At a glance...

Reviewer Platform Publisher Developer Players
Matt Bailey PlayStation 3 Namco Bandai Bugbear Entertainment 1-8 (Online)
Requirements Also on... Buy from Amazon.co.uk
None. PC, Xbox 360 Click here to buy Ridge Racer Unbounded.

Ridge Racer Unbounded review

As my first ever console game, Namco's Ridge Racer will always be special to me. I'd been a PC gamer before I got my PlayStation, so I'd seen 3D graphics before, but here was a 3D racing game running on my TV; a game I'd had a chance to sample in a little seaside hovel that amounted to an arcade back in the mid 1990s. It is in this context of my love for this classic series that I point out that while Ridge Racer Unbounded barely resembles the series after which it is named, it is in fact worthy of that name, and a fantastically fun racing game in its own right.

However, when you first start playing Unbounded, this probably won't be your reaction. After the first few races you'll likely be impressed by some of the visual spectacle, but feel underwhelmed by the action. There's a noticeable lack of any tutorial and little in the way of guidance, so you're thrown into the races, possibly unaware that you have to hold the boost button rather than tap it in order to slide around corners and acquire the turbo juice. If you discover this then you'll probably be enjoying the game, but otherwise you may find the action a little pedestrian.

You've been fragged

You've been fragged

And then at some point it will just click. Whether it's during a session or between playing, there will come a moment when your mind will begin to bring together the complex mechanics that lie underneath the standard racing game exterior of Unbounded. You'll go from racking up a few turbo moments with the occasional piece of building destruction, to literally bringing down the city around you, stringing together the big moments as you zoom through the field for victory after victory.

The basic handling of Unbounded is different from previous Ridge Racer games. While it’s definitely still in the arcade racing sub-genre, gone are the crazy powerslides that see your car sliding sidewards at the tap of the brake, replaced instead with that slightly heavier and more realistic - yet still manic and detached from reality - feel we saw in Disney's Split/Second. The new powersliding technique is assigned to that magical button - Circle on the DualShock 3 - which requires you to enter a bend, hold it down, and almost pull your car around the corner as you dare to go as far as possible in order to top up the precious boost meter.

There's plenty of scenery to destroy

There's plenty of scenery to destroy

You can only use the turbo option once it has been filled, and while you can then use it at any moment you like to gain a quick burst of speed, you're better off saving it for the big moments. These are similar to the top-tier 'power plays' in the aforementioned Split/Second; opportunities where you smash your car through buildings, raining destruction down upon those nearby, and creating new routes for you and your competitors. Initially it feels like a gimmick, but they add to the thrill when you can pull them off one after another, and become a tactical consideration as you choose between gaining a boost - and potentially fragging an opponent - or creating a shortcut which might prove useful both now and in later laps. There's also the points consideration, with Unbounded pushing you towards these moments by rewarding you with 1000 points for each one you pull off.

There is a great emphasis on gaining points in Unbounded, so much so that you can actually make good progress without winning all the events. Cause enough destruction, both by smashing through the smaller bits of scenery scattered throughout the levels, and by taking out the target buildings, and it won't matter that you were overtaken at the line. Although the addictive draw of the game once it has clicked will likely see you hitting Retry to get the three star rating you really wanted. The focus on points rather than wins means that Unbounded is encouraging you to take advantage of its unique mechanics, and enjoy the aspects aside from the racing, allowing it to stand out amongst the arcade racing game crowd despite its more generic look.

Don't stop me now!

Don't stop me now!

An initial look at Unbounded will leave you unable to differentiate it from other racing games in the genre, but as the game progresses and more parts of the city are unlocked you get to see a greater variation in the types of urban environments it offers. It functions fantastically well in Bugbear's own engine, which performs well despite the large amount of destruction going on around you. There's plenty of detail in the surrounding buildings, although they do become an overly familiar sight, with some sections reused just a little too often. Still, different districts within Shatter Bay do have their own look, and these provide for a range of different blocks you can use in the game's track editor.

If the name Bugbear seems familiar, then you may be familiar with the Flatout series of destruction-based racing games. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Unbounded actually feels more like a spiritual successor to that series than to Ridge Racer. While the styling may be quite different to Flatout, Unbounded inherits a few elements, including scenery destruction, building up turbo, and the crazy stunt-driven Time Attack events which feature in the campaign alongside a mode that's all about fragging opponents. In addition there's a race mode where there's no fragging or destruction, with a focus on pure racing, and a Drift Attack mode which lacks the same thrill as the other options.

While it avoids UI clutter, there is a little more on-screen than this image shows

While it avoids UI clutter, there is a little more on-screen than this image shows

Whatever your mode of choosing, there are plenty of well-designed tracks in the campaign, designed to push cars together at the right moments. If you think you can do better, then Bugbear are openly challenging you with the included track editor. As mentioned before, you acquire blocks as you go through the single player section, and these blocks can then be used to construct a layout of your choosing. The editor is simple to use, and while constructing from a tileset may not help to distinguish between individual creations visually, the range of blocks and creativity of the community allows for great tracks to stand out. In addition, there's an advanced mode allowing a first-person editing view, where extra objects such as ramps, boxes, barrels, and exploding trucks can be placed with a high degree of freedom.

Turning the track editor into something special is more than just creating useful tools; the ability to easily share tracks with the Unbounded community has already proven popular, and a simple voting system allows users to pick out the highlights. It's a pity that Bugbear aren't doing more themselves to highlight the best, in the same way Media Molecule points out excellent LittleBigPlanet 2 levels from within the game. However, daily, 6-hourly and hourly challenges do allow gems to rise to the surface, and also encourage players to try out new creations on a regular basis.

The track editor is a fantastic addition to Unbounded

The track editor is a fantastic addition to Unbounded

In addition to sharing levels to play solo, there is also 8 player online racing, including the full destruction of the main campaign. As well as the ability to compete on any of Bugbear's creations, you can also race on homemade tracks, allowing for some manic competition. Despite all that happens on screen, online multiplayer seems to be smooth, but the sluggish sales performance so far can make it difficult to get full games on a regular basis.

After many similar, but still enjoyable, iterations the Ridge Racer series needed a shake up, but Unbounded probably shakes the foundations too much for the hardcore fans to be happy. Instead, think of Ridge Racer as an overall racing brand for Namco Bandai and hope that Unbounded is the start of a new series bringing new ideas, like Shift was for EA's Need for Speed games; because those with more open minds can embrace a fantastic and enjoyable arcade racing game that will be hard to beat this year.

Ratings

Overall Ridge Racer Unbounded is a bold new direction for Namco Bandai's racing series, but also one that has successfully brought in new ideas to arcade racing. Its excellent track editor only adds to the enjoyment, and those looking for fun over simulation need not look elsewhere. 9/10

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