From the creators of Flatout comes a completely new take on the stagnant Ridge Racer formula - one that blends a bit of the former's stunts with Split/Seconds’ real-time track destruction for shortcuts and danger, and manages to both play unlike any Ridge Racer before while still keeping the drifty feel of the series alive. The team at Bugbear has worked what some would consider to be a miracle given the “been there, done that” feel of the past few Ridge Racers. While the Unbounded name sounds a bit iffy, there's no denying that the game behind the name is worth-playing thanks to an incredible racing engine that allows for really fast action and a lot of variety with what you can do.
Beyond just racing to the finish line, you can ram into rivals - doing so with your power boost activated (and charged by drafting, jumps, and drifting) takes them out instantly ala Burnout, otherwise, you have to wittle their health bars down to nothing. There's also a surprisingly fluid stunt mode here that allows you to fly up ramps, DRIVE ON THE SIDES OF BUILDINGS, and do flips while trying to grab Ridge Racer logo tokens to increase your points, get more boost, and thus have more time to go do a bunch of crazy stuff.
While there's still a drifting aspect to the game, it's far more optional than before as it is usually activated with the B (or Circle) button, so folks who didn't like the usual Ridge Racers because they spun all over the place will probably enjoy this. You'll really get a lot out of it you liked either the Burnout series or Split/Second, because the arcade-style racing action reminds me a lot of those, especially with building up your boost to power through obstacles - like the aforementioned town hall, a convenience store, or even destroy a bridge support to drive through a straightaway while others are stuck navigating turns. They definitely focused on making a fun game here, which comes through in every part of the game.
The single player campaign is broken up into dozens of challenes spread across nine different districts within Shatter Bay - the fictional town that the Unbounded gang your unnamed character has joined. They're out to dominate by destroying racers and the city itself to get what they want, and if that requires them to literally race through town hall, then so be it. It's broken up into races, drift challenges, stunt courses, and frag challenges where you have to destroy X amount of rivals using a particular vehicle to win. The campaign is surprisingly difficult, and will likely require multiple playthroughs of every stage in order to just barely pass it. Fortunately, you can fail a bunch and still earn enough credits to unlock stages and vehicles, but it'll take far longer due to the rubber-band AI.
It isn't quite as bad as some racing games I've played where it seems like you're totally screwed from the start, but the CPU-controlled enemies put up a struggle, will boost as often as possible, and ram you into things whenever it can be done. That's one of the reasons destroying the track with your boost is so important, because you'll need it to get ahead in races or risk falling far behind the pack. Beyond rubber-band AI issues, there appears to be a problem with AI in online created tracks because I've had multiple races where they'll either all slam into each other, or just slam into an obstacle that's been placed there endlessly giving you an easy, but slightly perplexing and humorous win. I'm not sure if it's entirely due to the AI or just very poor created track design.
Beyond that, the create-a-track mode is outstanding. It's fairly easy to learn, and allows you to make either normal tracks or crazy tracks that blend stunts with screen-filling obstacles like tanker trucks that require you to not only race fast to get to the front of the pack, but also race smartly to avoid those hazards. Going a step beyond the norm, you can make an entire set of stages within a single city theme and upload them - there's a particular thrill in actually doing better than the creator at their own tracks. Of course, you can also take part in the usual online multi-player stuff, although it's a bit more frustrating than I'd like due to the respawn points on many tracks. They tend to trap you behind things you can't go through, leaving you stuck and having to take a lot of time to back up and get back on the track. It's an issue in the offline game as well, but is especially frustrating online since you can't just retry the track if you mess up, you may very well be SOL for that race entirely.
Unbounded controls really well. The cars each feel different, and control as they should. Players who want a drift-heavy race will want to go with a car with better handling, but those who want to barrel through the pack will want to go with one that has a lower handling grade, but is easier to aim without worrying it sliding around. The control layout is great too, with the drift and boost buttons placed next to each other in a logical way that is very easy to remember and the button response is about as perfect as one could expect.
Visually, Unbounded is usually a dazzling game. The only real hiccups come from created stages that sometimes start and don't show the street texture in the pre-race cinematic and from low-res textures when you're up close to them. Thankfully, you don't really notice those things too often. Much of the game is so fast-paced that you're focusing on the cars ahead of you, which all look really good, and making sure you aren't too close to the light trails that show up behind a car during a boost since you can be taken out then rather easily. There are some incredible lighting effects on display here, especially when it comes to sunlight. There's a set of stages in the main campaign that will blow your mind with the reflection effects off the street and the cars themselves.
Unbounded's soundtrack is excellent. I'm not usually a fan of techno or dubstep, but within the context of this game, it works. It really does fit the fast pace of the racing and somewhat light-hearted take on things. The game doesn't take itself too seriously, and the soundtrack reflects that - it isn't goofy, but is just fun to listen to. The sound effect work is also exceptional, with scrapes sounding much different than rams, and the explosion sound effect when you take someone out with boost is incredibly satisfying.
Overall, Ridge Racer Unbounded is a great game with some fairly annoying problems that drag it down. The good news is I think they're all issues that could be addressed with a patch - the bad news is I don't know of one coming out, which means that while this game is worth your time, I don't quite think it's worth full-price in its present state. It's very much worth a rental though, or a $40 purchase in the near future because it is very replayable even with its problems. It delivers very exciting racing action and like the Burnout series, will be worth playing for years to come even if it's just to have some fun with it for an hour or two.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of Ridge Racer Unbounded provided by Namco Bandai.