Version tested: Xbox 360
I feel it's important to state up front that some reviews of Ridge Racer Unbounded will be a cautionary tale for developers about the importance of including a tutorial. Diligent critics such as myself will labour away at Bugbear's new arcade racing game for hours on end and their experience will be horrible. It will be a war of attrition and nothing will make sense.
Envisaged as a counterpoint to the traditional slide-happy Ridge Racer - a sort of evil twin with destructible scenery and violent takedowns - it feels like a poor cross between Split/Second and Burnout 3. By drifting, drafting and smashing through scenery, you fill a Power meter, which you can then deploy to either create shortcuts through smashable walls, set off explosives, or crash into other cars directly to "frag" them - Unbounded's version of the classic Takedown. But it's all so perilously bland.
You can blast your way through all sorts of buildings, highlighted by on-screen icons when you're powered up, but the carnage lacks the punch of Split/Second's collapsing airports or MotorStorm's apocalypse, and the shortcuts you create seldom give you much of an advantage anyway. The takedowns, meanwhile, require little skill and hardly feel explosive; they're more like mild prangs elevated to slow-motion extravaganzas so as to inject spectacle into otherwise-flaccid racing.
Worst of all, the cars are no fun to drive. In a straight line the difference between 40 and 140 is barely discernible, and in corners even the nimblest-looking RWD is hamstrung by understeer, while drifting seems frustratingly inconsistent. Unlike classic Ridge Racer, where even the slightest brush of the brake sends you gliding through sharp corners in a wonderfully impossible lateral slide, here you're expected to haul your car bodily around corners at low speeds in an apparent but ill-advised nod to realism.
To add further insult, the AI cars are ferocious, and if you make even the slightest mistake you will never catch them. You fill up the Power bar too slowly to make much use of the destruction, so most of the time you're just driving slowly along a straight road, cursing your lack of acceleration while other racers stream past you and then vanish round the next corner - along with any hopes you had of breaking through to the next tier of events.
After several days of this, it's fair to say I was ready to throw Ridge Racer Unbounded under the nearest bus and then hijack the same bus and crash it into the game's weeping relatives. Then, just as I was about to rip it to shreds, one of the game's publicists said, "You're not using the drift button like a handbrake, are you?"
The drift button always seemed a bit weird. The only drifting I believe in is the union between a brake pedal and an accelerator, followed by the blessed debate they have about traction whenever you enter a corner at ridiculously high speed. The drift button in Unbounded didn't appear to add much to the discussion: you could achieve the same sort of painful, inadequate low-speed turns using the regular brake, and the only difference seemed to be that the drift button usually spat you sideways into a wall at high speed. Obviously I played around with it a lot under different circumstances, but it didn't seem to help matters.
Then I tried holding it down the whole way through a corner.
It is impossible to understate the difference that this makes to Ridge Racer Unbounded. It might as well be renamed the 'fun' button. By turning into a corner early, holding down the drift button and then massaging the brake and accelerator as well, you can hurtle around any bend at almost top speed, carrying almost all those miles-per-hour out through the exit. Then release. It transforms the game. After a few minutes staring at the screen in disbelief, I elected to start the whole review again from scratch.
"It is impossible to understate the difference the drift button makes to Ridge Racer Unbounded. It might as well be renamed the 'fun' button."
The drift button ties the whole game together. All of a sudden you can fill your Power bar every few seconds rather than every other minute, meaning that the previously limp takedowns and good-looking but unhelpful shortcuts come thick and fast, and time previously spent plodding down straights is spent wrestling for grip and blasting through rivals. Whole races become unbroken chains of nerve-fraying drifts, pulverising frags and massive explosions.
Suddenly the AI makes sense. It's still very difficult - even when you've mastered the handling this is a tough game, not recommended for Sunday drivers - but it's reasonably fair, and your newfound capacity to maintain speed and destruction throughout the race means you can actually get back into contention even when you crash a couple of times or mess up a corner. This was previously impossible.
The handling itself, once so obtuse and frustrating, reveals itself to be a tidy and satisfying affair, closer to something like Project Gotham Racing than Ridge Racer. You can have the most fun getting to know it in the Shindo Racing and Drift Attack challenges that break up the frags-and-explosions Demolition events. With the drift button firmly under your control, you learn to play with the track, choosing when to grip and when to slide as you slalom overpowered cars along broad boulevards and over highways.
The breakthrough moment comes the first time you swing early into a 90-degree corner, sideways before you even reach the apex, and feel that little surge of adrenaline as the front wheel sweeps past the edge of a concrete wall on the inside and you pile on the power and accelerate back onto the next straight. If you have full control of and can reliably repeat this moment in a racing game, then you are playing a very good one.
The rest of Unbounded is welcome dressing. Time Attack events add ramps and half-pipes to busy streets, which feels out of place but sort of works, and the course creator is a particular highlight. The interface could be improved, but it's simple enough to throw together quite complex courses using the chunky blocks that represent straights, corners, crossroads, highways, bridges and underpasses, before going in and laying down fine detail.
There's much less flexibility than ModNation Racers or TrackMania, so you won't be recreating Mario Circuit 1 with any great accuracy, but by joining the best parts of the better campaign tracks - a suspension bridge here, a container yard there - you can create tonally skittish but memorably loony circuits with little difficulty. You can then share them online and take part in races on other people's, tackling the creator's best times, scores and drift totals, and those of your friends.
The fine details are nicely supportive too. You're encouraged to replay events to achieve better results by an experience points system that sets high thresholds for unlocking the toughest races in a series, but your failed attempts along the way aren't in vain, because even they shovel quite a few thousand more points into your personal XP level, and ranking up unlocks new cars and new parts for the course creator.
To slow things down for a second, Unbounded isn't quite up there with the legends of the genre, for all its unexpected redemption. The quality of the circuit design is a bit inconsistent - a handful of memorable right-handers and juddering bridge sprints bogged down by a wash of overlong straights, generic intersections and awkward hairpins - and the AI is a bit too capable of overhauling you under strained circumstances. More than most, it's also crying out for the now-standard rewind function - without it you will find yourself reaching for the pause-and-restart button combo potentially dozens of times per event.
Against all odds, though, this is a great game, and a distant cry from the pain and misery that accompanied my early days of Ridge Racer Unbounded. And all because of the drift button - a magic revelation that illustrates in hilarious detail how some games can be more than the sum of their parts, even when their individual components taken apart seem to hold little promise.
As I said at the outset though, this is a cautionary tale: nowhere in Unbounded does it tell you that you have to hold down the drift button the whole way through a corner, going against instincts built up by every other arcade racer ever, in order to have fun. When you do hold it down, though, Ridge Racer Unbounded is brilliant.
8 / 10