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Drop the flag - Hands-on with Ridge Racer Unbounded

Martin Mathers checks out Namco's controversial new addition to its classic arcade racer: Ridge Racer Unbounded.

Buskers and street beggars aside, very few people actually like change. That’s why it’s so easy to appreciate why hardcore fans of Ridge Racer are incredibly disgruntled right now – the name might be the same, but Ridge Racer Unbounded couldn’t be less like Ridge Racer if it tried. Well, apart from the presence of cars, tracks and more than a little speed, that is.

As for the rest of it though, we’re talking more destruction than finesse; more mayhem than sliding round corners just millimeters from the track wall. That may be fine if it’s your bag, but let’s face it: it’s not Ridge Racer. You know that, we know that, and thankfully, it seems so does Bugbear Entertainment, the developer making it.

“What we’re creating is a new branch for Ridge Racer – it’s NOT Ridge Racer 8, which is a game I hope Namco will make at some point,” insists Joonas Laakso, Bugbear’s producer on Unbounded.

“It’s a very different game, part of the same family but a new take on what else Ridge Racer could be. It’s going to be a high-quality arcade action racing title and I think in that sense, you know what you’re getting when you pick it up. But it’s not Ridge Racer 8. I can’t be clearer on that.”

Of course, with Bugbear’s decade-long heritage being primarily built on the Flatout series though, it should be expected that its take on Ridge Racer would favour crazy physics over racing purity. But while the trailers are fairly vague in their depiction of what Unbounded offers – just as Ridge Racer trailers often are – you only have to see a few laps of the game in action to see where the main difference lies.

“What we’re bringing to the series in addition to our own driving talent is a special kind of destruction,” says Laakso.

“We’ve not just been making driving games for over a decade, we’ve also been making interactive worlds that you can basically drive through and destroy – it’s really something we know. And with Unbounded, we’ve taken the gameplay ramifications of the destruction much further.

"It’s a much more integral part of what you’re doing than in our previous games and it’s not just cosmetic, even though that side of it is also way beyond what we’ve done before.”

If you need a reference point of how Unbounded’s aggression-heavy gameplay works, think Split/Second’s risk/reward style grafted onto a rough Ridge Racer-based powersliding scaffold, then slathered liberally with Midnight Club’s inner-city style. Set in the fictional hybrid New York/Chicago setting of Shatter Bay, the main focus is still predominantly about races (so, no Burnout-style city roaming here) but there’s a sub-set inside that where the races are predominantly focused on turning your opponents into crumpled cubes of metal.

It all starts with the Power meter, a streak of grey bars that quickly fill with red as you jump, drift and slipstream your way around the course. Used in short bursts, it’s basically a turbo gauge. But fill it up entirely and target markers start appearing on the course indicating potential shortcuts, usually requiring you to smash through obstacles that would otherwise be impassable; a shop front, a concrete wall, a metal barrier, whatever.

Prefer to use your Power to ruin everyone else’s fun instead? Akin to Split/Second’s Power Plays, Unbounded’s trap system lets you create destruction that can take out other racers and potentially change the layout of the track (though not to the same level as Black Rock’s racer did). You might blow up a bunch of explosive barrels, set a series of buildings toppling domino-style or even bring an entire bridge down onto the course; according to Laakso, it’s about doing as much with physics as possible instead of using pre-drawn animation.

And if that kind of aggression isn’t enough, you could just go for the direct route and frag your opponents. Yes, we said frag – that’s Bugbear’s term for it, not ours. But as much as the moniker of ‘frag the racer’ makes us cringe awfully, the act of using an entire Power bar to wipe out another car instantly seems to at least tally up to what Unbounded is trying to achieve.

“It does match up to the sort of attitude you have to have,” says Laakso.

"You need to be very aggressive towards the other drivers."

“You need to be very aggressive towards the other drivers or they’ll just take advantage of you; you have to play dirty, you can’t just play it in a regular style. We really want to encourage a warfare-like approach… some of our references are coming from the likes of Modern Warfare anyway, where the track looks like a battlefield when you’re done with it and there’s smoke rising in your wake.”

In creating such carnage though, it’s not all about the Power meter. Dubbed ‘collateral’, Unbounded’s cars can simply plough through any part of the environment that can Bugbear deems smaller/lighter than the car you’re driving. That means minor obstacles like fire hydrants or bollards are fair game, but other less believable things like concrete bridge supports and statues will bow before the might of your bumper too. Smash through them and you’ll get points; smash someone else through them and you’ll get more.

You’ll know when you’ve scored points too, if only because Unbounded’s uniquely-designed on-screen display revels in letting you know. Branded the ‘in-world HUD’, essential information usually present in the corners of the screen instead gets layered directly onto the environment in gigantic writing. You might burn past an opponent and see your new position emblazoned along the apex of a corner ahead, or send someone into the wall and see your point bonus plastered all over the front of a nearby building. Classy.

But while it’s all very well having such destructive ability at your fingertips, it doesn’t mean much if your opponents just sit there waiting for you to dish out the punishment. Thankfully, Bugbear plans to have the other cars make as much use of advantages that Power brings as you can, rather than just sticking to the racing line.

Ridge Racer Unbounded Dubai press event trailer.

“We’re doing some pretty clever things with the AI to make sure that the player is continually challenged,” says Laakso. “We’d rather ship the game without any difficulty levels set in stone, but instead make it so that the AI adapts to the player’s skill and how well you’re doing, to ensure you’re always having a good time.

"Admittedly, it’s no fun to see you blow a corner on the last lap and have you go from first to last, but we also want to have it so that you’re never racing alone.”

And speaking of never racing alone, talk turns neatly to the subject of multiplayer. Given the pre-Alpha state of the game, it’s no surprise that the stock ‘We’re not talking about that yet…’ response pops up almost immediately, although a brief prod regarding ‘fragging’ racers suggesting Deathmatch modes at least raises an eyebrow (“I guess it would make sense…” Laakso says, sheepishly). What is surprising, however, is how much of a nerve any kind of multiplayer talk seems to strike with the development team.

“I definitely feel it’s a part that many people might not even play,” admits Laakso. “With most racers, there are very few people playing online – even with something big like Need For Speed, which usually has great multiplayer and sells pretty well, there aren’t that many people. We’ve been trying to figure out why that is and what we can do about it, because we’d hate to spend several months of design effort on something that nobody’s going to be playing a few weeks after launch.

“We think that the problem is that racers are often too skill-demanding; you only have fun if you’re at the very top of your game and if you’re not, you’re just not going to enjoy yourself because you’ll be driving alone at the back of the pack. We’re really trying to level the playing field and make the single player and multiplayer experiences feel similar, but we’ll be explaining that more in a couple of months.”

Ridge Racer Unbounded reveal trailer.

Could it be that Bugbear’s plans to create some kind of community to sustain Unbounded’s online lifespan then? It’s possible, especially when you consider that on top of Shatter Bay’s 13 distinct areas to race through, a cryptic comment regarding there also being ‘thousands of other cities to race around’ makes our ears prick up. User-created content perhaps? “Well, I think it’d be a ridiculous amount of manual labour at the studio to have us building thousands of cities, so…” trails off Laakso, smiling.

Surreptitious comments and pre-Alpha insistences aside though, we’d be mad to say that Unbounded didn’t look intriguing. No, it’s definitely not a true Ridge Racer game and in that sense, our fanboy gland is still burning with anger. But equally, it certainly looks like it might at least hold its own with the likes of Burnout, Split/Second, Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit et al.

The question, of course, is whether anyone will care enough to ensure the game is as well received as Namco Bandai needs it to be. After all, cutting off its fanbase-shaped nose to spite the franchise’s face isn’t exactly the way to ensure a successful launch. Still, with ‘several months to go until the game is anywhere near done’ (again, Laasko’s words rather than ours), there’s still enough time for Unbounded to convince the haters otherwise - well, maybe.

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