The problem with Ridge Racer is that you're never sure whether Namco's going to show up. Ridge Racer's PSP debut was patched together in record time, but turned out to be one of the most accomplished and fine-tuned of the handheld's launch titles - still to be eclipsed in the PSP arcade racing stakes nearly a year after we first played it. But R: Racing was dull. Ridge Racer 5 didn't live up to its billing. And Ridge Racer DS was some sort of appalling joke with my money as the punchline.
Even so, I was optimistic heading to TGS. I'm a Ridge Racer fanboy, after all. But for all my optimism and speculation at the airport, on the plane, at the hotel, dancing around Tokyo, on the express, riding the local to Makuhari Messe, on the steps, at the press check-in, on the way down the escalator to the floor, on the trek over to the Namco booth, and standing the 15 minutes in line [and every single minute up until the point I nearly smacked you in the face - Rob], I wouldn't have guessed the truth, because the truth still seems a bit odd.
Ridge Racer 6 on Xbox 360 looks and feels like a port of Ridge Racer PSP.
Visualise Ridge Racer on the PSP. Smooth, curvy facsimiles of real cars done in that inimitable Namco way, big tracks that swoop down hillsides and through valleys, over mountains and through tunnels, the occasional swooping helicopter and little sparkly particle effect, and a range of low-res textures that go largely unnoticed thanks to the sharpness of the small screen and the pleasant lighting effects and car graphics.
Now, add some bump-mapping and specular effects to the track, creating the impression of a pock-marked tarmac that shines under the heat of the sun; add a large number of trees, buildings, and other sundry sights and sounds to the background vistas; add a few more of those sparkly effects and make sure the helicopter looks really detailed; and of course bump up the texture quality. Bosh, it's Ridge Racer 6.
Nitro was a sensible addition to Ridge Racer on PSP - sensible both in terms of how you accumulated it and how you benefited from it - and it's in here too. And much the same. There are three tanks to fill, and each receives a small boost when you slide round corners. When you activate the nitro, the screen takes on a slightly warped look to emphasise the increase in speed and having your neck snapped back by the Gs.
The screen furniture is also basically the same; the rear-view is the same, the dials are the same; the only real change is that the little pop-up noting the distance between you and the guy behind or in front now uses Pac-Man graphics instead of Rally-X. Even the controls are spread out much the same way. Except for Nitro, which is on Y rather than the right shoulder button ala the PSP - but maybe that's just because having to use the analogue shoulder button for a power-up would draw attention to the shameful lack of analogue acceleration and braking.
Where it's not similar it just feels a bit mundane. Ridge Racer has always been about performing insane powerslides around corners - pushing the back end of the car out to impossible extremes and then righting it just in time to retain your speed out of the corner - but there have always been changes that made a difference. Ridge Racer 6 doesn't feel significantly different right now. Whether that's because it actually isn't or simply because it moves too slowly (the demo car only got up to 220kph, and the sense of speed was never that impressive - even in bumper-cam view) is too hard to say based on a trade show demo.
There are other issues. For example, the quality of the visuals is more technical than anything; the resolution is high and the draw distance is immense, so you can always see lots going on and always to a greater degree of fine detail than you're probably familiar with. But it's not any prettier or more imaginative; it's just running on better hardware. Likewise the lighting and the controls. Despite the sunlight and specular effects on the road, the lack of atmosphere and brightness in other areas gives the impression of being slightly overcast. And when you use the analogue stick to steer, the camera seems to twitch a bit before you actually turn, and you tend to over-steer far more than you do using the d-pad. Which, in a game where you're already deliberately over-steering, can be a bit of a pitfall.
None of this is to say that Ridge Racer 6 is a bad game; just that the TGS demo implies that it's not a very imaginative or exciting one, and that it needs tuning. It looks and plays reasonably enough, but it doesn't feel like a banner Ridge Racer title. It doesn't feel like the kind of game we'll be sitting around in pubs eulogising five years from now - there's no 'wow factor'. There's a sense that Namco's turned up, but it's copied its homework - and since in those terms this is the Oxbridge intake of Christmas gaming rushes, it's going to need to buck its ideas up before December 2nd.
Ridge Racer 6 is an Xbox 360 launch title in Japan and presumably here in Europe, which would put it in our hands (and disc-trays) on December 2nd.