Ridge Racer Unbounded is more of an offshot of the franchise’s roots rather than a true sequel. Looking to shake things up instead of putting out yet another straightforward pure arcade racer, Namco Bandai brought in the crew most known for the FlatOut series of racers, Bugbear Entertainment. The result is a flashy title full of wrecks and explosions completely foreign to Ridge Racer up to this point. And just like the typical summer blockbluster, once all the special effects and pyrotechnics wear thin, you start to feel a little cheated when you think about it.
Unbounded refers to the street racing scenesters that set the stage for the game, which takes place in the fictional Shatter Bay, appropriately named for all the destruction that regularly takes place as cars wind through the streets, smashing each other and the surrounding facilities to bits. Supposedly these races are illegal, though there’s never any law enforcement to break things up or at least add to the tension. Needless to say the “story” is completely inconsequential to what you’re doing here and completely unbounded from logic, which is not a bad thing when you consider attempts like Need for Speed: The Run.
One thing that this version shares gameplay wise with its Ridge Racer predecessors is the arcadey, floaty physics. But that’s about it, as the rest of the game is a blend of FlatOut, Burnout, and Split Second’s crash-centric antics. The idea is to build up boost by either drifting through turns, drafting behind other racers, or otherwise destroying things. Once you fill the gauge, you can hit A for a temporary speed increase as well as the chance to “frag” or wreck a competitor by crashing them while boosted. Boosting can also allow you to destroy sections of the track in order to create shortcuts, some more effective than others. Another option is to take out certain targets like explosive trucks, whose shockwaves can take out multiple nearby competitors at once. This is wonderful and appealing the first couple of times through, but the difficulty level, particularly at the beginning feels extremely cheap. First of all the cars you start with are so disadvantaged that the AI has no trouble flying right by you without boosting. Secondly, the AI basically pulls boost right out of its ass and uses it to pull away from when there is no conceivable way of you doing the same over that stretch of road. Worst of all, fragging AI cars imposes nowhere near as much of a time penalty on the AI cars as it does on you. I’m all for difficulty, but artificial difficulty thanks to cheating the rules of the game always gores my ox. It doesn’t help that there’s no display of your health like there is above the other cars and that it isn’t always obvious what is destructible. This could have been a lot more fun if it didn’t take the lame ass Mario Kart philosophy of keeping things close. The only way to secure a win in my experience was to string together a series of frags up to first place, and then try not to screw up the lead. At least if you don’t win you can build up XP through all the destruction and mayhem you create and eventually unlock better cars, but this game really turns into a grind as a result.
At least there are a few other game modes to enjoy in Ridge Racer Unbounded. Notably the Shindo mode was far less stressful. It focuses on actual racing with no frags, so the boost only gives you speed and the AI seemed far less antagonistic as a result. Next you have your basic time trials where you beat the clock. These tracks are more stunt oriented and can be quite fun to navigate. Then there’s a drift mode where you rack up points against a time limit. Personally I think these modes that have proliferated into every racing game need to die in a fire already (I’m really not a fan of drifting for drifting’s sake), but it may catch your fancy. Finally for those who just want to smash things there’s the frag attack, which much like good ol’ Burnout, sets a goal for how many cars you need to frag before time runs out. That can help get out the aggression that builds up from playing the game’s main Domination mode.
Multiplayer not only consists of standard matchmaking online play, but also offers a user generated content component. That’s right, there’s a track editor in this game. Unlike ModNation Racers however, it’s all laid out in a grid instead of being able to draw a track exactly how you want it. The blocks that make up the tracks are unlocked as you progress through the single player, which means you start off with very little. Once you have the basic layout, you can go into advanced mode and add all the explosive bits, extra walls and columns as well as big jumps. When you finish you can upload and share with everyone else, who can try to beat your best score for extra XP. This was pretty neat but in the end limitations of the editor probably means that the user created stuff will get stale pretty quick. I saw a lot of tracks that just loaded up on explosives which I guess make for easy XP farming. Sadly, when I just wanted to get in an online game with other people the matchmaking couldn’t find anyone. I don’t know if the game is just that unpopular or the matchmaking does not work always. I have no idea if there is lag or not or whether the game plays more fair against humans than AI, which I assume it does.
Ridge Racer Unbounded definitely gets the visuals right for the most part. While it’s not a highly detailed tour de force like Forza 4, the game really shines in both its smooth framerate and its crash sequences. Cars really get trashed badly when they’re fragged and the game slows down to highlight it as well as the destruction of scenery as you create shortcuts. Early on the tracks look a bit drab and hard to read but the later sections are much brighter and colorful. I would say this is the strongest part of the game, though still not to make you take particular notice.
Namco decided to go with licensed dubstep for the soundtrack to this game, which I can’t say is a terrible choice, despite my ambivalence to the genre’s sudden overexposure in gaming. The effects sound an awful lot like every other smash em up car game you’ve played before, so nothing new in that department. Not much else to say here.
So is Ridge Racer Unbounded worth getting? Well, if you were expecting an actual Ridge Racer game, probably not. If you were expecting the destruction derby prowess of Burnout, I’m not sure this is a buy either, but if you can get past the masochistic AI and maybe find some people to play with online, it could be worth it. The track editor and user posted content certainly adds a good deal of replayability. Personally, I would just wait for the next Burnout.