As far as Ridge Racers go, you could do a whole lot worse than Ridge Racer Unbounded. This latest Ridge Racer from Namco finally does more than shunt you down narrow sterile roads with only a contrived drift mechanic where the gameplay should go. It instead takes a cue from actually good arcade racers. Which you should probably play instead.

After the jump, what’s in a name?

The unbounded in the title is unintentionally ironic. The implication is that you’re in a world without boundaries (note that unbound, as in “unrestrained”, is a different word with a different meaning). No such thing is true in Ridge Racer Unbounded, a game that take place entirely within the confines of its mostly narrow city courses. To Namco, unbounded apparently means “moderately breakable within carefully scripted confines”.

The basic conceit is that as you drift — it wouldn’t be a Ridge Racer unless it pushed you into its featherweight drift physics — you build up explosion juice. As you drive around with a full load of explosion juice, destructible bits of the track light up. Press a button and you’ll explode them. If this sounds familiar, congratulations. That means you’ve probably played the far better Split/Second, which used the same basic concept to spectacular effect.

But the destruction in Ridge Racer Unbounded is simultaneously more modest and more ridiculous than Split/Second. Breaking incidental details and busting through the occasional wall to make a shortcut is all good and well if you haven’t played Split/Second, where destruction consisted of crashing airplanes, toppling ocean liners, collapsing skyscrapers, and crumbling dams. Split/Second is Irwin Allen to Ridge Racer Unbounded’s Dennis the Menace.

Ridge Racer Unbounded lets you use your explosion juice to ram other cars for a gratuitous Burnout style takedown. After all, you can’t very well riff on Split/Second without riffing on Burnout. It also lets you drive through concrete barricades and steel girders with impunity. That’s an odd choice. Why is a steel girder as sturdy as a toothpick, but the wall of a coffee shop requires a full load of explosion juice? I don’t need realism in my arcade racers. But I do appreciate some level of consistency. My Lamborghini-alike plows through a steel staircase as easily as a fruit cart. But it stops cold when I clip the side of a building wrong. Unless the side of the building is a scripted destroyable wall and I have enough explosion juice. Ridge Racer Unbounded, a game of often arbitrary and nonsensical rules, is anything but unbounded.

At least Unbounded has a decent meta-game. You earn experience points to unlock cars even when you lose. These cars make the races easier. Winning races gives you stars that unlock later races on later levels, although Shatter Bay — yeah, that’s its name — has an oppressive sameness after about ten races. The multiplayer, which is currently a ghost town, includes challenges that remind me a bit of the multiplayer in SSX, except that you’re playing Ridge Racer Unbounded instead of SSX. You can make your own tracks, assuming laying tiles in a line satisfies your desire to make tracks.

It’s too bad the studio that made the FlatOut series has come to this. The scripted sterility of a Ridge Racer and the destructibility of a FlatOut go together like peanut butter and fish oil. This arcade racer deserves credit for elevating the Ridge Racer name above the level of a punchline. But it doesn’t manage the crucial task of giving you a reason to play it instead of the current standards of arcade racing like Split/Second, Midnight Club: Los Angeles, or Driver.

2 stars
Xbox 360