Review: Ridge Racer: Unbounded
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It's a serious chase of De-ja-vu for Namco Bandai's latest release...
Cast your mind back a couple of years and you might remember a game called Split/Second. This arcade racing game developed by Black Rock Studios (and, bizarrely, published by Disney) saw players racing through a city in a variety of glossy high-end cars while the scenery explodes all-around them, in what can only be described as a Michael Bay-like display of high-octane action.
RidgeRacer: Unbounded is pretty-much that.
The RidgeRacer series is a racing game staple that has been around almost as long as the entire racing game genre itself. The original came out in 1995 and involved players – as you might guess – racing some of the world's most expensive cars on the ridges of the most stunning vistas on the planet, as presented through the polygonal lens of Playstation-era graphics. It was bright, arcadey, controlled like a dream, and was absolutely ludicrous amounts of fun.
Haven't I seen you before?
Seventeen years later, and quite a bit has changed. I made an allusion to Split/Second before, and it's more than just a passing resemblance. While RR: Unbounded does bring the series' iconic drifting controls to the fold, it's not exactly a leap in the direction of innovation. Everything else, from the giant floating iridescent signs that denote the race track to the sickening amounts of bloom that constantly assault the player's eyes, is almost indistinguishable.
In another startling display of non-innovation, RidgeRacer uses an unlockable “experience” system to progress, with players awarded points after each race for destroying obstacles, performing stunts and taking out other drivers. These points are pooled into levels which, when reached, unlock better cars, locations and events – again, stop me when this starts to sound familiar. As you might expect, this makes the game into one big time-sink, with only the most basic cars available from the start. This makes the first few hours very brutal, grinding the same few races repeatedly whilst coming in the lower half of the leaderboard to try and unlock better cars. After the first four or five events the punishment lets up a bit as you get used to the controls and get a “feel” for your preferred cars, but trying to keep abreast of the most recently unlocked races always feels like the difficulty is unfairly skewed.
It's not that the game is too hard – after a few laps around each race, it becomes markedly easier to place in second or third - it's simply that the most recently unlocked cars aren't adequate for beating the most recently unlocked events and, as I mentioned before, the player has to resort to grinding to even the playing field, and after having unlocked more events as a result it soon feels like you're simply falling behind and out of your depth. There are some games in which you expect to feel lost and underpowered – games like Final Fantasy, Skyrim and Dark Souls are designed to overwhelm you with their complexity - but the last I checked, racing games were simply designed to be a “drive really fast to beat these other guys to the finish line” experience, with some “and smash everything up while you're at it” for the discerning adrenaline junkie. To be fair to the developers it's easy to see what they were trying to go for, and I commend them for it, but it just seems to be over-complicating things – I don't see anything wrong with the “place X or better in Y amount of races to unlock Z” system that's worked so well in previous RidgeRacer and other racing titles.
Yet for all this, the game does do a pretty decent job. Despite not being hugely original and fudging its own game progression a bit, the game is actually hugely cathartic and quite a lot of fun – in short bursts, at least. Racing games have always been about presentation, with graphics playing a huge role in their development (look at Gran Turismo 5), and RidgeRacer Unbounded is a fantastic-looking game. There's probably a bit more bloom, slow-mo and depth-of-field than I feel entirely satisfied with, but there's no getting by the fact that the cars and locations all look exceptional, and the huge array of destructible objects is really quite impressive.
The game also features some novelty events like stunt tracks, a drift-based score attack and a race to destroy as many pursuing cop cars in a dumpster truck as possible; and it would've been nice to see some more of these implemented, but they do at least help to break up the relative tedium of continuous races and domination events. What's more, the game also features a fully fleshed out city builder where players can build their own environments and races completely from scratch; although it does involve unlocking components through the aforementioned grindfest of the singleplayer game. Furthermore, this city builder feature offers a huge array of pieces to create and adjust with which, if you're so inclined, offer a huge degree of longevity to the game.
All in all RidgeRacer: Unbounded is not a fantastic game, but it is a pretty fun one, and if you're after a game where you can just switch your brain off and smash stuff up while driving ridiculously fast, then you'll be hard-driven to find anything better to fit your needs.
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