Drift and destroy.

The Ridge Racer franchise isn’t just synonymous with a famed history of fast arcade racing, friction defying drifts and enjoyable, simplistic gameplay. No, thanks to Sony’s infamous 2006 E3 presentation – featuring their newly appointed President, Kaz Hirai – most of us will forever associate the Ridge Racer brand with the incredible enthusiasm shown by Kaz as he introduced Namco’s evergreen racer to an audience of bemused journalists.

“It’s Ridge Racer! Riiiiiiiiidge Racerrrrrr! Remember that one?” Yes, from that day forward, Namco’s arcade classic would forever be pronounced with oh so much more gusto than ever before.

Unfortunately for Kaz, his tumbleweed moment came when the audience seemingly failed to recognise the game that he had loaded onto the PlayStation Portable. Or perhaps it was the fact that they were completely underwhelmed; a theme in-keeping with Sony’s entire press conference (one which included a certain, “Giant enemy crab”). Yet, even though Kaz was ultimately let down by a lack of audience participation, it’s safe to say that the majority of gamers would almost instantly recognise what a Ridge Racer title looks like, and in turn, exactly what it will play like.

The Ridge Racer franchise has always unashamedly played to its strengths, stubbornly refusing to deviate far from the formula that made it a success with each incremental update. Even though the presence of any innovation was usually null and void, a Ridge Racer game was strangely refreshing due to the fact you knew exactly what you were getting. The same selection of imaginary vehicles, a handful of beautiful winding tracks to compete on, the ability to hit break-neck speeds whilst drifting round the sharpest bends, and the joy of boosting through the straights as you battled for first position. Each of these features formed the foundations of the series’ core gameplay. Essentially, it was this continuity and familiarity which made Ridge Racer, well… Ridge Racer. Until now…

What’s that you say? You can’t get fragged while driving a car!… WRONG!

Ridge Racer Unbounded finally breaks away from the die-cast mould of the series’ long-running, core mechanics. That’s not to say there isn’t a nod to the old, such as the imaginary vehicles, but its unquestionably Ridge Racer’s biggest overhaul since its 1995 debut. So the question is: has Bugbear’s bold new vision left Ridge Racer’s loyal fans dumbfounded? Or have they managed to restore a fabled, classic for the modern day audience?

You…. You’re Not Ridge Racer!?

Ridge Racer Unbounded’s new direction is poignantly prominent as soon as you begin the game. After a rather strange cutscene which is as confusing as it is bizarre, the change is clear to see. There’s a distinct, unsettling emptiness to the menus, with the previous usual explosion of colour and glitz replaced with a solemn, barely animated backdrop. The cheery Japanese soundtracks, complete with beaming track girl in tow, are no where to be found and even the classic announcer’s customary yell of the game’s title is disturbingly mute.

As I surveyed the sparse menus, I noticed the single player campaign was entitled “Dominate Shatter Bay.” Since when did you dominate anything in Ridge Racer?! It became abundantly clear that this definitely wasn’t the Ridge Racer I was used to, and admittedly, I was rather scared. There was no one there to hold my hand; no one there to tell me that everything was going to be alright. I was expecting to meet an old friend and instead a stranger stood before me. But surprisingly, I soon found myself thoroughly enjoying this stranger’s company.

U-Turn 

The colourful scenery, the sunlit vistas and mountain paths that are commonly associated with Ridge Racer are now a thing of the past. Instead, dimly lit districts and busy city streets make up for the once welcoming playground. The action is tight and frantic with narrow streets full of destructive environments making up the inner-city circuits. With 11 opponents battling out for top spot, you can expect anything but a comfortable ride. Ridge Racer is gritty, fast, explosive and raw – not to mention, extremely difficult at times. Oh, and it’s also incredibly fun.

I’m sure you could buff most of that out.

There are four main modes in Ridge Racer Unbounded, each of which are scattered across different districts, with slightly different modifiers in place. Domination Race is the main feature of Ridge Racer focusing on competitive racing, gathering powers to destroy racers and city targets. Drift Attack is pretty self-explanatory: perform drift’s against the clock, accumulate enough drift points to beat the targets. Shindo Racing is a variant of Domination and Drift Attack. With 7 opponents to face, instead of using city targets and destroying your opponents, here the fastest wins. Big drifts are required to fill up your nitro boost if you’re to finish first and its the mode which comes closest to the classic Ridge Racer set-up. Time Attack pits you against the clock on a stunt track with special items giving you power to boost and freeze the clock. Whilst finally, the last mode is Frag attack, a ridiculous mode which focuses on the pure annihilation of other racers. Frag as many opponents as you can before the time runs out using an 18 wheeler akin to the Terminator 2 scene. Yeah, it’s the least enjoyable mode.

Drive fast, drive hard and destroy whoever dares to stand in your way.

These modes make up the game’s campaign as you attempt to “dominate” Shatter Bay. There’s an overall progressive ranking system in place rewarding you for each of your valiant efforts and a three star ranking system for each event, encouraging you to achieve the best possible score. As your rank increases, more districts are unlocked as well as a wide variety of vehicles, each distinct in how they handle.

The gameplay in Unbounded is a delightful fusion of popular titles such as Burnout, Motorstorm Apocalypse and Split/Second. Drive fast, drive hard and destroy whoever dares to stand in your way. Smash your opponents out of the way, scream past your rival with a boost and destroy the environment using Unbounded’s biggest game changer, the introduction of a power bar.

Power, Ultimate Power

The power bar is the differentiator between finishing in the middle of the pack or in pole position. There’s a skill to mastering its utilisation as you simply won’t reach a podium finish if you carelessly waste it.

The power bar is filled by performing specific actions such as chasing behind an opponent, getting airborne, reaching top speed, drifting and destroying the city. Yes, the latter action may seem confusing but in Ridge Racer: Unbounded, if you have a full power bar you can now career through pre-determined parts of the city like a 100mph wrecking ball. The power bar can also be used to boost and frag your opponents: line them up, hit the power and watch them explode into a barrel rolling mess of metal and flames. A gorgeous cinematic celebrates your automotive murder, however, you may find it distracting at times as the last thing you want is to take your eyes off the road when you’re sliding round a tricky bend at God knows what speed.

“Use the boost to get through!” – Peppy Hare’s advice still holds true to this day.

Drifting is still the main mechanic in Ridge Racer Unbounded, however, you can forget about the scalextric-like handling of the past games. Unbounded’s cars will crucify you if you don’t treat them right on the bends, with slippery rear ends and twitchy steering requiring careful handbrake and cornering control if you’re to perform a successful drift. It should be made abundantly clear that drifting is very, very difficult. You will spend the majority of your induction smashing into the nearest wall or completely misjudging corners. The fact that there’s absolutely no tutorial telling you how to drift is criminal in this day and age, so expect a baptism of fire.

That being said, stick at it, and once you nail the drifting mechanic (and you will), you’ll be grinning with joy. Whipping your vehicle round a corner with a delicate balance of power and positioning will get your adrenaline pumping time and time again. The furiously competitive AI will become your muse to better your drifts, and encourage you to learn just how to fully exploit your power bar when the opportunities arise.

Burning Out 

There’s a pleasing look to the visuals in Ridge Racer Unbounded, with the cars reminiscent of Ridge Racer’s renowned glossy, hyper-realistic and futuristic feel. The environments are full of detail and destruction, with the cities appealing in their design and appearance. And as I alluded to earlier, crashing and dominating opponents is wonderfully captured thanks to the cinematic angles. Different lighting conditions cast a whole new aesthetic look to proceedings, with night races benefiting from the bright illumination of artificial lights, whilst sunnier outings are equally as pleasing.

The soundtrack is understated, consisting of a mix of new-age dubstep replacing the more electronic dance tracks of old with bands such as Skrillex earning “cool points” with the kids of today. It won’t be for everyone, but the music is definitely in-keeping with the overall look and feel of the game.

Ridge Racer Unbounded also provides an exciting multiplayer component with a nicely implemented level editor for the creative individual. You can build custom made tracks for people to participant on should you be that way inclined. However, the best feature about the track editor is setting your own highscore on your custom event and challenging the world to beat it. The interface is rather cumbersome though so unless you’re desperate to create your own track, you’ll probably be content with competing against others online.

Ridge Racer Unbounded was reviewed on Xbox 360.

Dominated!