It’s all about the power meter.
The Ridge Racer series from Namco Bandai has been around for a long time and made an appearance on pretty much every console since it’s initial appearance. But through all of those years and all of those different versions of the game, very little has changed. Sure, the graphics have improved, but otherwise the core gameplay has remained the same – pure arcade racing with a floaty feel. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but things need to evolve and remain fresh to maintain an interest. Ridge Racer Unbounded seems to have taken that to heart and perhaps beyond, resulting in a game that is Ridge Racer in name only.
It is certainly not what you would expect from the veteran racing game. This time around Ridge Racer is filled with destructible scenery, gritty street tracks and high-speed take-daowns that will leave your opponents careening along the road in a ball of flame. And at the centre of it all is the power meter, mastery of which is the difference between winning races and utter disappointment.
Driving enthusiasts will find that their skills mean nothing here. Being able to drive well will result in little more than a congratulatory pat on the back, in the form of experience, when you cross the finish line in last place. The experience in question will unlock new tracks and new vehicles, but it will be a slow process unless you change your tactics.
The power meter has various functions and can be filled by driving aggressively, drifting, catching air, slip-streaming and making use of the meter itself. What the meter gives you in exchange for all of this impressive driving is, first and foremost, boost. Use it often and use it well and you may be in with a chance. But the meter also allows the player to knock other racers out of the way, instantly turning them into a fireball or broken car-parts. Thirdly, the meter opens up short cuts in the track. These alternate routes are highlighted for the player to see and generally mean ploughing headlong into brick walls or other obstructions which would normally, without the power meter being activated, result in an embarrassing explosion as the car stops dead.
The trick to winning is simply to keep the power meter filled and used as often as possible. But the problem is that the opponent AI are also aware of this and will make it as difficult as possible, even if you have grasped the core components of this game. That in itself will take a while, as there is very little by way of explanation and it is down to the player themselves to work out how best to win in this game. The first few races are likely to be very disappointing.
The tracks themselves are much more built up than anything seen in a Ridge Racer title before, and littered with hazards. It quickly becomes apparent that many of these hazards, such as jutting walls or barriers, are destructible. Whilst you would think that this would make the game easier, it actually makes everything much more tense. The player is left wondering if cutting the upcoming corner around a building will result in a shower of bricks and a successful maneuver, or a race ending explosion. When you nudge an opponent into an upcoming barrier, you can never be sure if it will end their race or just leave them hungry for revenge after they crash harmlessly through it. The problem is that it can be very difficult to tell what can and what can’t be driven through, keeping the player guessing until the inevitable impact.
The variety of different modes is well thought out, with special events for drifting, taking out as many other racers as possible, and standard racing without all of the destruction available to the player. There is also a very full-featured online multiplayer mode in which the player can race against other humans rather than the AI, not that there is really a huge difference as the AI in single-player is so good.
But the most impressive addition, if you were not already impressed by this total change of direction for the game, is the Track Editor. Very few racing games allow you to create your own tracks, and even fewer with this amount of customisation. The player simply slots building blocks in place to create a course of their choice, as elaborate or simple as they choose, and then share online. It is so easy to use, and so versatile, that it adds hours of enjoyment to an already packed racing game.
Ridge Racer Unbounded is not what you would expect from a Ridge Racer title, and this is one thing that some gamers may not be able to get their heads around. It is also very challenging, which will put off the more casual racing gamers. But if you can get past those things and put in the time to master the techniques required for successful races, then the rewards are great.