I am the passenger… argh where are you going?
I approached Ridge Racer: Unbounded as someone who has never played a Ridge Racer game. I didn’t have a Playstation in the early days and then the reviews of a few subpar titles put me off. When I saw BugBear (of Flatout and Flatout 2 fame) were involved I knew I had to get it. Flatout 2 was one of the best racing games I have ever played. That it never reached a consistent online community and that the sequel was outsourced to some rookies who completely ruined it was a terrible thing. That BugBear went on to shape the Ridge Racer in their own image, on the other hand, was a wonderful thing.
Ridge Racer as far as I know has always been about drifting. Like Outrun, you ignore what a car would realistically do and learn a new set of rules. It’s entirely possible in games of this ilk to never touch the brake, as you casually drift at full speed sideways down a road heading for a corner. I’m not very good at that. I can get the car sideways, but then I tend to overshoot by a country mile or clip the inside corner sending my car spinning out of control. What Ridge Racer: Unbounded does it to say ‘hey we’re ok with you and the way you drive, you just go on a smash right through that inside corner or row of taxis on the far side’, it’s very gratifying.
The game plays like a mixture of Flatout and Split/Second. You pick a car from the surprisingly broad selection (considering this isn’t a sim) and then you take part in various events that involve going round a track. Most of the time you’ll be racing,. sometimes you’ll be beating the clock. In one particularly hilarious mode you take the reigns of a truck and have to destroy as many cars as possible. As long as you ignore all the implied murder it is genuinely great fun. The controls are tight, and although I have heard of other reviewers having difficult with the slide mechanics (the tutorial is slightly ambiguous) I had the benefit of seeing tweets telling me how to do it. As long as you hold the drift button (B on the 360) as you go round a corner, you’ll be fine. It isn’t a handbrake. Once you build up momentum you’ll find yourself barreling through the races. Online it was even more fun with every mistake being applauded by the others, it never felt like a one-car race as there always seems to be a way to make up time. I’m not sure what BugBear have done to keep races competetive, but it’s working amazingly well. My only wish is that there was some local multiplayer but unfortunately you’ll have to get all your jollies online. I know online gaming is getting bigger but online gaming is also becoming hollow. People are too jaded by screaming teenagers and abuse, so hardly anyone talks anymore. Having a few friends in a living room playing is so much better for this kind of game. It was the saving grace of Blur, and I wish more developers would take split-screen seriously.
The tracks are ingeniously created from blocks. On the way you will find shortcuts you can blast through if you have accrued enough boost (gained from drafting, airtime, destruction and more often, drifting) and they’re quite a spectacle with you ploughing through shopping centres or onto disused highways. They hardly ever save much time, but they look awesome. They also feature no end of explodables (the larger ones also require boost to trigger but can take out your opponents in the vicinity) and breakable sections of scenery. The best races feel like you really are tearing through a city district in some kind of god-powered racer. It may be silly but it’s lots of fun.
This fun can then be created using the aformentioned blocks. You see, because the whole game is made from blocks, you can (and BugBear has) used the same blocks in different orders and rotations to make entirely new tracks. It sounds like it would get repetetive but they have done such a good job with the art that you never notice the seams. The only time I twigged that something was odd was when I crashed through the same cafe that was in a completely different place to the last track. You start to recognise elements, but this just makes it more interesting. Rather than remembering whole tracks, you remember blocks, and where the shortcuts and racing lines are. Using the editor you place these blocks on a grid, and then if you want you can add more details such as breakables and ramps in a sort of floating-camera editor. You set objectives, have a go at it, then you can post it for the world to see. So far the content has been impressive, with some really inventive uses of the editor creating some unusual but exciting tracks. Because everything is saved as blocks, I’m guessing the map files are tiny, and you never have to wait to download them before you race.
Races are challenging, Over the last few days I’ve been methodically working through the events in order trying to get a perfect score on each, but it’s difficult. The game has never stopped being fun, whether I’m playing for twenty minutes or two hours, but it is unforgiving. There seems to be less of the rubber-banding (AI being able to cheat to keep up with you) that is so prominent in Mario Kart, but there are enemies as great as blue shells. Often I would be racing what seemed to be a perfect lap, and then sliding into a wall would crash me out rather than bouncing me off. Or sometimes I would hit a small wall that looked the same as the other concrete pillars I had smashed through to find this isn’t a breakable and I was crashed out. Sometimes I just lost focus for a fraction of a second and couldn’t tell where a corner actually was, turning in too early and finding myself in a suburban car park.
A lot of these problems are my own fault, but some are entirely glitches. The physics enging is entertaining but feels unfair. Similar crashes or bumps can have wildly different results. A few times each playing session I find myself flying through the air backwards because my car didn’t agree with a tiny piece of geometry. Luckily the glitches are endearing rather than game-breaking. If you’re playing multiplayer it’s hilarious to see a car in the distance rocket up into the air for frightening a shrubbery. The only irritating glitches I have found involves the online matchmaking where three times the game has frozen requiring a complete hard reset.
The graphics and sound are all thrilling but never stunning. Everything is geared up to be fast and exciting and it succeeds, but the frame-rate and effects have come at the expense of resolution and fidelity. Car models look great, and the city looks substantial, but there’s none of the expansive vistas of the recent Need for Speed, Forza, or Gran Turismo games. The focus here is on the racing and as such you rarely have time to look around anyway. The sound is almost intimidating, as this kind of game should be, but the soundtrack is lacking compared to other racing games.
Overall I am hugely impressed with Ridge Racer: Unbounded.Yes I wish it didn’t freeze occasionally, and I wish there was split-screen, and I wish it hadn’t been released during Game’s troubles as I’m frightened it may have hurt sales. Before I wrote this article I was thinking of starting with: ‘There aren’t enough racing games where fun is at the forefront, rather than realism or fair competition’, then I thought of Split/Second, Blur, Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Burnout, Flatout 2, Modnation Racers. So I guess there are a lot, but I still wish there were more. I hope there’s a Ridge Racer: Unboundeded, or a ‘real’ Flatout 3 (I’m ignoring the travesty that is on Steam). So please go out and buy this game, support fun in games!
+Amazingly balanced and accessible online
+Great track editor
+Challenging without being too frustrating
– Glitches and freezes
– No split-screen