I was recently burned by one of my favorite racing franchises when Ridge Racer for the PlayStation Vita turned out to be a shallow mess and an embarrassing low point for the series. Luckily, there was another new Ridge Racer release I could turn to, this time for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 - Ridge Racer Unbounded. I am pleased to report that Unbounded is a much more fulfilling game than the Vita version of Ridge Racer, but there is one problem: this is NOT a typical Ridge Racer game. I'm generally open to long-running franchises heading in a new direction but this is such a drastic shift that it feels like a completely different game has had the Ridge Racer title slapped onto it. This argument has no bearing on my opinion concerning the game’s quality, which is a favorable one, but I feel it's best to get out of the way early to clear up any misconceptions.
Ridge Racer games are arcade racers with an emphasis drifting around corners. In this regard, Unbounded fits in with the rest of the series. Everything else about the game, though, from its physics to its art direction represents a dramatic deviation from the franchise norm. In the world of Ridge Racer Unbounded cars can smash through just about any object, from steel beams to whole buildings. The game is part Burnout, part Call of Duty, in that you are encouraged to take down your rivals through brute force which the game calls Fragging. This is the most glaringly obvious change in Ridge Racer Unbounded, one that I suspect will take fans a long time to warm up to. You're encouraged to smash through everything in your path and leave a trail of utter destruction in your wake as if your vehicle is the Incredible Hulk on wheels. Be warned, though, it takes time to figure out exactly what can and cannot be destroyed at any given moment.
Even the fictional car brands are completely different from those featured in past Ridge Racer games. The vehicles represent a mix of European and Japanese auto influences with a few American muscle-inspired rides thrown in for good measure. You also get to control a big rig truck and even a police car at some point. You aren’t given much freedom when it comes to choosing cars; each event only allows you to choose from a predetermined set of vehicles of similar make and ability. The cars vary in the usual areas of acceleration, top speed, handling, and so on. Racing with fictional cars usually doesn’t do it for me but I had grown fond of the brands found in past Ridge Racer games so this selection feels even more distanced from reality.
Ridge Racer Unbounded takes place in the city of Shatter Bay, which is split into nine districts each with their own series of events to compete in. Events come in a number of different types. The most common are Domination Races against a full field of opponents for two or three laps. These races encourage you to finish in first place while being as destructive as possible. Other event types include Shinda Races, which emphasize speed over destruction; Drift Attack events, which task you with attaining a high score through drifting before the clock runs out (though you're reimbursed with more time depending on the duration of your drift); Time Attack races, which task you with completing a lap within a time limit which you can only do by collecting emblems strewn throughout the course that temporarily stop the clock; and finally Frag Attack, which requires you to frag a certain number of opposing cars within a time limit. This variety of game modes is another way in which Unbounded (positively) differentiates itself from its more purely race-oriented predecessors.
The game revolves around a points system where the amount of points you score during an event act as experience points to increase your rank. As you reach higher levels you unlock more cars and more events to compete in, as well as more track editing options. Each event has three different benchmarks for success that translate to finishing in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place. Because of point requirements you'll find it necessary to replay events you already passed or completed (the game’s lingo for finishing in 3rd and 2nd place) multiple times in order to progress. This feat only becomes more annoying and difficult as the game goes on.
As far as difficulty is concerned I think Ridge Racer Unbounded is about where it should be. Some events can be completed in one or two attempts, but I found myself constantly restarting races because I knew I wasn’t going to succeed on that particular attempt. The game is forgiving enough that you can recover from crashes and being fragged by enemies and still go on to win most of the time, except when this happens in the last critical seconds of the event, which is unfortunately quite common (many times things seemed to go wrong during the final stretch, with the rubber band AI allowing the closest competitor to jockey for my position or frag me unexpectedly). On the plus side, I haven’t played a game that forced me to play under such nerve-wracking conditions since the original MotorStorm.
Graphically, the game maintains the series’ standards, though the art direction now emphasizes urban grit over ultramodern stylishness. Without a doubt the best thing about the visuals are the amazing lighting effects. There are several different weather patterns that each cast a distinctive glow on the race tracks. The way light navigates through the gaps between buildings and reflects off your car’s exterior during a sunset is stunning to look at. Nighttime races can look even more spectacular, believe it or not. The cars themselves look pretty good, though they're available in only a handful of colors and are otherwise not customizable.
Ridge Racer Unbounded is uneven with how it deals with damage modeling; some of the time your car shows excessive wear and tear and at other times it looks perfectly fine even after taking a beating, though the slow mo crashes that end in black and white can be quite entertaining to look at. The game doesn't aim for photorealism and once you play around with the track editor a bit you realize that all of the courses are made up of repetitive pieces of architecture. Unfortunately, the game maxes out at 720p resolution, but at least manages to maintain a consistent framerate and is mostly pleasing to the eye.
The soundtrack features a mixture of licensed tracks, as well tunes from past Ridge Racer titles. Much of the musical selection can be described as Dubstep from artists such as Skrillex, which I cannot hide my contempt for, but the Japanese techno makes up for it in my book, as well as the support for custom in-game soundtracks. Everything else sounds as it should; explosions, crashes, shattered glass, screeching brakes, crumbling buildings, etc. The game’s female announcer is a pleasantly soothing companion throughout the game. Other areas of the presentation are a mixed bag. Load times can be a tad lengthy, especially when it comes to dealing with user created racetracks, but I like how the game inventively displays lap information on the sides of nearby buildings which makes the races feel livelier.
The career mode took me about 20 hours to complete, though much of that time was spent replaying events in order to improve my score. The experience is solid overall. What makes Ridge Racer Unbounded stand out is the deep online component. The game invites you to dominate the world. This goes beyond competing with other players in 8 person multiplayer races. The game is constantly updated with new online-only events that are similar to those found in the single player. You can even create and share your own cities and events with players all over the world and tackle their creations while still earning points to rank up, and the creation options are surprisingly deep. The online events are generally more inventive and just as, if not more fun, than the singleplayer ones. Their inclusion is definitely a boon to this title’s lasting appeal.
I still stand by assessment that this is not a genuine Ridge Racer experience, at least not one we’ve come to expect, but I wouldn't be too disappointed if the franchise continued to improve upon this new formula. I appreciate its daring attitude and excessive replayability, even if the gameplay is a bit rough around the edges. Purists may be put off at first, but if you give the game a chance it starts to grow on you thanks to the power it gives you to both create and demolish whole cities as you see fit.
This review is based on a copy of Ridge Racer Unbounded for the PlayStation 3, provided by the publisher.