Ridge Racer Unbounded: The Black Sheep

Over the last decade, we’ve seen a lot of series attempt to “reboot” themselves for one reason or another.

In many cases, this is an excuse to go back to older games and remake them with a more modern aesthetic or gameplay conventions, but in others, it is in an attempt to completely reinvent the series for one reason or another — usually as an attempt to respond to the ever-present phantom that is “market forces”.

The Ridge Racer series underwent such a reboot in 2012 with Unbounded. Not only was this an attempt to turn the ageing franchise on its head, it marked a shift in development strategy, too; Unbounded was developed not by Namco itself, but by Bugbear Entertainment, a Finnish outfit who had previously been responsible for the FlatOut series and Sega Rally Revo on the PSP.

In many ways, Ridge Racer Unbounded feels like the series’ response to a number of popular trends in gaming from the time of its release — both in terms of how it plays and how it looks.

Gone, for example, is the series trademark varied palette of bright primary colours — although admittedly this had been gradually becoming more muted and realistic as the series went on — and instead we have the city of “Shatter Bay”, clad in perpetual twilight and the orange glow of sodium-vapour street lights.

Gone, too, is the smooth, loose, satisfying arcade handling that had been refined between Ridge Racer V and 7, replaced with cars that feel noticeably heavier and chunkier. There’s still a strong emphasis on drifting around corners, but now rather than this simply being a side-effect of throwing the car around a bend, it takes the distinctly Western racer-style approach of requiring the use of a handbrake button and wrestling with the wheel to regain control.

Gone, even, is the static and informative in-race interface, replaced instead with a popular aesthetic for 2012 games: a minimalist HUD that wobbled around as if it was floating in front of the camera lens, with other pertinent information projected directly onto walls and buildings in the game world.

And gone is the series’ traditional approach to progression, in which you had to win certain events to unlock specific content. Instead, as most games from 2012 did in an attempt to ape the explosion in popularity the Call of Duty series had enjoyed since its fourth installment in 2007, the game makes use of a levelling system, allowing for even the most incompetent player to eventually unlock everything with enough persistence. Like in Call of Duty, earning points to level up wasn’t solely dependent on victory; you earned rewards for pretty much everything you did during gameplay, though you of course scored more points the better you performed.

Newly present and central to this installment is a focus on chaotic, destructive driving. Some suggest that Unbounded is a spiritual successor to Namco’s mediocre 2005 Japan-only PS2 combat racer Critical Velocity, which included vehicles from Ridge Racer. But it’s more likely that the game, being Western-developed, was inspired by the success of Criterion’s Burnout series, which had been largely dormant since 2008’s excellent Burnout Paradise, and the positive critical reception Black Rock Studio’s 2010 masterpiece Split/Second had received despite its tragically abysmal sales figures. In many ways, Ridge Racer Unbounded feels like the sequel these two games never got; there’s the aggressive racing of Burnout combined with the spectacular environmental destruction and setpieces of Split/Second. Should be a winning combination, right?

Well, yes… apart from the fact that it was such a quantum shift away from what the Ridge Racer series had always been about it’s honestly surprising Namco decided to put the Ridge Racer name on it rather than attempting to launch a new franchise — or indeed resurrect the Critical Velocity name. There’s no Ridge City. No Reiko Nagase. No announcer bellowing at you over the course of the whole race. On the plus side, however, there are also no invincible AI racers who always come off better than you in a crash, sailing off over the horizon as you slow to a crawl; now you can well and truly wreck their shit at every opportunity, and are indeed encouraged to do so. Revenge is oh so sweet.

Unbounded’s shift away from what made Ridge Racer into Ridge Racer doesn’t mean it was a bad game at all, mind you. In fact, as this style of racer goes, Unbounded is a very good successor to its clear sources of inspiration. It’s got weighty handling, impacts with a real “crunch” to them, a wide variety of challenges and a strong sense of spectacle. Much like Criterion’s classics, every takedown (or “frag” as they’re called here) of a rival is accompanied by a satisfying slow-motion cutaway showing your destruction, and the ability to smash through walls and windows on marked “city targets” to unlock shortcuts has a thrilling “action movie” feel to it. Indeed, “collecting” all the city targets becomes something of a metagame to the whole thing, and given the modular nature of the game’s tracks — more on that in a moment — it becomes increasingly important to be able to spot these potential timesavers when they appear ahead of you as the difficulty ramps up.

It’s not just about smashing everything up, mind you; the game features a number of different event types to keep things interesting. Domination races are your standard Burnout-type affair, in which you can use “power” earned via drifting or small-scale destruction to either blast through opponents or smash city targets. Shindo races are straight-up races in which you drive high-powered sports cars and can only use a nitro boost rather than the destructive “power” of Domination races. Frag Attack events put you in a big truck and challenge you to blow up police cars against the clock. Drift Attack events require you to score points and top up the timer through long, controlled drifts. And the game’s take on Time Attack pits you against elaborate TrackMania-style stunt courses in which you can temporarily freeze the timer by collecting awkwardly positioned tokens.

The single-player mode sees you attempting to dominate the entirety of Shatter Bay by completing a sequence of events in each district of the city. Each district has its own distinctive aesthetic; the overall look of the game is still very much the distinctly 2012 “orange twilight with a whole lot of glare”, but each area has enough character to make it feel like you’re progressing as you continue to work your way through the game. The game also features non-linear progression; after a few races, you’ll have unlocked enough other events to give you plenty of alternative activities if you find an individual discipline particularly challenging.

One of the game’s biggest selling points when it was first announced was the addition of a track editor and the ability to share your creations online, leading to a potentially never-ending array of challenges to play even once you had beaten the substantial single-player campaign. Unfortunately the latter aspect is now defunct, since the servers were shut down in 2015 much to the chagrin of the enthusiastic and prolific community — and the fact the game’s automatic attempts to connect on startup were never patched out continues to rustle jimmies to this day if Steam reviews are any indicator. The track editor itself is still present and correct though, allowing you to make use of various city blocks you unlock through the single player campaign to create your own custom challenges. It’s purely for your own amusement now, however.

The track editor is very simple to use but surprisingly powerful, allowing you to set up a basic structure for a circuit using large blocks, then elaborating on it by adding additional obstacles and interactive elements. It becomes clear after a few minutes of using the editor that the rest of the game was clearly built using this tool, and this isn’t a criticism, by any means — if anything, this is one aspect where we feel a slight connection to Ridge Racer’s past, in that the use of set modular city blocks rather than completely hand-crafted tracks gives a strong feeling of racing different routes around the same environments, much as we’ve always done in previous installments.

Ultimately, though, without the online component of the game — and without any particularly easy way to share your creations via other means, most noticeable on the console editions — this aspect of the game’s importance and value is considerably diminished; the day the servers went down, the track editor went from core feature to largely pointless albeit entertaining distraction, and now simply stands as a sobering reminder that many games with online features that we take for granted while they are “current” will one day end up a shadow of their former selves.

In fact, the fate of Unbounded as a whole kind of sums where the Ridge Racer series as a whole ultimately ended up; it just sort of fizzled out, largely, it seems, due to publisher Bandai Namco not really knowing what to do with it any more, nor what modern gamers actually wanted from it.

Unbounded was complemented by a free-to-play online-centric version called Driftopia in 2013, but it never got out of the public beta testing phase; its parent game’s multiplayer servers outlived it by a whole year. And since then, all we’ve seen out of the series is two mobile games for Android and iOS devices; there wasn’t even a new Ridge Racer to accompany the PlayStation 4’s 2013 launch, bringing the series’ 20-year tradition of launching Sony consoles to a rather quiet and underwhelming close.

Unbounded was by no means a bad game to mark the series’ last hurrah on consoles. It was just… a very strange one, when taken in context of everything that came before. It’s still eminently worth playing, particularly if you ever enjoyed the games that obviously inspired it, but one can only wonder if we’d be playing a Ridge Racer 9 or 10 by now if it had taken a more conventional approach.

I guess we’ll never know. For now, Unbounded remains an enjoyable game on its own terms — albeit one that has lost some of its lustre due to the defunct online component — and a rather interesting curio that serves as a perfect snapshot of what the games industry as a whole looked like in 2012.


More about the Ridge Racer series

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2 thoughts on “Ridge Racer Unbounded: The Black Sheep”

  1. I have played this one too, and you are right in calling this a black sheep. Itbwas a strange game, not bad, but just so many miles away from what the original game was, that one has to wonder why they called it Ridge Racer in the first place. Still the game certainly had a couple of things going for it. Great post! 😀

    Like

    1. Thank you! I still really like this game, even though it’s half-dead with its online functionality broken. Such a strange decision, though — but as I say, I feel it was a conscious attempt to muscle in on the territory other “blockbuster” games were exploring at the time, particularly in terms of its aesthetic.

      A lesson that you should not always follow the crowd, perhaps. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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