It's more than just the concrete that comes tumbling down in Ridge Racer Unbounded. In this, Finnish developer Bugbear's first game in coming up to five years, the very definition of a series that's been about overstated drifts and nitrous trails is smashed to pieces too. In the rubble that's left at the end of a race, it's hard to pick out where exactly Namco's racing staple has got to.
Gone are the high-gloss world, LED trails and eccentric handling of the Ridge Racers of old; in their place is a punchy, physical and playful game with a very literal impact. It's about driving through things rather than fishtailing around them, and it couldn't feel further removed from what's gone before.
There's been no shortage of disquiet since Unbounded's unveiling, and in a way the naysayers are right: as a Ridge Racer game in the traditional sense, this feels like a failure.
But in most other regards, Ridge Racer Unbounded feels like a resounding success. Bugbear has been sorely missed on a racing scene that has atrophied dramatically since its last game. Unbounded, if nothing else, is a triumphant comeback for the developers of the FlatOut series, games that have been succinctly summed up as Burnout's redneck cousin. Unbounded sees a return of Bugbear's trademark knockabout action: more playful slapstick than arcade slickness, though it's been refined in an attempt to stay faithful to the Ridge Racer name.
Races take place in Shatter Bay, an imagined metropolis that sits somewhere between New York and Chicago, taking in the crowded skyline of the Windy City and drawing upon the grimy veneer of the Big Apple. The action's set in a constant twilight as opposed to the neon nights or cloudless blue days of the series' mainline, but it's a diverse and immersive backdrop, and one that's also being placed in the player's hands.
A city editor lets new tracks be constructed through a tile-based system, with sets of six tracks making up a city that can be swapped online. Bugbear endearingly explains all this through a wooden train set that's pulled from a tattered plastic bag, and it's a fitting analogy - the editor's simple in its implementation, but impressive in what it enables.
Whether in Bugbear's creations or the player's own, Shatter Bay is a gritty urban sprawl that's several thousand miles away from the sterile beauty of Ridge City, and the action within is a further departure still. Races are noisy, messy affairs with a healthy appetite for destruction, in which the environment's an ally, a toy to be manipulated and exploited.
Playful and reliable physics serve this part of the game well. The concrete struts that hold up city underpasses crumble like dry chalk, and the game's focus on destructibility requires a little hard rewiring from a racing mind. Here, instead of scraping the pillars with the bonnet in a controlled slide, the best course of action is to plough straight through them.
They're not the only thing to fall under the player's wheels; chain-link fences tumble, walls can be driven through and - with enough power built up through drifts and jumps - a destructive nitro boost can be triggered with a button press. These scale the carnage considerably; with one of these activated, it's not just pillars but smoke stacks that can be razed, or shop fronts ploughed through, all of which is shown through a Hollywood filter as the action dramatically slows.
There are the inevitable comparisons to the sadly departed Black Rock's Split/Second, though there's one important point of distinction. Whereas in that game destruction was an often-distant spectacle triggered with a button press, in Unbounded you're the agent, directly responsible for the havoc around you.
The cars have been designed well to that effect. They have the boisterous naiveté of a child's crayon sketch of a car, lending the garage a playful robustness that's handy when you're throwing the cars at the scenery every second.
More importantly, they're squat, powerful wedges that feel like they've got a purpose - only, in this particular game, that purpose is smashing through concrete. By their very childlike design they urge you to hurl them at the nearest solid object.
Their handling's also more tactile and more physical than you'd expect of a Ridge Racer game. Drifts are teased out with a dedicated button, and once commenced their momentum is tricky to keep in check. Three flavours of car are available in the early bulid; one that's heavy on traction and maintains a sensible line while cornering, one that's a happy middle ground and another, extreme car that's best driven sideways.
It's when manhandling a car at impossible angles that one of those fleeting glimpses of the brand that's been awkwardly stamped on Unbounded shines through. The drifting's one link to the series, and Joonas Laakso, Unbounded's producer, suggests there are many more.
"We tried to incorporate as much as we can, but nothing is direct," says Joonas, a self-confessed Ridge Racer fan who screamed with excitement when he realised he'd be working on such a beloved franchise. "Basically, we took what we know about Ridge Racer - Namco didn't come to us and say 'you need this and this and this' - and we tried to incorporate as much as we possibly can."
"But all of that has been reinterpreted. We had to have drifting, but what are we going to do with that? Ridge Racer drifting doesn't play nice with real world physics, so what are we going to do? That forced us to come up with something new, which I welcomed."
It's new, yes, and Bugbear constantly reminds us that this isn't Ridge Racer 8 but rather a novel offshoot. It's hard to hide a suspicion that Unbounded is a Bugbear game first and a Ridge Racer one second, and that the iconic name was slapped on in an attempt to leverage some of the long-running series' appeal. It's a suspicion that Joonas doesn't quite dispel, though he does put up a convincing argument that Unbounded's doing enough to justify its name.
"Namco came to us," he confirms. "But was there a Ridge Racer before there was any sort of car game? I can't say. Obviously there are Bugbear genes in there, and some of the technology there are bits and pieces from FlatOut. We're 11 years old, so there's legacy there. We were working on a car game, but it was not like it was FlatOut 3 and we decided to make it Ridge Racer. All the cars and tracks have been purpose-built for this game."
It's those Bugbear genes that still shine brightest in Unbounded's strange genetic makeup - though that's no bad thing. It's brash, boisterous and, true to the FlatOut games, punishingly difficult, though there are some choice pickings from Ridge Racer in its presentation and style. And the inspiration runs much, much deeper too.
"I've a completely different mind-set for Unbounded," says Joonas. "In the FlatOut games you were mostly avoiding failure, and now we're trying to reward you for what you do, which is a polar opposite thing in terms of game design principles. In that sense, it's going to feel very different."
Different it most definitely is. It's not Ridge Racer in the traditional sense, but it is a smart, slick and well-produced arcade racer with an unbridled sense of fun - and that's enough to ensure that Unbounded can take on the Ridge Racer mantle with pride.