Next year will mark 20 years of Ridge Racer as a series, with the release of the first arcade game back in 1993, and 2012 ends a six year gap between console entries in the drift-centric racing franchise (RR 6 and 7 ushered in the new console generations for both Microsoft and Sony). Up until now, if you wanted to point out what distinguished Ridge Racer from other racing games on the market, it would be its closed track arcade-style racing, ridiculous drifting, and spokes model, race queen Reiko Nagase.
Ridge Racer Unbounded represents an attempt by Namco Bandai and developer Bugbear Entertainment FlatOut, Sega Rally Revo) to change directions a bit with the series, integrating combat and destruction elements lifted from competing titles like Burnout, as well as a focus on stunts and destruction. All but unrecognizable as a game bearing the title Ridge Racer, Unbounded has a healthy amount of new ideas that could potentially reinvigorate the series, hampered by some implementation issues that prevent the final game from being a totally smooth ride.
The opening cinematic for Unbounded places all of the action on the island city of Shatter Bay, and you in the role of a member of the Unbounded gang that's... against gentrification, I guess? There's some vague message about rebellion and sticking it to the man in the glossily-produced opening for a multi-million dollar racing video game series, and you're better off ignoring it. The gist of it is that throughout the various racing events, you'll not only be battling it out with your opponents, but wrecking the wildly destructible Shatter Bay.
The urban tracks of Unbounded have that arcade flair: you know, tight routes winding around City Hall, improbable ramps, and so on. And adding to the arcade feeling, you've got a Boost meter that you can fill by drifting, drafting behind competing racers, and smashing through the Shatter Bay scenery. In some race events, the Boost meter is replaced with the Power meter, which not only gives you a brief jolt of speed, but allows you to crash your opponents, explode tankers to take out your fellow racers, and create shortcuts by smashing through the City Targets strewn throughout the route.
In addition to the destruction-focused races, Unbounded also tweaks Time Trials a bit with looping, curving stunt tracks where you'll have to collect colored tokens to freeze or extend your time or increase the amount of boost in your Power meter. Unbounded also borrows the Road Rage mode from Burnout with wrecking events where you have to crash target numbers of cars. All this, and you've got simple vanilla races with Boost and no Power meter to crash opponents, and all these events allow you to chalk up points that will unlock new cars, events, and parts to create your own tracks.
Yup, besides smashing up Shatter Bay, you can create your own little avenues, boulevards, and side streets with the City Creator mode. You can take the tracks you create and share them online. I could easily see this as being the breakout feature of the game; not only are you building traditional routes, but it's possible to make completely ludicrous Hot Wheels-style tracks, complete with loop-d-loops.
All of this makes for a truly impressive (if, in some cases, derivative) set of features for Unbounded, and I'd be happy to sign off on the game as the racer to pick up if it weren't for some mildly irritating issues throughout, really mostly owing to the track design for the main game. In spite of all of the explosions, detours, and curves, Shatter Bay isn't an especially interesting or particularly detailed environment in which to race. Flat, fairly uninteresting textures provide all of the detail you're going to get for this Hong Kong meets Monaco cityscape and that's not even touching on the occasional jutting piece of the track that will inexplicably cause you to crash (this is typically a problem in the Time Trials). The physics aren't great either, and if you happen to get your car airborne, there's no real guarantee you're going to come down on all four wheels.
Crash as smash is still a fantastic racing model
Sure, Unbounded jacks the style of other titles a little bit, but that doesn't mean there's not room in the market for multiple racing games with a dose of collisions. Plus, the basic idea behind blowing up tankers and wiping out the competition is solid, devious.
The City Creator
This mode is a fantastic way to extend the life of the game and if Namco Bandai and Bugbear can get some kind of community going around it, I could see this as a feature that lives on in future Ridge Racer titles.
It's great that the City Creator is in there because the actual tracks in Shatter Bay aren't anything to get the old pulse racing. Even with shortcuts and hairpin turns, they feel unnecessarily restrictive, and don't really spark the imagination in any way.
...and I hope you're into Skrillex
Because the ubiquitous electronic artist makes a couple of appearances on the soundtrack which also resurrects songs from past Ridge Racer titles. Skrillex isn't totally in the "bad" column, per se, I've just found his music popping up a little more frequently than I'd like in games in recent months.
If some of those weird performance issues could be ironed out (I'm looking at you, sometimes rage-inducing physics), Unbounded could be one of the the strongest entries in the 2012 crop of racers (really, it's the frontrunner given the real lack of competition at this point in the year). As it stands, while Unbounded represents a dramatic departure from the series' roots, it's also borrowed and created enough interesting ideas to keep you engaged. And as with Syndicate, I can see the online mode, in particular the City Creator, as being a place where the game might be able to build something truly special.