Namco’s design ethos as regards racing games was always very distinctive in the genre: long, tarmac-based city circuits that require you to tear through the streets balancing speed with lengthy drifting. You always started in last place on the ‘grid’, bizarrely, and the circuits were always ghostly-quiet and barren.
In this latest iteration of the series, Ridge Racer Unbounded, there are a few significant changes. You get a choice between ‘speed’ and ‘drift’ specialised vehicles, a boost button that is activated as you execute good drifts, and some very (very!) Burnout-like trackside elements that can be destroyed by driving into them, often opening up an alternative route.
The most meaningful of those changes is undoubtedly the destructible elements, which challenge the player’s preconceptions about street-racing games – ordinarily, when you see a concrete barrier dividing one side of the road from another, or a bridge support, or a factory side-wall, the usual instinct, based on years of playing racing videogames, is to steer clear. Ridge Racer Unbounded, contrarily, positively encourages you to do the opposite, enabling the player to crash through these barriers, wreaking havoc but creating new racing lines in the process!
An additional challenge that these destructible elements present is that you’re never quite sure which you can destroy and which you can’t. The game hints that ‘anything lower than your car’ can be destroyed, but that’s not always very helpful.
This is an odd design decision, introducing a degree of uncertainty that, given that the ‘success’ parameters of the series are usually to cross the finish line first, puts the player on edge throughout each race. The ‘elastic band’ mechanic, whereby the other computer-controlled racers always seem to be able to catch up and hurtle past, seemingly immune to the same physics applying to your vehicle, adds to the tension, as does their ability to ‘frag’ you and destroy your car entirely.
You have the same ability, but it’s more likely you’ll be on the utterly maddening receiving end, often finding yourself ejected from first to last place a few corners from the end.
This arbitrary aspect of Ridge Racer Unbounded combines with the destruction to polarise the game; if you’re in the mood for some mindless destruction and don’t care about the racing, ‘Unbounded is an exhilarating, satisfying blast that is as entertaining to watch as it is to control.
If, however, you want to enjoy some great racing, with the destruction as an interesting diversion, or have just had a bad day at work and wanted to unwind, then Ridge Racer Unbounded is an exercise in teeth-gnashing frustration that threatens the structural integrity of your controller.
There’s a very interesting inclusion in the game in the form of a fairly serious track editor, but our guess is, given the likely audience that will be attracted by the neon colour palette and exaggerated physics, it’ll go largely unnoticed.
Regardless, Ridge Racer Unbounded is a surprise; a fresh take on the game that stands on the shoulders of worthy competitors to reach a new height for the series and, provided you’re in the right mood, gives you a terrific run for your money.