Ridge Racer: Unbounded collides with free-to-play in Driftopia – what’s the damage?

Ridge Racer: Unbounded, Bugbear’s bold reinvention of Namco’s racing series, was about taking chances. The world was disposable and destructible; the vehicles blunt, unglamorous instruments to be used to smash, crash and crush your way to victory and unlock the next set of stages. It was rough, rugged and understandably divisive, abandoning the brand’s established core pillars of smooth racing lines, sunset vistas and a forgiving learning curve.

It was also divisive due to a lack of user-friendliness. Menus were bare bones, tutorials practically non-existent and the rules of the road – destroy scenery to fill the boost bar required to obliterate shortcuts – encouraged aggression and rewarded recklessness.

Remixing and retro-fitting Unbounded as a free-to-play game – whose business model is all about accessibility and monetised customisations – can’t have been an easy task for Bugbear, then, and the pervading sense during our time in the closed beta is that Driftopia currently compromises what went before to cater to its new monetisation methods.

The aim is still the same – earn points through victory, this time against other players’ ghosts, to unlock new stages – but there are tweaks to the Unbounded formula that muzzle its old bite. For a start, shortcuts no longer need boost to blast through; you’re free to smash through them as a means to generate boost rather than using them only as an avenue to expend it. And there’s now a garage and repair system that requires you to purchase new vehicles and upgrade them with randomly awarded perks such as more powerful boosts, greater airtime and more points for drifting.

Most damaging of all is the introduction of Repair Kits; here, a crash doesn’t mean the loss of a few seconds, but the immediate end of a race. Run out of repair kits and you lose your car for good and it’s back to the store. Repair kits cost 99p for 50 from the in-game store, but it takes an average of 10 for a single restart and the biggest bundle of 3000 costs £19.99. It’s a mechanic that means your car will often burst into flames after a minor side-on bump into some trackside scenery, and is further undermined by collision issues and bugs which cause you to randomly flip and fly sky-high on the slightest of curbs. In a bid to counter this constant restarting, tracks are short and sharp chunks of Unbounded’s sprawling circuits, but it can’t compensate for the fact that you’re now generally discouraged from taking chances lest it cost you some real cash, and it results in Driftopia’s races feeling positively pedestrian at times.

Unbounded’s structure and flow may have been savaged by Driftopia’s new structural approach, but the handling model has been transplanted entirely and remains a joy to wrestle with. Cars feel weighty and dangerous, like vehicular wrecking balls, and both the roadsters and the stages have been visually refreshed – everything is shinier, sharper and brighter with a more varied palette – providing a clearer and more attractive route through all the cross-town traffic.

While cars can be upgraded and levelled, it’s your overall career rank that grants access to new stages and rewards. Cleverly, if you set a strong leaderboard score on a specific track and other players then compete against your ghost, you’ll acquire valuable career points even when offline.

Despite such deft touches, Driftopia ultimately feels convoluted by its myriad systems and monetising methods, obscuring the hard-hitting game underneath. Where Unbounded was a game of unrestrained brawn, Driftopia currently has too much of a brain for business: gone is the simple, singular ride of last year and instead we have a game of risk aversion rather than reckless abandon. This is Bugbear’s Ridge Racer bounded by free-to-play, and you can almost feel the tension with every roar of the engine.

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