Ridge Racer was the first game I owned on the original PSP. In my opinion, it was not only one of the handheld’s finest launch titles, but to this day remains one of the best racing games in its library. Naturally, I was excited to see how the series would up the ante for its premier on the PlayStation Vita, but instead it turns out that Ridge Racer has been reduced to a shell of its former self. On the PSP, Ridge Racer impressed thanks to its rich singleplayer and became a showcase for the portable’s graphical capabilities. The only - at the time forgivable - omission was an online component. Ridge Racer on the Vita takes the exact opposite route. It’s still impressive from a presentational standpoint, but the game shifts focus onto a flawed online system while almost completely ignoring single player with disastrous results.
This is a franchise which has always emphasized aesthetics. In this regard Ridge Racer for the Vita deserves accolades for being the best in the series. Presentation is the one area where this game absolutely excels. This may be a weird thing to praise, but Ridge Racer has the best menu system in any videogame I’ve ever played; it's elegant and completely touched based. Information boxes appear and transition with all the slickness of a freshly lubed automotive engine. The load times are impressively swift and a beautiful image of the series’ poster girl, Reiko Nagase, adorns the background. While gorgeous, the fact there is so little content behind this façade underscores how utterly shallow this game is.
The visuals aim for a more photorealistic look this time around. The car models are well designed and it's fun to tinker with their paint schemes. The courses are also beautiful to look at and feature many nice touches to catch your eye. However, because you race on the same ones so frequently, it all quickly blends together and contributes to an overall duller experience than we’ve come to expect from this series. At least the replays are still awesome to look at.
Ridge Racer’s audio component is also pretty good. The soundtrack, consisting of Japanese Techno, really complements the excitement of the racing. Unfortunately, the game’s announcer is annoying and overly repetitive, and all of the cars sound the same, but at least the sound effects of engines roaring, tires screeching, and tanks expelling nitrous are convincing. During replays you can even 'warp' the accompanying music tracks by gliding your finger across the Vita’s rear touch pad.
When you start the game you choose to join one of the game’s four teams: Squaris GP, Xealot Motorsport, Circlite Racing, or Trianchor Alliance. The teams are in a never-ending competition for top position in the world racing league. Your teammates are players from all over the world and the game tries to employ rather ingenuous ways to make you feel like part of a community. All the points you earn from racing are contributed to your team's overall score. However, the winning faction doesn't receive any special reward, so the game ultimately lacks a sense of purpose. Everyday you can watch Team Vision - a sleek corporate-like infomercial - which tells you which team to focus your attention on for that day and throws a few complementary credits (the game’s currency) your way.
The basic drift-based gameplay remains the same. Drifting is the key to making it through corners without losing acceleration and also increases your reserves of nitrous. The other prominent racing mechanic is slipstreaming, which refers to drafting behind an opponent’s vehicle so you can use the decrease in wind resistance to overtake them. Unfortunately, the AI can be borderline exploitative. No matter how well you drive, even if you consistently manage to improve upon your lap times, your computer opponents can still find a way to cheat you out of a first place finish while using the same class of vehicles as you.
The game's lobby system allows you to create or join rooms to compete in with people from all over the world. Searching for people to race that are the same rank as you is a difficult endeavor, however, until you reach the maximum level of 16. In lobbies you can exchange pre-set messages with your fellow competitors and tweak your car options before the race begins. You're not able to change the course without closing the lobby though, and once you exit a room you have to go through the online sign-in operation all over again. Winning races nets you more credits and gives you more points to share with your team.
Other online interactions include downloading and uploading ghost data to race against. You also might find yourself infected by another player in devil mode that changes your menu system and adds a tiny bit more content to explore. In a duel race available in Devil mode you can download replay data from one of your teammates and use it as support against a fiendishly difficult AI opponent. Your teammate’s ghost will race two of the three laps, leaving you to finish the race. Sadly, what I have already described covers most of the content available in Ridge Racer. This is a game that is only concerned with online exploits. The only singleplayer options are Time Attack and Spot Races. Spot Races are events against 7 AI opponents meant to simulate the online experience. The only position that counts is first place. Through Spot Races you can level up and earn credits but the fact that there are so few maps makes this a poor substitute for a traditional singleplayer mode.
There's an underwhelming upgrade system, known as the Machine Upgrade Map, where you're charged 400 credits to unlock each new tile on a map. Some tiles offer genuine upgrade options but most only offer useless tips while others, even more egregiously, give you nothing at all. Possible updates to your machine are divided into groups for nitrous, chargers, and special. For example, you can add an automatic-rocket start for each race, a more flexible nitrous system, or decrease the decelerating effect of in-race collisions. Bizarrely, the top speeds of the cars upgrade automatically corresponding to your level, which makes the Machine Upgrade Map feel even more unnecessary.
The game comes loaded with only 5 car models, 7 musical tracks, and 3 courses to race on. Buying the game new at retail or downloading it directly nets you a gold pass which includes 5 more cars as well as 3 additional courses. There are also a further 21 music tracks you can download, mostly for free, to beef up the game’s soundtrack. These add-ons hardly increase the value of Ridge Racer to acceptable levels, but even if they did this is a deplorable model for videogames to adopt. I can only assume that this content was not included with the game for purely mercenary reasons. I think most would agree that gamers should receive a serviceable product for their hard-earned dollars; requiring manual assembly for a game that already boasts a pitiful amount of content is just unconscionable.
As a fan of Ridge Racer, I’m appalled by what Bandai Namco have done to one of my favorite racing series. The game is an affront to every gamer’s good sense as a consumer. Not only does it fail to put the Vita’s many unique features to good use, but it also costs $30 at retail ($25 from the PlayStation Store) while offering little more content than a demo. Maybe I’m wrong and Ridge Racer for the PlayStation Vita is just a game that is ahead of its time. Perhaps in the future games will purely revolve around online communities and content that is assembled in pieces while fully-fledged singleplayer content becomes a relic of a forgotten past. If that's the case, then I want no part of that future. I would choose a straight port of an old Ridge Racer game over this fragmented car-wreck any day of the week. I guess you can say “No” to a pretty face.
This review is based on a retail copy of Ridge Racer for the PlayStation Vita.