In recent years, the Ridge Racer series has persisted by being the only racing game for launching consoles. Once upon a time this was a valuable franchise that people paid attention to, but it has since become difficult to take new entries seriously. The last five years of Ridge Racer just haven’t been very impressive. Like a bloodied wrestler diving desperately for a fresh tag-team partner leaning over the ropes, Namco tapped Helsinki-based Bugbear Entertainment into the development ring. That game turned into Ridge Racer Unbounded.
Unbounded is almost exactly what you’d expect out of Bugbear. Their claim to fame was the excellent Flatout series, which was praised for damage and collision modeling. That attention to destruction was grafted onto the Ridge Racer formula of high-speed drifting and pinball physics in Unbounded and it works surprisingly well. Essentially Burnout with the route changing of Split/Second, it fills a void in the arcade racing genre I’ve sorely missed.
Unbounded’s single player features sixty races across Shatter City’s nine districts. The main race modes on offer are Domination and Shindo, with a couple of “attack” modes to flesh out the content. Domination is where everything that Bugbear added to the series is laid bare; environmental destruction and vehicle takedowns combine with high-speed drifting and turbo boosts. Shindo is more of what you would expect from a Ridge Racer game – tracks emphasize hard turns and drifting with no destruction.
There’s not much difference between the two modes on the surface, save for the lack of destruction. Both demand different types of vehicles. In Domination, players must consider the vehicle’s durability. Smashing through breakable objects and into other vehicles at high speeds damages your car and can leave you vulnerable to fragging from a competitor. Shindo emphases finesse through turns. Tracks are faster and demand drifting, emphasizing wide turns and straightaways. The field is also reduced, with 12 racers hitting the track in Domination, but only 8 in Shindo.
Unbounded’s biggest success is found in the AI. The game stays challenging throughout, and is fair. I never thought that I was being cheated by the game when I was passed or lost a close race. Opponents take turns too wide, crash into walls, and shoot off their boost too early. But they also draft close to earn power and aggressively shove you aside if you try to pass them. From the very first races to the very last, the AI always presents a challenge – one you can only overcome through persistence and perfect driving.
The driving in the game is exactly what you hope for when you pop in a Ridge Racer game – it’s easy to slide into ridiculous drifts that last for absurd lengths of time. The sense of speed is also excellent, and I was particularly impressed with the sound. Dubstep replaces the traditional Ridge Racer techno soundtrack to good effect, and the roaring engines really help build a great sense of speed. The newly designed HUD is great, reducing clutter from the screen and using game world overlays to show pertinent information, but I did miss having an on-screen map to help navigate corners.
As you complete races, experience is earned depending on performance. In addition to earning experience depending on your finish, additional experience is gained for opening shortcuts, destroying objects, fragging opponents, and more. This game tracks everything, so if you’re a fan of collecting in-game medals, Unbounded has few rivals. Though some may cry this is gamification at its worst, it works well because it makes any finish productive. In so many other racers, there’s little value to finishing anywhere but first. In Unbounded, I regularly finished races that in any other game I would have quit.
Shatter City offers nine districts for players to work their way through. Initially one districts is available, and as you earn experience others are unlocked. The game opens with a crawl through industrial districts. There isn’t enough variation between the first few districts to make it feel like you’re seeing anything new, which made me feel somewhat tepid toward the game when I started. When I finally unlocked some of the other districts, and in particular City Center, the game became much more visually engaging.
What attracted me most to Unbounded is that it includes a track editor. I was eager to recreate the streets around my house that I often fantasize about racing down. Though the track editor is certainly serviceable, I wasn’t able to achieve quite what I wanted to. You start off looking at a top-down grid and can then select particular set pieces themed around the game’s district. You string these along until the ends connect and can then go into a more detailed mode that allows you to place explosives and jumps and the like.
It’s very functional, but options for customization are limited. I was disappointed that I couldn’t modify elevation, a limitation Bugbear apparently dealt with too since every track in the game is flat. This means no big hill climbs, no sharp descents and no high-banked turns. After a creating a few events, I stopped investing time into the editor, though there are many tracks available to check out from users more interested in the mode. Unbounded also offers online racing across all modes. There wasn’t a huge crowd online, but I found several competitive races and the mode generally works well. The online features are technically proficient, though lag and stuttering did mar a couple of my races.
The Ridge Racer franchise was in need of an update and I am happy that I can say that in the past tense. The series has really turned a corner, if you catch my drift. Ridge Racer Unbounded is not only the best Ridge Racer entry in years, but also just a great racing game around. It is a challenging game that demands precision and patience to master and in exchange it delivers tense, thrilling racing. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a step in a great direction for the franchise.