This review was previously published over on StrategyInformer.com, and is reproduced here with permission.
If ever there was an an advocate for the inclusion of thorough tutorials in videogames, they’ll likely illustrate their point with Ridge Racer Unbounded for years to come. As much as we bemoan too much hand-holding in modern gaming, Unbounded takes the opposite route, leaving you to figure out its arcade racing mechanics entirely for yourself. It’s a game of incredibly contrasting experiences as a result, with enjoyment levels mapping almost directly to whether or not the controversial drift mechanic manages to ‘click’.
Backing it up a little, Unbounded is a departure for the Ridge Racer series as a whole, with development duties transferred to Flatout creators Bugbear. It’s far more concerned with grime and ‘underground’ racing this time around, with the traditional rail-drifts and all-out acceleration ditched in favour of a more weighty, damage-laden physics model that crunches and grinds where the series used to gracefully slide. It’s a little bit Burnout, it’s a little bit Split/Second, and it’s quite the refresh for a series that had developed its own seemingly insurmountable stylistic trench.
The traditional singleplayer career mode is set in ‘Shatter Bay’, which is an amalgamation of locations that represent the industrial and commercial side of various US cities. Each of the themed zones is broken up into individual races, with high scores the primary focus for progression. As you accrue those scores your overall racer level increases, unlocking tile sets, vehicles and various other trinkets to play with in the track editor (more on that later). Dominating races (which involves placing in the top three) unlocks new tiers and new locations, and the unrelenting difficulty means there’s plenty of longevity to be found in Shatter Bay.
The events themselves are mostly broken up into four categories. Domination races are the most prevalent (straight-up races against up to 11 other CPU drivers), whilst drift events and time attacks round out the traditional pedal-to-the metal modes. Frag Attacks offer a bit of variety and the chance to smash your way through enemy cars to score a victory, but they tend to act as pallet cleansers, and are few and far between.
The reason for their scarcity is probably down to the level of destruction offered up in Unbounded’s core racing modes, which do a good job of blowing things up during regular play. A large portion of the scenery in Unbounded can simply be driven through, from stone walls to metal pylons and fences – which creates visual chaos on practically every straight and turn. On top of that, performing drifts, catching air or tailgating the opposition gradually fills a power meter, allowing you to activate a quick boost that can be used to trigger environmental set pieces or simply smash (“frag”, in Unbounded terms) your enemies into next week.
Once you’ve figured out the power meter it becomes key to success, and knowing when to conserve or unleash becomes second nature. Races become trails of high-speed drifting and destruction, with one set piece and smoothly navigated corner leading directly into the next wave of explosions and takedowns as you fight your way (literally) to the front of the pack. When it all comes together at the mid-level performance tiers and above, Unbounded is an absolute adrenalin-soaked joy to play, so it’s even more of a shame that a lot of players will give up long before they even break out of that first zone.
The problems stem from two areas, both of which can hopefully be patched in the coming weeks. The first concerns the ubiquitous ‘drift’ button, which is never explained aside from a couple of tooltips on loading screens. It is, in short, the key to success at every tier, and it works in a manner that’s totally counter-intuitive to almost every other racer out there. If you tap it to enter a drift as if you were using a handbrake, you’ll end up sliding into the nearest wall at 100mph before you know it (at lower performance tiers anyway). Whereas if you hold the button through the whole corner (like a traditional Ridge Racer game, after all), you’ll inevitably oversteer and perform a 180.
Turn into the corner, hold the button and control your acceleration before releasing the drift after the apex, and suddenly the game transforms. You’re now able to fill your boost meter and maintain a decent speed, and those environmental destruction triggers are within reach. It’s not easy though, and each new set of cars bring its own specific timing and exaggerated handling characteristics to complicate matters. When coupled with the second major problem of absolutely brutal AI and an almost complete lack of rubber-banding (another simulation trait that’s weirdly included), you’ll find yourself at the back of the pack more often that not, with a slim chance of maybe making it into the middle.
Fortunately, the rather wonderful track editor and online functionality mitigates some of those problems, allowing you to sidestep the singleplayer setups and dabble in races that are simultaneously more extravagant in design and easier to get to grips with. The track editor allows you to create ‘cities’ full of events, which are then uploaded with an author’s best time for other racers to pit themselves against. The editor itself is tile-based and easy to navigate (tile sets are unlocked as your driver levels up), but there’s a lot of depth there too, and it’s easy to get lost in the intricacies for a couple of hours at a time.
Online play is also superbly exciting, with the laser-like precision and unflappable AI drivers replaced with human opponents just as prone to drifting into a wall as you are. It turns the chaos into a much more exciting proposition with a lot less frustration, and getting nailed on the first lap doesn’t necessarily mean that the race is done. It’s basically what singleplayer should have been like in an arcade racing game, and hopefully what it can eventually be if enough people vocalise the same concerns. It’s not that the singleplayer challenge is entirely unwelcome, but when you realise the fun that can be had when Unbounded is unshackled from that strict AI, it makes you want for more.
All of which makes it extremely difficult to put a score on the end of this review. There were times when Unbounded crept into frustration territory that almost saw it as a complete write-off, but perseverance eventually unlocked something special indeed. If they can throw in a decent tutorial and unhinge the AI somewhat, then this would be one of the better racers of the last few years. As it stands though, there is brilliance to be found beneath the weird obfuscation, but you’ll need to work for it. I thoroughly recommend that you do, however.