This review will appear in full in our next issue, E240, which is out April 11, alongside an interview with producer Joonas Laakso about how the game came together.
Namco Bandai’s decision to entrust the licence of its chic arcade title Ridge Racer to FlatOut creator Bugbear showed remarkable confidence. Turns out it bet on the right studio. Joonas Laakso and his team have gripped Ridge Racer by the scruff of the neck and whipped the game into action-racing relevancy.
This is Ridge Racer inverted. No longer about endless, forgiving drifts, Unbounded is all about controlling chaos. Build your power meter to bursting, then unload it by slicing through scenery, smashing track-specific walls and obstructions to rack up points. Conversely, you can use it simply as a speed boost, or a means of taking down rivals. Any given session throws up shades of Split Second: Velocity’s explosive set-pieces, as well as Burnout’s slow-motion car crumpling and, of course, visual reflections of classic Ridge Racer’s showroom shimmer, but there’s never any doubt that this is Bugbear’s own opus.
The singleplayer takes place across Shatter Bay – a spot weld of top-tier American cities from New York to San Francisco, which Unbounded carves into playable districts. You unlock new challenges by accumulating points across various events. Domination races are most prevalent, the objective being to smash, crash and collide your way to the finish. Collateral damage impacts campaign progress as much as coming in first so prepare to balance your commitment to carnage with your focus on the finish. Tracks need to be memorised not only for their layout, but also their destructible elements. To know the hierarchy of Unbounded’s carefully arranged scenery is to master the game and to be able to outwit its fierce AI drivers. Initially, it’s incomprehensible: some walls crumble to dust, while others stop you dead in your tracks. But once you’ve deciphered the plethora of assets, the sense of empowerment and achievement is up there with the genre’s best, and accompanied by the thunderous beating of your pulse.
Domination mode is the singleplayer’s bread and butter, but the game’s other trials deliver equal doses of metal-twisting madness. Time Attacks give Bugbear an excuse to carry over its car-flipping ramp fetish from FlatOut, Frag Attacks are takedown challenges, while Drift Attacks are all about drawing perfect crescents with your tyres. Unbounded offers a carefully considered mixture of modes that never feels cheap or disposable, each making use of the game’s weighty physics and the team’s rock-solid proprietary tech.
Bugbear has been playing around with physics and destructible environments for years, but here it’s struck the perfect balance between realism and exaggeration. Destroyable objects react to your bumper as you’d expect, yet don’t fatally slow you down. Civilian traffic never thwarts your advantage, flipping out of your way and often smashing into the windscreen of your rivals. It helps that the framerate is so smooth, never stuttering despite the constant presence of debris.
Tracks may be littered with the remains of the fray, but the HUD and visual motifs remain clean, concise and stylish. Lap information and timings are frequently projected onto the scenery to save you the precious, game-changing milliseconds a glance at the top of the screen might cost you. Ridge Racer’s iconic streaking tail lights (present only during boosts) tell you where and when to drift, highlighting shortcuts when you’re at full cement-ploughing power.
Heavy handling, which carries more DNA from FlatOut than it does from classic Ridge Racer, presents a tough learning curve, especially for those unacquainted with Bugbear, but the game’s infrastructure lends a helping hand to struggling players. Finishing a race, whether you end up in pole or pitiful position, still grants valuable points depending on how successfully you misbehave. Ranking up your profile unlocks new vehicles, which can also help you to get back in the game and kick starts the process of unlocking those new challenges and districts.
But it’s not just places and powerful motors you’re after; progress feeds into the track editor, opening up new map pieces for you to patch into your own city. The editor is no last-minute addition: it’s a Forge-calibre DIY tool that enables you to publish your own creation, populated with all the jumps, obstacles and mayhem you can pack into the generous grid space. You can set event objectives, too, meaning that if the game’s brilliant, brutal gauntlets aren’t to your liking, you can effectively design your own campaign for you and others to enjoy and destroy.
This, then, is the game Bugbear has been working towards for the past decade, delivered with pedal-flooring confidence and made possible thanks to what initially seemed an unlikely collaboration between a Japanese publisher and Scandinavian developer. At a time when Japan seems determined to reach out to other territories with its intellectual property, it’s also the most shining example yet of how to handpick a third party and provide it with the freedom and support to get it right on its own terms. Ridge Racer fans’ first reaction may be to cry blasphemy at the rough, rugged world of Unbounded, but this new direction is refreshing and vital to a licence that hasn’t been a legitimate contender since its glory days.
The action-racing genre has delivered numerous treats this generation, but not one of them has been as rewarding and relentlessly entertaining, nor as feature-packed, as this. This is Ridge Racer unbounded from the shackles of its heritage, rebuilt from the ground up into one of the most subversive, sublime street-racing games ever made.