Reinvention breeds irrelevance. Namco Bandai’s Ridge Racer series has bowed to genre trends before, of course: the last entry in the series introduced fully customisable mods, the one before that featured wacky alternative cars, but with Ridge Racer Unbounded, the series makes the most significant deviation from the established formula since its inception.
Inspired by the new wave of everything-must-be-destroyed racers (you know, the one that usually gets a studio canned), Unbounded expands its enduring drifting mechanic to incorporate a heightened level of unsophisticated bombast with an eye on a wider market. Not that we’re cynical; it’s a wise move. The series was looking worryingly non-committal in its aspirations to take on more serious sims, and injecting a little silliness and verve is exactly what the increasingly monochrome franchise needed to drag itself away from its image as the booby prize of console launch line-ups.
Finnish developer Bugbear Entertainment fundamentally understands the franchise potential – primarily that drifting can do much more than just provide a swift boost. Here, it’s an all-out destructive force. Drift around a bend and watch the power gauge sour, before activating the boost and punching a hole through some office block (making for a quick shortcut), or alternatively just sack that off and smash into a nearby opponent, sending them careening off the track engulfed in flames. Congratulations: you’ve just leapt ahead three places, let off some expensive fireworks, and everyone feels a little bit
But this initial tummy-fuzziness is only ephemeral, because Unbounded lays its cards firmly on the table from the very first race. You will charge through lots of bricks, glass and vehicles in your time cruising around Shatter Bay (replacing Ridge City as the prime capital for the racer for no reason whatsoever), and whether playing Dominate, Destroy or Frag there’s barely any disparity between the modes. It becomes a rinse-and-repeat service: hit the drift button, gain some torque and then charge through the next obstacle/vehicle until the race closes. It’s spoon-fed spectacle, the explosions just catering to an ideal that Unbounded can’t quite seem to stay on track with. As much as it would like to be, this is not Split/Second, Blur or Burnout. This isn’t even as good as FlatOut.
You don’t have to look far for evidence to support the claim, as everything from the subtle imperfections of the handling to the identikit track design exemplifies exactly that. Cars fall down an awkward crevice between sim and arcade – heavy, often unwieldy in some form or another depending on their designated purpose (some are specifically for drifting, others for straight racing) – and there’s never a huge sense of accumulated speed, a problem that may be more to do with the erratic AI that spends much of the race in slightly faster cars.
The track design fares a bit better than the strange non-balancing of vehicles, but each new district unlocked as you progress feels invariably like those you’ve already raced across. It’s with a lack of identity across its various courses that Unbounded never really leaves a lasting impression. And it’s not particularly surprising that course design is so uninspiring, given that the heavily-touted level editor is, at its core, the biggest Scalextric set ever (and we don’t need to tell you how vibrant those interconnecting blocks of fabricated tarmac are). Every single segment from any of the courses can be neatly slotted together to create a unique track of your design. Which, in theory, should raise a problem: transitioning between a freeway segment and the dense inner city should be stark and alarming. Yet it barely registers, which only further typifies the insipidness to the environment at large. It begs the question: what’s the point? Most user-generated tracks just feel like slightly mixed-up iterations on a course you’ve already played, and the only real freedom of expression granted is to place ramps and explosive barrels.
But perhaps in the grand tapestry of badly implemented ideas and overlooked design flaws that is Ridge Racer Unbounded, Bugbear’s biggest single mistake was failing to adequately reward racers. Within the arbitrary ranking system, there’s no real design to unlocking new vehicles, and stage unlocks are far too linear – you require points to open up new areas but they usually follow completing the previous mission.
So does Ridge Racer Unbounded do anything right? Well, yes. The formula has been stripped back to some success, with controls as minimal as necessary, and there is a pervading sense that underneath it all there is a thrilling racer just waiting to bolt from the starting line. But it’s confused, showing a huge lack of confidence in its reinvention to be much of anything, not representing enough of its inspirations or its lineage.
Ultimately, it’s a quick thrill – a little bit of fiery eye-candy and raw destruction to pass the time – but as its explosions grow more tiring, there’s little else to see among the streets of Shatter Bay, and its focus is clearly muddled. While Unbounded is no doubt a step in the right direction for the franchise, perhaps it was a little early to leave the safety of Ridge City behind.