Developer: Bugbear Entertainment / Publisher: Namco Bandai Games / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Teen [Mild Language, Mild Violence]
If you’ve felt every day of the six years since Ridge Racer 7 and Burnout Revenge, I’ll save you the trouble of some-1,000 words. Go pick up Ridge Racer Unbounded and enjoy a great return to form for destructive arcade racing.
Not only does the game hit an awesome mix of skill-based drifting and blowing shit up, but it also provides a surprisingly capable track editor that extends the online play of the game nearly indefinitely.
The game’s cover art with a car shattering through a concrete barrier might lead you to believe this game is pure arcade racing in the vein of Burnout, but it requires a surprising amount of skill. This is a game about cornering and mastering the controls of a drift to squeeze through a turn while maintaining your speed.
Nailing a tight racing line is the best feeling; turning 90 degrees before entering a corner and just grazing your front bumper against the inside edge of the turn unlocks a burst of powerful endorphins. Speed exiting a corner translates to gains in the following straights, which also become dangerous knife fights when you factor in the game’s boost power.
Rather than operate as a replenishing resource a la Burnout, boost in Unbounded comes as one burst when your meter is filled with drifting, catching air, or causing collateral damage to the game’s tracks. Once activated, you get the expected speed boost along with the ability to wreck your opponents or ram through destructible set pieces littered along the track. This echoes Split / Second, as you can blast through a cafe, TV station, and a number of other buildings to create a more direct path through a course.
While Unbounded’s level of destruction doesn’t reach the absurd levels of Split / Second, and its sense of speed and carnage doesn’t match that of Burnout Revenge, the game hits a nice middle ground between the two while mixing in Ridge Racer’s trademark drifting. A large part of that satisfaction lies in the game’s difficulty.
This is not a cakewalk, and you’ll probably rank in at the bottom the first time you race on a new track. Retrying a course over and over, iterating on that one problem corner until you nail it took me back to the days of Metropolis Street Racer.
There’s also no rubberband AI, but before you shout hallelujah realize that cuts both ways. You can build up a considerable lead if you know how to drive, but on some of the higher difficulties, one serious mistake will ruin your chance of a podium finish.
The single player campaign is your standard series of events in different modes and environments. The domination race is the standard mode as described, while others tone down the combative driving. Shindo racing removes the destructive slant to your boost, meaning that you can’t rely on knocking out your opponents or creating shortcuts to win.
Frag attack is the inverse, granting you regenerating boost and ranking you on kills rather than time. Every mode has a place in the game and can be enjoyed in its own right, though frag attack’s simplicity make it just a fun novelty.
I enjoyed the single player of Unbounded in its own right, but the game’s multiplayer offers a fantastic track editor that opens up online play to near-Trackmania levels of racing absurdity. The track creator is extremely easy to use. As you beat tracks in single player, you unlock the building blocks of tracks. Constructing a track is as simple as throwing the blocks together on a grid, and the editor smartly labels what blocks match and which don’t.
From there you can enter an advanced editor, which will let you fly through your track adding stacks of explosive barrels, ramps, and other standard track chunks. The entire process is gated by one efficient rule — you have to beat your own track before you can publish it.
Of course, the Internet is king of taking simple tools and inventing the absurd. I’ve raced through tunnels in the sky and courses so filled with ramps the ground may as well have been one giant trampoline. Playing online is like an Easter egg hunt — sometimes you get that gross waxy candy that’s supposed to be peanut butter and sometimes you get a fun size Snickers, but either way discovering the unknown is consistently interesting.
That’s as long as you’re exploring with AI companions, though. The game does allow you to play against humans on user-generated tracks… but that means you’re playing against other humans. 90 percent of the players I found were mindlessly aggressive, ramming me over and over before spinning out and quitting the game.
I really wanted to play the mode where you and a group of other racers play a circuit of generated tracks, but the racers I found never stuck around for more than one race. As usual, the greatest problem with multiplayer is that you have to play it with other people.
Unbounded’s controls are all about the drift, and boy did they get it right. Drifting in Unbounded isn’t immediately friendly, especially if you’re expecting the approachable physics of Burnout. However, once you play with it a little, there’s a tangible explosion of pleasure in killing a racing line.
Drift also differentiates the cars, as rear-wheel, front-wheel, and four-wheel cars all drift extremely differently. I also want to call attention to an often-overlooked control that Unbounded hit — race restarts happen instantly, which is vital in a game like this.
The advanced track editor controls well enough, but it offers no control customization. I’d kill for inverted camera in this mode, or at least the ability to remap some of the camera controls. You pan the camera with the left stick and raise and lower with the d-pad… which means you can’t do both at the same time, making camera positioning awkward. I’d have loved to move the camera Y axis to the bumpers, but no dice.
VISUALS AND SOUND
Unbounded showcases small-scale destruction extremely well. Every time you frag an opponent, you’re treated to a slow-motion vignette of that car spinning through debris and smashing through breakable walls sprinkled along the sides of the tracks. Sound effects accompany this well, with explosions and shattering concrete selling the carnage.
I especially like the race prompts that wrap around the world’s geometry similar to Splinter Cell: Conviction. Not only does it look cool, but the giant projection of your race time also gives you a handy indicator of a corner’s location.
I enjoyed the soundtrack too, though the tracklist is shallow. I’d heard all the game’s music around 45 minutes in, and became well tired of those tracks by the five hour mark. There is a heartwarming meeting of East and West here, with tracks from Skrillex and The Crystal Method mixed in with returning Japanese composers like Sampling Masters MEGA.
The music’s not bad by any means, there’s just not enough of it, and you’ll likely lean on your console’s ability to play external music before long.
Ridge Racer: Unbounded is incredibly fun to play, but appraising its total value is problematic. The game’s long-term entertainment value is tied up in multiplayer, and while I’m confident the user-generated tracks will always yield new and interesting experiences, playing with other players won’t so much.
Regardless, this is a must-play for anyone with wistful memories of arcade racing or those yearning for a racer with teeth.