Ridge Racer: Unbounded
Despite the demise of Blackrock Studios and Bizarre Creations hanging over it like a black cloud, the arcade racing genre has been incredibly well served by this generation of consoles. The likes of Burnout Paradise, Split/Second, Blur, Driver: San Francisco and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit all being among the genre’s very best; and with Ridge Racer: Unbounded, Bugbear Entertainment is hoping to join them. But does this latest iteration of the much loved franchise throw the baby out with the bath-water or is it an inspired new beginning?
The fruit of Bugbear’s labours doesn’t make itself easy to love and, for the first three or four hours of play, the ‘Ridge Racer’ and ‘Unbounded’ elements of the title seem unrepresentative of the game itself. The series’ signature blue-skies are assigned to the rubbish bin, instead setting the racing in cramped and cluttered metropolitan streets, and the wonderful sense of freedom traditionally provided by the series’ iconic sweeping bends also seems to have been jettisoned, in its stead you find a heavy emphasis on exacting/punishing cornering and chaotic track destruction. It is likely that your first few fumbling hours with the game will largely be spent overshooting corners, slamming into grubbily realised walls and bemoaning the death of the franchise as you knew it.
If you manage to stick with it and ride out the horrifically steep learning curve, it becomes apparent that this isn’t the death of the franchise at all, but is actually a bold, brave and ambitious rebirth. Unbounded has no qualms in making you work for its rewards, but the rewards are there to be found as is the beating heart of Ridge Racer that fans know and love.
Bugbear attempt to instil an air of mystery via a dystopian setting, with races taking part in the ominous metropolitan sprawl of Shatter Bay which (as a brief scene-setting introductory FMV explains) is ruled by an iron fist of homogenisation. Assuming a role in a gang of street racers known as ‘The Unbounded’, your task is to win back the streets while muscling your way up the ranks of this shadowy group of extreme-racing. This backstory distances the game from series’ heritage, but can largely falls by the wayside once you get on the track.
Initially, the racing itself comes across as a fairly uninspired blend of Burnout, Blur and Split/Second and just as those titles each put their own spin on core arcade racing values, so it is with Unbounded, which places heavy emphasis on destructible environments through which your car can slice like a knife through hot butter. This ability forces you to reverse-engineer a deep-rooted understanding that in racing games walls are something to be avoided; here, walls, lamp-posts and parked cars actually offer an opportunity, as smashing other racers into them and powersliding around corners gradually fills a power gauge that, once at its maximum, can be unleashed to boost your speed and turn your car momentarily into a four-wheeled missile. With the right timing, opponents can be taken out (or, ‘Fragged’, as the game puts it) and predetermined short-cuts can be opened up by smashing through walls and billboards.
The goal in any given race varies; Domination features straight-up races with plenty of fragging and smashing through walls, while Shindo races forgo the latter, focusing instead on a purer racing experience. Frag Attack sets a pre-determined target number of racer-takedowns and Drift Attack gives you a set amount of time within which to accrue points by drifting. In Time Attack it’s just you against the clock.
Though this might all sound rather uninspiring on paper, it’s clear that – despite the game’s narrative and thematic pretensions – Bugbear have focussed on making the actual racing thrilling and explosive enough to keep you coming back for more. There is no question that in this respect they have delivered, even if you might not be able to see this until you’ve put in a lot of practice.
Key to the experience is the sheer pace of the racing, a factor that is supported by a graphics engine that effortlessly keeps up with the blistering speed. In this respect, Unbounded can feel curiously reminiscent of Studio Liverpool’s Wipeout series – both in the sense of speed it imbues and in the duality of emotions this instils, as one part of your gaming brain strives for controlled perfection while the other hangs on for dear life.
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