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Ridge Racer: Unbounded champions 'accessible racing'

Namco-Bandai unveils a very different take on Ridge Racer, masterminded by Finnish studio Bugbear. We talk to producer Joonas Laakso about what it's trying to achieve.

I have a problem with Ridge Racer: Unbounded, and that problem is that I'm pretty sure “unbounded” isn't a real word. When Bugbear Entertainment's Joonas Laakso presented the game to a group of journalists in Dubai a few weeks ago, there was a brief five-way argument about this. I still think the opposite of “bound” is “unbound”, but Joonas argues that the title refers to the loosely organised group of street racers that star in the game, who are known as “the Unbounded”. Either way: not a word. But then, neither is “Soulcalibur”.

Anyway, it's not the problem that most people on the Internet seem to have with Unbounded, which is that it's not Ridge Racer 8. It's a new direction for the series, an arcade racer where you drive through buildings in slow motion rather than drifting elegantly around enormous sweeping curves in an effort to fill your boost gauge.

None of the elements that traditionally define a Ridge Racer game are present. We see no boost gauge at all, in fact, and no drifting, and no reappearances of the iconic tracks that have recurred in practically every Ridge Racer game since time began. It's more along the lines of Split/Second (or, to a lesser extent, Burnout), and fits in nicely with a growing, jostling community of spectacular, accessible, destruction-focussed racers.

A different mould

Joonas makes no bones of the fact that Unbounded has little in common with the franchise whose name it bears. “What we did was take the Ridge Racer franchise and find the things that we can use naturally. But we didn't bring anything over wholesale,” he says. “It was always something that we looked at, and then made our own version, and that seems to be what Namco Bandai is after.”

Instead of laid-back, dreamy, almost spiritual drift racing, then, we have quite aggressive, in-your-face street racing, with the tagline “Drive, Destroy, Dominate”. As you race the tracks, little yellow icons indicate pieces of the track that can be driven through or destroyed. Activating destruction power then sends you crashing through a wall, building or billboard in gratuitous slow motion, unlocking the shortcut for the next circuit or setting up a trap for racers behind you.

Anything smaller or lighter than a car can be driven over (or through) with no adverse effects to your own vehicle. In this hands-off demonstration, pieces of track are flying all over the place – you can drive straight through things that would crumple the car immediately in any other racer.

“We spent a lot of time making sure that the environmental destruction actually has an effect on the race, that it plays a role in how you do,” says Laakso, eager to dismiss the suspicion that it's all just for show. “You have to be able to manage the whole. It's not like two separate things – you can't play the game just as a pure racer, you're also going to have to be able to take the environment into account.”

The nicest thing about Unbounded at the moment is its presentation. There's no HUD whatsoever. Information like your current position, lap times et cetera appear on buildings on the background as you drive past, rather than sitting permanently in a corner of the screen. It's disconcerting at first, but it's a cool effect.

“I think that the more accessible side of racing games is going through a bit of a crisis at the moment,” says Joonas. “I'm very happy that NFS Hot Pursuit did well; if it hadn't I'd be very worried at this point. There still seems to be a demand for this easier to play, more accessible driving experience.

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"This is gonna hurt," apparently. We're not arguing.

“Shift's been interesting, they've been doing well with the sim side of things, but I don't see games like that and GT as our competition. There's an audience out there that wants to go fast, wreck something, enjoy the exhilaration, not so much the technical execution of how you're driving. Ridge Racer games are hardcore. We've tried to keep that intensity, but make it a bit more accessible. In order to do well, you have to be super-focussed, but we think we've found ways to do that without making it very difficult to play. It's about making sure that the gameplay itself is deep enough to keep the attention for a long time, rather than it being purely about spectacle.”

There's a fairly mixed history for Japanese franchises that are given over to Western developers for reinvention, though – for every Metroid by Retro Studios or Dead Rising 2 by Blue Castle, there's a Bionic Commando by GRIN, languishing in obscurity. “I was really worried about that, I thought there must be some reason why that never seems to work out,” laughs Laakson.

“Maybe they've been too hands-off. We're really happy that we have such a direct line to the production team in Japan, and that they've been so vocal about what they like and don't like, what sort of changes they want to see. We have been able to find a common tune in most things pretty quickly. It's been much easier than expected, considering that we don't have a common language and everything has to go through the French.

“Namco Bandai have been in on all the visuals design decisions. Everything is going through Japan, it's not something that we are doing alone in Finland without talking to anybody.”

When I ask Laakson what actually makes Unbounded a Ridge Racer game, he's silent for a good thirty seconds. “I should have thought about that before,” he says. “To me it's the trust that Namco Bandai is putting with us to deliver a new Ridge Racer for today's audience. I guess they want to see if there's a new audience that can find Ridge Racer for the first time. A lot of the gamers in our target group aren't familiar with it.”

There's a lot that Bugbear can't show us yet. With a 2012 release date, there's a lot more drip-feeding to be done. We're given tantalising hints about innovative multiplayer, and something approaching an Autolog system that is fast becoming a standard feature for the modern racer. Laakson hopes that players will be comfortable enough with what his studio has done with the franchise to really engage with the new things that Unbounded is trying to do.

“I think it's okay if you don't want your favourite franchise to ever change, and I hope that Namco Bandai is going to give them what they want down the line,” he says. “You can be angry and disappointed that we are not doing Ridge Racer 8, but I hope you find it in your heart to play the game we are making, and give us a chance.”

Ridge Racer: Unbounded releases for PS3 and 360 in 2012.

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