Ridge Racer Unbounded (XBOX 360)
There are few gaming franchises around which can claim to have been played by the majority of gamers. Mario, Zelda and Sonic are some and in the racing genre we have the likes of Ridge Racer which has been around since the early 90s with multiple versions that have been considered classics. The original version was a must have title on the PlayStation and very likely influenced the makers of games which followed such as Gran Tourismo.
Ridge Racer has appeared on a wide range of formats over the years from the original on Arcade to the more recent on 3DS, PlayStation Vita and even mobile phones. With Ridge Racer Unbounded we are back to the home environment with a version for PS3, another for Xbox 360 and the PC gets some love too. Set in the fictional city of Shatter Bay we must drift, boost and speed our way through numerous races with destruction of environments and opponents a very important game aspect as is course creation and sharing.
Unbounded starts with a stylish introduction which was a very cinematic feel, giving us the backstory of Shatter Bay and a gang within it, the Unbounded. Through this we find that we are to start at the bottom of the organisation and work our way to the top, taking over the city and then taking on the world. There is something ominous about the tone which immediately makes the storyline stand out and the game from there feels noticeably different to the standard racing experience.
Looking at single player first we have a reasonably standard arcade racer setup. Choose a course, meet the objectives set (for example finishing 1st to 3rd) and gain XP as we go, levelling up and unlocking extra content, usually tracks and cars. Controls are also standard with right trigger to accelerate, left to break and brake+B to drift. Where things get a little out of the ordinary is in the Power function which is actioned by hitting A at which point we can target objects in the environment, crashing through them and destroying the item in question, or take out (Frag) our competitors by hitting them instead. The power function also gives us a speed boost though it is not unlimited and runs out quickly unless we fill the power meter by performing skills, for example drifting round corners to fill the gauge until it is ready to activate.
Throughout the races there are a huge amount of destructible objects which our car can plough through sending debris flying and particularly large moments are followed by a slow motion replay of events which adds to the impact. Of course that isn't quite the case when we have to watch a replay of our car being smashed by bad driving or fragged by a fellow racer.
Single player mode has a range of race styles (Destruction, Drift, Time Attack) and plenty of tracks and objectives to complete and the content is enhanced by an impressive online mode backed by course creation. From the main menu we can create our own city and events then submit them to the network which makes them available for others to play and opening up a near infinite number of possible tracks, which are limited only by the imagination of our fellow gamers. The multiplayer/online modes are all based on this concept and we can browse through the active games with plenty of filters that could help us find the newest games, or most played etc.
Finally, as always, we have various achievements available for us to gain/unlock as we progress in both single player and online races.
Graphics and Audio
There are racing games out there which attempt ultra realism, often failing, and others which take a more cartoonish approach which seems to alienate some gamers. Namco and Bugbear Entertainment are much more towards the former design approach though the city itself doesn't try to be photorealistic. Mixed in with some varied car models are a wide range of city areas that have their unique visual style and the developers make good use of sunlight and reflections within the game for impact. Slow motion replays look good and there is a massive amount of detail in each frame as we fly round the track with destructible environments looking very impressive as they shatter. As is often the case though there is some slowdown when things get hectic on screen but it is infrequent enough so as not to spoil the races.
On the audio front the game follows a very traditional mode of various music tracks accompanying the engine and tyre sounds of the game. These are often elecronic based tracks and could do with being more varied in their style to please a wider range of tastes.
Due to the destructive aspects of the gameplay we also get large amounts of collision sounds but that's really where things stop.
The initial experience that Ridge Racer Unbounded gives is that there is a large amount of content to pick though, looking through the races and modes available from the menu could be daunting but at the same time it takes seconds from loading to getting into a race. From there the action is frantic and the pace fast which is very much helped by the minimal time from crashing or being fragged to dropping back into the game. This happens within a second or two of the replay ending with the game having updated to reflect our new position further back in the field and with the car in motion. Given that the game is littered with crashes, destruction and replays this quick return is very much appreciated.
In terms of mastering the game players need not have played a Ridge Racer before, though experience with drift racing would be a benefit and within a few minutes the basics are mastered, something which is assisted by on-screen tips to prompt new players in the right direction. Winning an event takes practice though and due to the frantic nature of the gameplay even experience gamers will find that the first few races result in failed objectives as we try to find the right balance between racing and fragging.
Destructible cars and environments are nothing new for racing games but in Unbounded the concept is executed well. Tracks are designed for maximum eye-candy as we tear through objects and there is a real feel of this being something different as we clip a wall which would in most games bring us to a crushing halt, only to smash through sending debris flying. The developers also use this to the games advantage, having hidden shortcuts to discover. The amount of detail as we crash through the races is also impressive and light/reflections used well as is the idea of incorporating status updates such as how far we are behind the car ahead as part of the scenery.
As large as the single player mode is the intention of Namco and Bugbear to send us into creation mode and online is very much evident. Even the introduction to the single player plot teases this aspect and to be fair these aspects are well worth exploring. They add a huge level of longevity to the game which is lacking in so many competitors.
Before we close though it is worth noting, something Namco/Bugbear should have done in-game, that enjoyment of Unbounded is very much dependant on mastering the proper use of drift. Just hit the drift button and the races are average, combine it throughout corners with the brake and accelerator and the entire experience goes up a level or two becoming fast paced, frantic fun.
Racing which is heavy on arcade rather than sim meets destructive environments and online battles. A heck of a lot of fun with huge potential for community creation and longevity.