The late, great Johnny Cash used to perform a song called “One piece at a time,” which chronicled the saga of a depression era auto factory worker who took different parts from different cars for years until he had a hodgepodge of pieces that resembled his very own Cadillac. Ridge Racer Unbounded, the latest attempt to reinvent the long running racing franchise is eerily reminiscent of the country crooner's underappreciated hit -- it still resembles a proper Ridge Racer game, but it's seemingly made up of pieces and parts from other popular racing games. While the results are quite the fun surprise, you have to wonder if Ridge Racer still has a place in a genre dominated by giants like Forza and Gran Turismo.
It's very clear right from the beginning of the game that Namco Bandai aren't looking for a mere update to the series, they're ripping out the engine and replacing it with something far more menacing and supercharged. This isn't just the driving simulation franchise that you've played before, this is Ridge Racer without the rules that used to constrict it. Your car isn't as much an agent of speed as one of destruction and chaos. At any given time, entire tracks will change and buildings will crumble, becoming more reminiscent of recent racers like Split Second and Blur than anything else. It's definitely a surprising change, but is it a welcome one?
Mostly yes. The key here is that the new destruction features of Unbounded never feel like they're just tacked onto a pre-existing Ridge Racer build, and they seem right at home, and Namco Bandai not only does a great job incorporating them into the franchise; it excels at it. For each car you wreck, or building you topple, you'll earn points, meaning that even if you don't place in any single competition, you're still earning, and still making your way towards increasing your racer level, which unlocks new tracks and modes throughout the game.
Where these new features really shine are in the new Dominion tracks and Frag Events, which take the focus away from racing almost entirely and put it on destruction. Don't worry purists, the series hasn't completely abandoned its roots, events like Shindo and Drift attack are reminiscent of the series' past. Unbounded feels an awful lot like a more complete game than many updated racers do thanks to an inclusion of what can only be seen as a brand new game system.
The game features a wide and varied selection of tracks (called districts here) that add to Unbounded's charm. You'll race in everything from docks, to the inner city, to back alleys and canyons, and each one adds its fair share of challenges. Stepping into the multiplayer suite, you'll also have the option of creating your own tracks and districts and placing them within the virtual city for others to try their luck at. It's a cool little system that feels like a nice departure from the tried and true lobby mechanic.
Still though, you can't help but feel like it's all been done before. We've seen more than our fair share of destructive racers hit shelves recently, and Unbounded almost feels like the development team was forced to conform in certain ways. Yes, the cars and environments look great, but do they look any better than say..Blur? It may not be a revolutionary step, but it's quite obvious while playing through Ridge Racer's latest -- this could be the start of something big.
In a world filled by stellar racing franchises like Gran Turismo and Forza, it's hard for a relic like Ridge Racer to find its place. Be that as it may, Namco Bandai has given it one hell of a try with Unbounded, the series darkest and furthest departure from its roots. Though it's not perfect, and the engine doesn't purr quite like it should, it does feel like the start of something great.