which the framerate -which is normally very consistent- slowed to a crawl for a 20 second section. Apart from that, loading is relatively quick, though pretty static, and the game looks very nice. The cinematic slow-mo camera effects are certainly cool looking, but you may find yourself turning them off for a more flowing, consistent experience, as well as maintaining full control of your car, instead of letting the AI handle things as you watch your opponents roll and tumble.
Dominating is the name of the game here. Placing 1st may give you a nice healthy boost to the bank, but completing an entire area earns you a ‘domination point’. It’s just a shame that the difficulty is just so inconsistent, varying from very easy, to that just little bit too tricky until you’ve mastered the track.
As you blast through the streets, you may start to recognise some familiar sights. Repetition is not uncommon in Unbounded, as instead of crafting individual tracks, Bugbear has chosen to design a very open city containing many routes, to then divide up and criss-cross to vary the tracks. It does provide a more cohesive racing environment, though you may tire of seeing the same turn a little too often in a number of the areas. Bugbear do try to alleiviate this by using colour grading in an attempt to give each district its unique colour palette, it helps, but won’t stop you from thinking they could have included a little more variety.
As to be expected from a game releasing in 2012, the online features are robust. From racing on custom tracks to setting up time trials, the interface gets you to where you want with seamless integration to the single player component. Online racing is fast and furious, with minimal lag.
The track editor is one of the core features of Unbounded. Here, using a tile based system (akin to Timesplitters Future Perfect) you can create and modify your own tracks. You’ll unlock track pieces to place here while playing through single player, and you can create a track to be used in the variety of game modes. What’s nice is that these are easy to share, and may even pop up automatically during another players entry into the multiplayer arena, challenging your times for points and awards, though only open for a limited time (a little like SSX).
Overall, Unbounded is a lot of fun, and no matter how straight forward the gameplay may be, it’s definitely worth your time. It’s hard to look at is as part of the Ridge Racer series though, and I can’t help but feel it didn’t start life as one. The drift mechanic is something you’ll have to learn early on, but the variety of modes and the extensive multiplayer options are a huge plus point. The little quirks here and there don’t affect the experience to a huge degree, but the unbalanced difficulty may turn some off. If you’re after an arcade racer with a bit of weight behind it, you’d be hard pressed not to enjoy Unbounded, especially if don’t want to see another racing studio bite the dust.