Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360 (previewed)
Developer: Bugbear Entertainment
Publisher: Namco Bandai
There's going to be a very obvious point of comparison when Ridge Racer: Unbounded emerges later this month. Those who take their speedy racing with a healthy dose of adrenaline-fuelled boosting, and car crashes that would make Michael Bay weep tears of joy, will find solace here. But we've seen all of this before, thanks to a studio called Criterion.
There's no Ridge City in this game. No scything raceways through valleys and mountain passes, verdant countryside and untouched beaches. No sign of Reiko Nagase. It's a bit disconcerting. For a Ridge Racer title, this looks awfully like bits of Burnout Paradise or Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit.
Then again, if you're going to take inspiration from somewhere, your sources should probably be of the highest quality.
Jon already gave a detailed overview of the game's core mechanics in his earlier Ridge Racer Unbounded preview, but here's a little refresher. Set on the streets of the fictional Shatter Bay, the basic backstory pits you as a member of underground racing gang - The Unbounded - who've gone and modded their cars to be able to smash through city structures, taking out concrete pillars, hurtling through brick walls, and thumping into explosive trucks and petrol stations.
Your power bar, the source of your wrecking ability, is filled through typically daring ventures like skilful drifting, grabbing airtime, and also simply by working your way up the pack during races. Depending on the type of race you're in, your power meter will allow you to smash your way through city landmarks for maximum points, with every bit of destruction you leave in your wake counting towards a points tally and a grade at the end. There are three tiers of stars to attain, and a top score to beat. Net that, and the race you've just run is slapped by a big 'Dominated' tag.
The Power bar has one other use too. Just as you can employ the boost to take down buildings, so too can it be used to neutralise your opponents. Fire up the Power bar with a fellow racer in front of them, and you're likely to turn them into a screeching husk of flame and metal. The damage modelling might not quite be as precisely visceral as Criterion's, nor as lovingly focused, but watching the charred skeletons of your adversaries backflip in slow-motion into oncoming cars, netting you plentiful points, is particularly satisfying.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in a race I unlocked towards the end of my hour-long period with the game. As well as Shindo Racing ("pure" racing, no frags) and Domination events (pretty much anything goes), there are Frag challenge events that see you competing against the clock to attain a certain number of frags. This particular event saw you in the cabin of an 18-wheeler, fending off the attentions of constantly spawning cop cars. The top tier target was 25 frags. I'd cleared 35 police cars off the road with half a minute to go, chaining Power boosts together for maximum explosive fun.
Shatter Bay has a number of districts, each with unlockable events to net you more stars, more points, more cars, and more building blocks for the all-new creation suite. As you progress, you'll grow in rank and stature, enabling you to take on more fiendish competition and dominate further parts of the city.
On the track, Unbounded still feels a little bit off. Whilst incredibly fun to smash through buildings and takedown other cars, multiple routes and the violent removal of opposing racers are things we've certainly seen before, although not in this series, it must be said. There's none of the blistering speed, nor car crash porn, of Burnout, and although the title would suggest a certain amount of unshackling, it's hard not to feel as if Bugbear have found themselves a little constrained, perhaps by the existing franchise, in a way that they weren't with their own destruction derby series - FlatOut.
But there's still much here to pique the curiosity, and the on track action is fun enough to warrant a second glance because of the other two game modes. Dominate Shatter Bay is basically the career/story/campaign mode of the game, that sees you working your way up from bottom to top. Dominate The World is a different kettle of fish entirely. Coupled with the City Creator, this mode allows people from all over the world to construct their own tracks, set their own challenges, and publish them online. It's here, perhaps, not on the track, that Ridge Racer Unbounded really lives up to its name.
Track creation is a simple matter: you have a grid, you have different kinds of blocks of track, and you have a budget. The only two constraints are really the latter, and the fact that everything has ton match up. You can't simply stick a freeway tile next to a backstreets chicane, you need entry and exit points. But it's all highly intuitive and easy to get to grips with. Once the track is outlined, you can freely drive around, pulling out at any moment to an aerial view to tweak your raceway with additional items like jumps and obstacles, bundles of exploding barrels and tankers to crash into. It's not quite the plethora of options available to the Media Molecule crowd, but it's impressive nonetheless.
It's this that makes the game such as exciting prospect, with the possibility of adding to those bulding blocks with new settings, track parts, items and obstacles. The possibilities approach endless, but only if Bugbear and Namco Bandai can make the most of the opportunity. At the moment Unbounded stands slightly uncomfortably between the three pillars of Ridge Racer, Burnout and FlatOut. But the social suite could give this game it's own identity. Shatter Bay might not particularly stand out from the crowd, but with a wealth of options at our disposal, you and I could certainly make it happen for Unbounded.
Whether or not that happens, though, remains to be seen, and it's a little worrying to see the code prove so buggy this close to launch. Let's hope this gets cleared up by the end of the month.
Ridge Racer Unbounded is due for release on PC, PS3 and X360 on March 30th.