They won’t say it in so many words, but the folks at Namco have a lot riding on Ridge Racer Unbounded. Though its long-running arcade racer has maintained a strong enough fan base to support some 20-odd titles over the past 18 years, there’s little question that the waters have grown stagnant. People just aren’t excited about Ridge Racer like they used to be--just ask Kaz Hirai.
So, good on Namco for showing a little stone and bringing in Finnish developer Bugbear to mix things up with Ridge Racer Unbounded, a game that bears little resemblance to a traditional Ridge Racer game beyond shiny cars going fast. Bugbear has plenty of experience with racing games, and from the one race I’ve had a chance to play so far, the influence of the destructive, rubbin’-is-racin’ philosophy of Bugbear’s FlatOut series is palpable. (Ridge Racer purists who are already sobbing openly and burning their Reiko Nagase bodypillows, chill: Namco assures us that a proper Ridge Racer 8 is still on the way.) Players are encouraged to fill up a power meter with clean, risky driving, then use that power to smash through walls and take out competing drivers. By virtue of the FlatOut connection, it’s easy to then draw comparisons between Unbounded and the Burnout games, as well as other derivatives like Split/Second. To this end, Unbounded, at least in its current state, doesn’t have the same level of visual pop as either of those, and the handling model is still in the process of being tuned, though the potential's clearly there.
What Unbounded does bring to the table, though, is its city creator, which Namco and Bugbear are showing off now for the first time. At its most basic, this is a track editor that presents you with a grid, lets you pick from pre-fab track sections that come in a few different flavors, chain them together into a track of your own design, and then share them with the community. Though the pre-fab track parts don’t provide for much detailed track-crafting, an advance mode will allow you to specifically place obstacles and explosive objects, and the end results look virtually indistinguishable from what we’ve seen so far of the dense, urban, developer-built tracks the game will ship with. The number of unique tiles that Bugbear will produce for the final game, as well as the number of tiles players will be able to use in a single track, are still up in the air, and both seem like real make-or-break factors for the success of this feature.
With its current, vague 2012 release date, Bugbear seems to have plenty of time to do that work, and assuming that the fundamentals gameplay comes together, Unbounded has the potential to fill the current void of crash-happy, high-impact arcade racing games, as well as broaden the scope of what the Ridge Racer name means. Like I said, there’s a lot riding on Unbounded, and I’ll be curious to see its impact on the future of Ridge Racer if it actually pays off.