Ridge Racer 6: PlayStation Who?

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It was a good five years between Ridge Racer V helping to launch the PlayStation 2 and the next mainline numbered installment in the series.

In the intervening years we had a couple of spinoff games that are a little beyond the scope of what we have time to cover this month: in 2003, there was series outlier R: Racing Evolution, the only installment to feature licensed cars and thus a game some don’t consider to be a Ridge Racer at all, and 2004 gave us a well-received title for PSP that, in true Ridge Racer tradition, helped to demonstrate what a new Sony platform was capable of at launch.

It was 2005 before the next “true” sequel, however, and once again the series helped to launch a console. This time, however, it wasn’t a showcase game for a Sony platform; it instead formed part of the launch lineup for Microsoft’s Xbox 360, the first of the high-definition consoles to hit the market.

With Sony’s PlayStation 3 still a year away at the time the Xbox 360 arrived on the scene, Ridge Racer 6 was a natural fit for the new console. Several past Ridge Racer titles had been graphical showcases intended to demonstrate what a system was truly capable of — in the case of the original PlayStation, at both the beginning and end of its lifespan — and the 360 represented the most significant advance in console graphics technology since the start of the fifth console generation brought 3D polygonal graphics to the mainstream. Widescreen and high-definition were set to become the new “norm” — even if many people still ran their 360s on standard definition TVs in the early years — and Ridge Racer was there to welcome this age of all-new graphical fidelity.

Namco evidently had not spent the intervening five years between mainline Ridge Racer installments resting on its laurels, either. Unlike the slightly rushed-feeling Ridge Racer V, Ridge Racer 6 is practically bursting at the seams with things to do and items to unlock. It is, in many ways, a reflection of the changing expectations of gamers over the years; while the original Ridge Racer’s two different tracks (and complementary reverse versions) might have been acceptable to some back in 1994, that sort of thing wasn’t going to fly with 21st-century gamers. Modern gamers wanted something that would keep them busy for more than five or ten minutes at a time; they wanted long-term goals and challenges to aim for, and things to brag about. And Ridge Racer 6 certainly delivered on that front.

Eschewing both the standalone races of the earlier games and the structured Grand Prix setup of Type 4 and V, Ridge Racer 6 adopts a formula it rather grandiosely dubs the “Ridge Universe”. What this essentially amounts to is a large node-based map divided into several zones, with multiple routes from one end to the other crisscrossing over its entire length. Each zone represents a class of vehicle, with the zones further to the right making use of more powerful, faster machines, and each node represents an individual race. The higher a race appears on the vertical axis, the more difficult it will be, meaning there is some difficulty variation even within the individual classes, although there is a general upward trend in difficulty as you progress from left to right, too.

The way you choose to tackle the Ridge Universe is left up to you. You can simply play a single race at a time if you wish, or you can effectively create your own Grand Prix-style situations by selecting a series of races in sequence. The only restriction is that your sequence of races cannot span speed classes; races on the boundary of zones are always the final race of a series, regardless of how many have come previously.

What’s interesting about this approach is that there’s a lightweight “area control” metagame to it all, too. Should you manage to completely surround an area on the map with completed races — described in game terms as “exploring” that region of the Universe — then you unlock whatever prize is sealed inside it, usually a new car of some description. Since many of the car unlocks are simple aesthetic variations on models you start with, you can instead choose to ignore this aspect if you wish and attempt to plot an efficient route from the early races in the slower vehicles to the more challenging later, faster races. It’s up to you; it’s a nice degree of freedom, helps prevent the game from feeling stale and also makes it friendly to both long and short play sessions.

Once you’re into the race it’s recognisably Ridge Racer, with a few twists. The drift mechanics are adapted from Ridge Racer V rather than the earlier installments, which means that simply releasing the accelerator and steering around a corner will throw you into a drift, and rather than the old distinction between “Grip” and “Drift” cars we now simply have three degrees of drift: Standard, Mild and Dynamic, with the latter being nigh-uncontrollable without a lot of practice, but providing the rather enjoyable ability to chain drifts together one you get the hang of it.

Drifting has always been important in Ridge Racer but this is particularly true in Ridge Racer 6 as it feeds into the first major new mechanic the series has really seen since its inception: the addition of nitrous speed boosts. Performing drifts fills the nitrous bar, with it filling more rapidly the faster you’re going. Once the bar reaches one of its three levels, you can tap a button to unleash the nitrous boost; if you save up two or three you can even use them all at once for a more significant and longer-lasting speed boost.

Interestingly, unlike some other racing games that incorporate a boost mechanic, using the nitrous doesn’t make your car in any way uncontrollable — you can still corner and drift while under the influence of nitrous with no problem, and indeed the game’s “Ultimate Charge” mechanic, whereby you throw the car into a drift just as your nitrous runs out to recharge the bar quickly using the residual speed, assumes that you will be doing just this. Success in Ridge Racer 6, then, is dependent on not only knowing how to negotiate the tracks, but also the best points at which to unleash your nitrous to allow for maximum Ultimate Charge action.

The tracks themselves are enjoyably varied, encompassing neon-lit night-time cityscapes, a beachfront at sunset, winding mountain roads and laps around an airport. In total there are fifteen different tracks split across five different environments — in true Ridge Racer tradition, many of the tracks are “alternative routes” around familiar scenery — plus reversed versions of all the courses bringing the total to 30. The tracks are well-designed to fit with the heavily exaggerated drift handling, and there are many that incorporate thrill ride elements such as huge jumps as well as sweeping corners to drift around.

Although over ten years old at the time of writing, Ridge Racer 6 is still a nice-looking game, featuring some solid, weighty-looking car models recognisably inspired by real-world vehicles, complemented by colourful scenery that scrolls past at a slick 60 frames per second in single-player mode. (The split-screen two-player mode doesn’t fare quite so well in this regard, unfortunately, but the main attraction here is very much the single-player.) The tracks make use of some nice lighting effects and it’s interesting to note that this is one of the few games that has genuinely dark darkness; arguably a little too dark at times, even; while your car has headlight effects in the night-time stages, your opponents don’t have anything similar, and there are no such lighting effects in dark caves, tunnels or areas cast into shadow either. Keep an eye on the road!

The game’s soundtrack is thankfully much better than the pounding early 21st century techno found in Ridge Racer V, too. Eschewing that game’s licensed soundtrack in favour of original compositions, Ridge Racer 6 reunited the sound teams from the earliest Ridge Racer games and Hiroshi Okubo’s team that worked on Type 4’s legendary soundtrack, resulting in a pleasingly eclectic set of music that complements the racing well. And for those who aren’t happy with it, a well-integrated use of the Xbox 360’s underappreciated custom soundtrack feature allows you to use your own music as you see fit, or alternatively some additional music from titles such as the PSP Ridge Racer and R: Racing Revolution is available as DLC.

Ridge Racer 6 had somewhat average reviews on its original release, most likely due to it being a direct competitor to Bizarre Creations’ popular Project Gotham Racing series, which had been rather more fashionable than Ridge Racer for some years by this point after two well-received installments on the original Xbox and a third accompanying the 360’s launch. Some reviewers felt that Project Gotham 3’s more varied lineup of challenges and licensed cars was the more impressive offering, but most acknowledged that Ridge Racer 6 remained true to the series’ mission to deliver simple, thrilling and enjoyable arcade-style racing without fuss.

Looking back on it now, it’s a lot easier to appreciate Ridge Racer 6 on its own merits rather than comparing it to its contemporaries. It was a solid refinement of the series for a new generation of consoles, remains hugely playable today and even still looks pretty good. And with the arcade racer being something of a dying breed at the time of writing, it’s nice to have one that still feels reasonably “modern” to enjoy!

More about the Ridge Racer series

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