Ridge Racer V: Back to Basics

Ridge Racer V was an important game for Namco.

Not only was it to be a follow-up to the incredibly well-received and popular Ridge Racer Type 4it would also be the first installment of the series on a new generation of consoles — and a launch title for that system, the PlayStation 2, to boot.

Expectations were high for the new game to be both an impressive showcase for the new format and another solid installment in what was, by now, a well-loved and much-respected arcade racing franchise. The reality didn’t quite match up to these expectations… but it was certainly a damn good effort.

Ridge Racer V’s position as a PlayStation 2 launch title in both Japan and the West meant that it played an important part in demonstrating what the new system was capable of — and in that regard, it succeeded admirably right from the moment it loaded.

Beginning with an introductory sequence rendered in real-time rather than making use of prerendered video as in Rage Racer and Type 4, Ridge Racer V immediately demonstrated that in comparison to what had come before, the PlayStation 2 was a graphical powerhouse; a force to be reckoned with.

Cars racing past at a blistering 60fps (well, closer to 50 if you were running the PAL version). A much greater level of detail on everything. None of those weird bendy textures the original PlayStation was prone to. And a lovingly rendered new image girl named Ai Fukami who, while no Reiko Nagase, certainly provided a fitting demonstration of how much more convincing the PS2’s capabilities could make character models and animations — although that said, after the intro she is nowhere to be seen for the rest of the game, aside from in silhouette form on the startup menu. (Subsequent installments brought back Reiko after Ai’s 15 seconds of fame sadly failed to make a significant impression on players.)

The real-time nature of Ridge Racer V’s intro was likely a deliberate attempt to follow up on some of the most popular promotional material that had circulated prior to the PS2’s official release. As the hype machine was getting into full swing, Sony accompanied its 1999 announcement of the new system with a series of quickly put-together tech demos from a variety of companies. These included a real-time recreation of the ballroom scene from Final Fantasy VIII, a high-resolution, super-smooth recreation of a Gran Turismo race — and Ridge Racer Type 4’s Reiko Nagase on a fashion catwalk in her iconic race queen outfit with lovingly animated hair.

While impressive, these tech demos also invited a certain amount of skepticism from press and public alike. The art of the “bullshot” had already been a thing for many years, after all — the questionable practice of mocking up screenshots to look better than their supposed host system is actually capable of dates all the way back to the days of the Atari 2600 and its peers — and so people were naturally cautious not to get too excited about what this supposed wonder-machine from Sony would be able to do when it finally hit the market.

Ridge Racer V’s intro feels like a middle finger to the doubters. “Look,” it says. “We weren’t lying. Look at the shiny cars. Look at the pretty girl. Look at all the hair she has.” As if answering an unspoken question, the intro sequence even allows you to press certain buttons on the controller to apply various visual effects to the scene, as if to further emphasise the fact it was being generated in real time.

These good looks, thankfully, carried across into the game itself. While the game as a whole has gained some notoriety over the years for its noticeable lack of anti-aliasing, resulting in very obvious jagged edges on things, there’s little denying that Ridge Racer V’s graphics are believable but stylised, with the cars in particular having a pleasing sense of weight and presence to them, and the heavy use of particle effect sparks and smoke adding a touch of realism. The frame rate likewise remains consistently solid and smooth throughout the entire game, immediately setting itself apart from its PlayStation 1 predecessors by being much more obviously slick; an experience much closer to what arcade machines offered than the humble PS1 was ever capable of.

So its “showcase game” credentials are certainly not in question. It may not be the best-looking game on the PlayStation 2 when you compare it to titles that came out towards the end of the system’s lifespan, but when you take it in the context of the fact that this was a launch game… well, it’s still quite a looker, particularly if pumped through some sort of upscaling device, and all the more impressive for being such a significant jump ahead of its immediate predecessor.

Where Ridge Racer V arguably falls flat a little is in terms of its overall gameplay structure. In stark contrast to Type 4’s 300+ unlockable car variations, Ridge Racer V boasts just 15. It also abandons the story-based campaigns of Type 4 in favour of a much more generic-feeling Grand Prix mode in which you’re locked in to the difficulty you set when you start — and those difficulties feel a bit unbalanced, with Easy feeling a tad too, well, easy, and Normal being just a bit too unforgiving to provide an enjoyable experience for those comfortable with the previous games.

Ridge Racer V does add a bit of variation to the mix with different race types, including Standard class GPs, in which you can only race with cars’ stock models; Extra class GPs, in which you race tuned versions of the cars; Sudden Death races, which are in effect a return to the countdown timer-and-checkpoint races of the first two games; and a high-speed endurance race around an oval circuit, similar to the finale of each playthrough of Type 4. Completing all the available GPs on a difficulty level also then randomises the order of the courses you participate on if you challenge the Extra GPs again, making for a bit of variation, and clearing everything on the hardest difficulty unlocks a further challenge.

In the races themselves, the action is quite a bit more intense than in previous installments, with much more aggressive handling than Type 4, particularly in the Drift cars, which will start to slide out the moment you start steering around a corner without the accelerator pushed down. Obvious improvements have been made to the artificial intelligence of the opposing drivers, too, and there’s a larger field of opponents to deal with. It’s rare, even on Easy difficulty, that you’ll simply be able to cruise straight into first place and hold it for several laps; the frontrunner in particular will often put up quite a fight as you attempt to pass them.

Despite the obviously improved AI, however, the races still have the series’ characteristic (and rather arcadey) feel of being “choreographed” to a certain extent through opponents being spread out at regular intervals across all the laps. The shorter races will see you overtaking your opponents in much more rapid succession than the longer ones, for example, with this being particularly apparent on the lengthy “oval” race, where you won’t even see the front of the pack until the last couple of laps. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it helps keep things interesting, but it does feel a tad artificial at times.

Besides the GP races, there’s an incentive to play the Time Attack mode in the form of “rival” records to beat; bust these times and you have the opportunity to have a one-on-one “duel” race against the one who set the record, with their car up for grabs if you win. And these unlockable cars include numerous past favourites from the series, including the notorious 13th Racing vehicle from the original game and the White Angel from Revolution.

Besides these modes that are available from the get-go, there’s a secret Pac-Man race you unlock by driving for a total of 1,500 miles, and a 99-lap race around the iconic original Ridge Racer track (now known as “Sunny Beach”) intended as your final challenge after you beat all the duel opponents individually, then all together in a “Battle Royale” race.

So there’s certainly not a real shortage of content as there was in the earlier games of the series. It just doesn’t feel quite so well tied-together as it did in Type 4, making it feel like a step backwards; a return to the basics of the series. Type 4 had the persistent progression element as you unlocked cars that could then be used in time trial and multiplayer, while restricts your car unlocks to a single save file which, as we’ve already noted, is locked to a single difficulty level. It is, of course, no problem to start a new save file, but it feels like starting the whole game over again, whereas challenging a harder difficulty by joining a different team in Type 4 felt like a natural progression of your overall career.

The absence of the narrative elements is keenly felt, too. While the stories in Type 4 weren’t high art by any means, they provided some welcome context to the action and provided some meaning to the whole experience as well as being something not typically seen in racing games. Nice little touches like the final race unfolding as the clock ticked over from 1999 into 2000 gave the races themselves some drama too; something that is a little lacking from V.

In fact, the only real “human” interaction you get in is the DJ of “Ridge City FM”, who babbles nonsense over the top of all your races. He’s not quite as irritating as the guy from the original and Revolution, but he comes close, partly because very little effort has been made to make his contributions feel like he’s actually presenting a radio show, as was presumably intended. He also is apparently incapable of pronouncing the words “comfort” or “rookie” properly, which is immensely irritating every time these particular words come up, and there’s no way to turn him off.

On the music front, Ridge Racer V marks a return to the aggressive, chaotic techno of the earlier installments, albeit this time with a licensed soundtrack from artists including Japanese electronic music duo Boom Boom Satellites and German DJ Mijk van Dijk. The result is very much an acquired taste that is absolutely “of its time”, and a far cry from the rather timeless, tuneful, upbeat and cheerful soundtrack Type 4 offered. There are a couple of decent tracks — most notably a solid remix of “Rare Hero” from the original Ridge Racer — but I found the majority of them to be eminently forgettable, with some crossing the line into being actively unpleasant to listen to for anyone other than those already immersed in an appreciation for this style of techno.

Thankfully, the option is always there to mute the music for those who find it too objectionable; while it seems oddly quiet to play a Ridge Racer without music, the sound effects have certainly been considerably improved since the early games, with meaty engine notes, atmospheric ambient noise and impacts with some real “crunch” to them. No more Hoover-cars.

Ultimately Ridge Racer V feels a bit rushed all over — which it quite possibly was, coming out only just over a year after Type 4, and on a brand new console to boot. There’s the seed of a great game here, but everything present feels like it needed to be built on considerably for it to end up as a truly satisfying, complete-feeling experience. More cars, more tracks, more environments, more customisation options, more depth, more soul.

As a showcase title for the PlayStation 2, Ridge Racer V fulfilled its goal admirably. And it’s by no means a bad game when taken on its own merits; if anything, it’s a grower that becomes much more fun the more time you spend with it. It’s just that when you take it in context of the series as a whole — particularly its eminently wonderful immediate predecessor — it’s hard not to feel like it could have been so much more.


More about the Ridge Racer series

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4 thoughts on “Ridge Racer V: Back to Basics”

  1. One of the things that I’ve always found interesting about Ridge Racer is its long-held status a defacto launch window title for Sony consoles. It got to the point where I felt genuinely weird buying my Vita and PS4 without a Ridge Racer title to accompany them.

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