Ridge Racer Unbounded review

Ridge-Racer-Unbounded Anyone familiar with the Ridge Racer name may be thinking of cerulean sky and emerald hills, a trail of sports cars swishing sideways through the apex of a mountainside curve without particular regard for physics.

Ridge Racer Unbounded is not that game.

Instead it's all tight, filthy streets under a constant twilight, muscular vehicles smashing into walls and each other from every which way without particular regard for safety. It's a down and dirty street racer, so those of you who are familiar with developer Bugbear's Flatout series will be more on the right track.

Unbounded sets out to confound expectations from the very start, continuing to do so the more you get to grips with its initially enigmatic handling. To begin with Unbounded feels ... wrong. The cars too heavy, lumpy understeer guiding you into walls, twitchy drifting spitting you out at corners. An obtuse boost system that allows you to smash through trackside buildings without any clear benefit outside of destructive eye-candy.

But it's not what you think.

The problem with Unbounded is that it doesn't seem comfortable sharing its secrets with you. It's called Ridge Racer, it looks like Burnout, and anyone who has played an arcade racer will, not unreasonably, expect a certain handling model.

Unbounded is not that game.

Bugbear has, instead of conforming to that expectation, deconstructed the genre, cherry-picking components from its rivals and earlier games in its parent series, and using them to build their own aggressive construct. Here you will see sweeping Ridge Racer drifts, Burnout style takedowns and destructible environments from Split/Second. The difference is in the interpretation.

Drifting, for example, is enabled by aiming your car at a corner and holding down a button, kicking your car sideways.

"Ah," I hear you say, "the handbrake."

No. Despite me being certain that was what Unbounded's 'drift button' was shorthand for in my formative hours with Unbounded --and I wasn't the only one-- treating it as such will lead to failure and frustration. Instead, holding the drift button magically loosens up your car, preparing it for the corner you're about to plough sideways into. It needs to be used in conjunction with the brake and accelerator to perfect. And that perfection is hard earned. Even after learning the drift button's secrets, I was still regularly spat into a wall at the merest hint of understeer, push too hard and you'll be spun the wrong way before you know it. Unbounded's handling isn't realistic, as such, but it's wild and stocky, closer to Project Gotham's weightiness than Ridge Racer's usual light touch.

Slick drifting or slipstreaming opponents then builds up a power meter in the bottom left of the screen.

"Ah," I hear you say. "The boost meter."

No. While enabling your hard-earned juice does give a speed boost, more importantly it turns your car into a wrecking ball. Smack into the back of an opponent to send them flying in a husk of flame and twisted metal, or plough your car through a number of destructible trackside buildings. These highlighted targets open shortcuts in a plume of dust and mortar, allowing you to slice out a corner of the track by smashing through a wall, or whizz over your opponents by mounting an elevated railway.

Each of these components initially appear undernourished. The boost is too slight, the advantage given by whacking an opponent or taking a shortcut negligible. But this is only when you take each action in isolation. The unspoken brilliance in Unbounded comes when you, the player, put them all together.

Every drift, every opponent taken out, every roadside stanchion eviscerated refills your power meter. The trick is to keep it filled, bursting from one explosive set-piece to the next, chaining together stylish driving manoeuvres and wanton destruction, allowing yourself that crucial burst of speed to keep yourself ahead of the pack. Thunder into a corner, hold that drift button, swinging your car sideways feathering the brake and accelerator to keep yourself level, meter filled; hit the power button to shunt the car ahead of you into a front flip, clattering into the field up ahead, meter filled; hit the power button and ram your car through that donut shop, glass and steel shattering and bending in slow motion as you smash through the other side at top speed, meter filled...

Suddenly that boxy track design and weighty handling make sense. Each race becomes a stream of split second decisions, every retry a lesson learned. You'll begin to identify the best chain points across a track, planning a route and manipulating the game's mechanics as you would tackle a wave of enemies in a shoot 'em up. Bugbear successfully look beyond genre confines to create something subversive, daring and brilliant.

Only... they kind of forget to tell you about it. It doesn't help that Unbounded's visual design falls into the 'edgy' category that so many racers do, lacking the same personality as the racing, but Bugbear deliver Unbounded without much in the way of tutorial or explanation of its quirks. It's refreshing, in a way, for Bugbear to drop the player in and ask you to figure things out yourself. It's undoubtedly more rewarding, every grade of improvement bringing satisfaction, but in keeping explanation sparse, Bugbear are in danger of losing players early on.

Not that the Finnish studio has any qualms with challenging its audience. If I didn't know better, I'd think they were calling us wimps to our faces. It's the enemy AI, you see, they are utter sods. Ruthless, aggressive swines perfectly comfortable with cutting you off, shoving you aside or smashing through your car on the last straight to leave you a crumpled mess crawling over the line in eighth. Any mistake is pounced upon, and you had better get your chains in order or the front line will leave you for dust. Their fearsome behaviour is all part of Unbounded's regime of learning, retrying and perfecting. You will fail events on the first go, but you'll come out of each setback a little more savvy. A satisfying feedback loop that makes Unbounded utterly compelling. And if education isn't enough, Bugbear are smart enough to make each race count in a more tangible way. Each completed race --regardless of your final position-- will award you with points that go towards your overall career rank, which in turn unlocks more cars and events.

You can also unlock building blocks for Unbounded's neat track editor. It's not as flexible as Trackmania's freeform construction, instead supplying you with pre-built chunks of track which you can bolt together. It's easy to use and allows you to scatter ramps, obstacles and exploding lorries across your creations with gleeful abandon. You can then share your created tracks online, as well as take part in multiplayer racing. While multiplayer is decent enough, with the excitement ramped up by Unbounded's unique style, it is odd that Bugbear have elected not to include online leaderboards. The one omission in Unbounded's box of tricks, particularly in the age of Need for Speed's brilliant Autolog.

Nevertheless, Unbounded's rugged reimagining of the arcade racer is the best thing to happen to Ridge Racer in years, flipping not only a brand but a genre on its head. And with it come some important lessons. Never judge a game by its name. The drift button isn't a handbrake. And always persevere with a piece of work as exciting as Unbounded, even if you don't click with it straight away.

Because, sometimes, it's not what you think.

The Telegraph