In a tiny, decrepit room deep in the bowels of a decaying abandoned office complex, a small group of game journalists held their breath as a beautiful sports car charted a course for destruction. The fictional supercar gracefully drifted around a corner, i's racing livery resplendent in the sun and sparks flying up in jawdropping slow motion courtesy of a languid debug mode. It was a glorious sight to behold... but the stunning vehicle was headed towards a selection of reinforced concrete bollards that would completely destroy it. Steel met concrete in an agonizing half-second, and our breath was suddenly exhaled en masse as the supercar punched straight through the barrier, shattering the stone, denting the car and yet slowing it down one iota. Half a dozen of them yielded to the car's inexorable drift, which was followed by the developer smashing through the wall of a bank to take first place after several seconds of airtime.
When the race was over, the Bugbear developers asked us what we thought... and there was only one thing to say. "Awesome: but put the debug slow-motion mode in the full game. Do it now."
The developer laughed and informed us that we weren't the first, second or even the twelfth team of hacks to demand it. But even if it doesn't make an appearance in replays or the pause menu, Bugbear's Ridge Racer reimagining is still set to provide some seriously visceral thrills and an exciting new take on a classic franchise.
Bugbear are no slouches when it comes to racing games. FlatOut was hard as nails but extremely rewarding, and when presented with the venerable Ridge Racer series and a carte blanche to do whatever they like with it, the Finnish studio decided to focus on ludicrous destruction. Players assume the role of a prospective member of The Unbounded: a lawless street racing crew who soup up their cars with the ability to smash through absolutely anything. The core principles of Ridge Racer are still intact - which is to say that we'll still be able to drift gorgeous fictional sports cars around serpentine tracks - but the nitro boost has been replaced by a power mode that transforming your vehicle into an unstoppable battering ram.
Anything smaller than a brick wall is known as "collateral," including concrete pillars, bollards, trees and even bridge supports. Smashing through them doesn't even slow you down, and will in fact reward players with a power gauge boost and extra points that are projected dynamically onto the environment rather than an intrusive HUD. The most spectacular use for the power boost, though, are creating shortcuts by treating solid walls like papier-mache. You'll need to expend a major dose of power to take advantage of these ramps and barriers, but doing so will reward you with a slow motion view of your vehicle wrecking offices, annihilating banks and eventually erupting out of the opposite wall. The visceral thrill is up there with the finest moments from Burnout and Wheelman, though naturally there'll be now slow-mo chicanery in multiplayer.
The damage modelling is looking extremely impressive even at this early stage. Each car consists of over fifty different panels and parts that deform dynamically and individually to each impact (usually without affecting performance in any noticeable way)... and the geometry regulation is disabled once a vehicle is wrecked. This means that ramming an opponent into a barrier can crush them down to the size of a companion cube - adding a liberal dose of insult to injury. You'll be able to use a massive chunk of your power gauge to "one-shot kill" fellow racers, but doing so will limit your ability to exploit shortcuts or overtake later in the race.
I was able to catch up with a couple of the Bugbear team later on in the evening, and they were more than happy to fill me in on some choice details regarding Unbounded's development. The gorgeous visuals are provided by a tweaked version of the FlatOut engine, which has undergone multiple revisions over the last few years to provide a familiar yet capable coding environment. I was also interested to hear that Bugbear has taken criticisms of FlatOut's difficulty on board and have endeavoured to provide a shallower learning curve this time around. After all, Ridge Racer fans are used to a few easy races before moving up to the higher formulas, and after receiving internal Namco feedback about how punishing the closed-doors E3 demo was, they've decided to ratchet things down a couple of notches.
Oh, and Ridge Racer purists may be interesting to learn that Bugbear are trying to "do something really cool" regarding the original soundtracks. I'll tell you more when details become available.
Ridge Racer Unbounded may be a bold new take that's bound to rattle the hardcore fans... but whatever you do, don't count it out. Bugbear are working on an orgy of rampant destruction that's shaping up to be as fun as you could ever want from an arcade racer. We'll catch up with Unbounded at Gamescom later this month - and keep you updated by the wire.