As a long-time fan of both the Ridge Racer series and developer Bugbear, the news that they were merging piqued my interested in Unbounded ten-fold. When the culmination finally arrived, I was in shock. This was definitely not your typical Bugbear title, nor is it anything even closely resembling a Ridge Racer game. Instead this entry in the long-running series feels more like a mix between Burnout and Split/Second, focusing more on taking down opponents in combination with an incredible sense of destruction. At the end of the day, the only thing you need to remember about Unbounded is that the Ridge Racer moniker is something you should simply ignore.
One of the first things that jumped out at me with Unbounded was its straightforwardness. The game doesn’t confuse you with various menus and confusing objectives. Instead, you get a menu with four options, all straightforward with no frills. You can choose to Dominate Shatter Bay, Dominate the World, Create a City or View Your Progress. I love it. The simplicity is refreshing, and instead, keeps the focus on the slick visual style. From lap progress appearing inside turns, to the streaks from the back of your car when you boost ahead, Unbounded definitely has style.
The game’s single player is broken down into various race types. Domination is the main attraction and, by far, the most entertaining. Here, you slam through each track, fragging opponents and drifting your way to victory. Drifting and destroying items will earn you “boost” meter, as will catching massive air. When in a Domination race, it is more like a power boost as opposed to a speed boost. You can smash through pre-determined areas to unlock shortcuts or simply plow through the competition, literally. The other modes definitely don’t offer up as much fun as Domination, but they do their job of breaking up the monotony.
Shindo racing is exactly that, just pure racing without frags and as much focus on destruction. You also earn traditional boost here that gives you speed increases. Drift Attack is, again, aptly named. Here, you focus on drifting around corners for extended periods of time, racking up points and time bonuses for longer drifts. Frag Attack is, also, much like it sounds, forcing you to wipe out opponents, while Time Attack takes a new spin on the formula by tossing you into crazy stunt tracks and collecting time bonuses. Like I said, these modes are great diversions, but the star of the show is Domination.
The track selection is an interesting mix, because of the fact that the game includes the aforementioned track editor. Every single locale in the game was built using the editor, which in turn can cause some of them to feel a little same-y. Once you start opening up more of the areas, though, it does give way to some interesting design. When the props are all derived from one familiar pot, it is hard to mask it entirely.
This brings me to the probably the most important, and least advertised part of Unbounded: its track editor. Now, only a week before the game released did I even know the game actually had a track editor. With promises of Trackmania-style designs, this bumped my interest in the game from mild curiousity to downright stoked. I love me some Trackmania, and if we could get it on an HD console, I would be thrilled. Unbounded’s City Builder is definitely flexible, and you can share any of your creations online with the world, but Trackmania, this isn’t. That doesn’t take away from the game, though. Some creations online rival the included tracks, and to be fair, I spent much more time online with those tracks as opposed to the ones included in the box.
The sharing system is simple: create your track, edit the events and set scores, and then publish it to the world. The basic editor allows you to lay down your design in a grid, and then zoom in with the advanced editor to add jumps and obstacles for players. It really is rather ingenious and well designed. You can have diverse tracks up in minutes, or simply create ovals for you and your friends to frag on. The system is quick and intuitive and lets anyone of any skill create new tracks. The sorting system is also well done, allowing you to see the hottest tracks, the most recent, or search by keywords. While the community isn’t exactly popping at the seams, there is a very nice selection of diverse tracks to choose from.
It is also worth mentioning that standard online play is also present, and matches are fairly stable, but finding opponents will prove to be the real challenge. Most people are creating and sharing cities or competing in events within the created cities. The actual competitive online mode is pretty barren as of this writing. The City Creator simply trumps it as the most appealing bullet point in this package.
At this point, you are probably wondering why the game didn’t score even higher after all of these glowing points. That is simple: learning curve. This game is punishing. First, let’s discuss the actual handling of the cars. Unlike previous Ridge Racer games, the cars in Unbounded feel much more weighty. Letting off the gas and tapping it again to drift is no longer the norm. Instead, you have a dedicated drift button for that very purpose. It sounds good in design, and when you master it, it is immensely rewarding, but until then, you will pay for it. The AI is relentless, and one mistake can cost you to drop from first to last far too often and in a matter of seconds.
Still, once you learn the drift mechanic, the game opens up. Dominating events is a challenge, and required if you want to unlock all the city locations. You earn XP for each event, and leveling up earns you new cars and blocks for the City Creator. If you don’t mind just toying with that aspect, domination is not required. Still, the races are short enough, and the controls satisfying enough, that replaying races really isn’t that big of a deal. Just be warned that you will have to learn all the tracks as well as the nuances in the mechanics in order to win every single event.
Visually, the game is slick. The frame rate keeps a constant 30 fps, while the slick style makes everything feel seamless. The sense of speed is fantastic, and seeing the destruction in some areas really drives home the arcade feel. As I mentioned, the track design can feel a bit underwhelming or monotonous at times, but the slick interface and steady frame rate do make up for it. The soundtrack is the only thing that feels pseudo Ridge Racer, with thumping dub-step from acts like Skrillex, but also tosses in some classic tunes from games past for the loyal fans.
Ridge Racer Unbounded might be one of the biggest missteps of this generation. Not because it is a bad game, in fact far from it, but because of the lack of explanation and more importantly, the dearth of advertising it has received. Fans of Ridge Racer are bound to be confused at the changes, while those that would certainly enjoy a game like this have probably never even heard of it, or if they have, passed on it because of the Ridge Racer moniker. Either way, more people need to give the game a chance and really dig into it. The mix of slick visuals, Ridge Racer tunes, wanton destruction and track creations make this a must-own game for any racing game fan. That is, of course, as long as you can handle the steep learning curve.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.