Visually, Ridge Racer 6 serves as a bit of a cautionary tale. You can give developers all the horsepower in the world, but it's the artists that have to make the world look nice.
Ridge Racer 6 doesn't really look nice. It's just bland. The cars look like shiny toys and the sun bounces off road textures, but neither's a more impressive look than the one we saw on the PSP almost exactly a year ago. And the scenery's awful. Rows of boring radar towers, forests of identical trees, streets lined with blocky brown houses - none of which is up to the technical standard of the average wing-mirror in Project Gotham Racing 3. It might be alright if there was a kind of house style to it all, but while it's all very slick it feels like a world devoid of identity as well as imagination and atmosphere. Surely even the developers can tell that designing one forgettable object and then loading five of them in a row isn't going to impress anybody?
The horsepower may not be put to good use under the console's bonnet, then, but there's barely any sense of it at all on the track. Cars zoom along at a fair speed, but while aesthetically and mechanically similar to Ridge Racer on PSP, the wider straights and corners and plodding AI opposition conspire to rob the game of any sense of pace until you've daydreamed your way through a fair chunk of the single-player game. We could put up with the PSP game's slow start because it got faster, harder and tighter later on. Whether this does or not is something I can't comment on yet because I haven't finished it, and yet I've spent more time playing it than it took to complete some of the Xbox 360's launch titles. If it's going to hot up, it should have bloody well done it by now.
The impossible drifting remains, dragging your arse around practically in front of your face until you've made judicious use of the analogue stick to reset your nose, and the nitrous boosts that coiled the springs of your head-spinning passage through the last game's latter stages returns here as well. But the game discourages you from using nitrous, putting little ears on your completed-track icons when you use it to demonstrate where you wussed out or fell short. Even so it's perfectly possible to win without it most of the time - the AI opposition, like the early bits of the PSP game, vanishes completely after a couple of laps in all but a couple of races, and far from enjoying those, you simply snort at the inconsistency of the difficulty curve. Mastering the three different drift types might keep you going, but I've barely had to go near them to ensure victory. By the end of lap two.
The single-player World Explorer mode sets you up on a hexagonal grid of little red car icons nestled in amongst blue race icons, and the idea is to thread your own way to the very end of the game by selecting chains of races annex new cars and open up classes as you go. It's a nice theory, but it obviously breeds repetition - and that's repetition of racing that, while perfectly engaging on a purely mechanical basis, hasn't yet shifted into an enjoyable gear. If the classic PSone-era Ridge Racers were rollercoasters, this is the teacups. It reminds of watching a chap at the arcade absent-mindedly looping backward through each turn, the challenge of the early stages long since diminished.
My mission between now and reviewing the game is going to be getting truly stuck in to the Xbox Live modes. Racing against real people is something I haven't been able to do, because whenever I fire it up there's nobody to play with, but the idea of globally ranked races on courses deliberately selected because you can actually see both sides of a straight without using binoculars certainly appeals to me. One thing I have been enjoying in the meantime is the Global Time Attack mode - it's Time Trial with leaderboards and downloadable ghosts. Sure, I'd rather be comparing times in one of the other Ridge Racers, and time-trialling in Mario Kart DS (my principle pastime at the moment) is far more entertaining thanks to that game's wonderfully layered drift set-up and track design, but if you can bring yourself to settle for slightly less than you deserve on the track, I can see this devouring entire evenings. That said, I've been perfectly happy letting PGR3 devour them in much the same way - and that's a better game on every level, and far more varied.
I'm not going to draw conclusions yet, but you can tell how I feel about it all: completely nonplussed. The only excitement I've experienced so far was that of the hilariously animated announcer, whose drivel-tastic repertoire of clichéd commentary merely served to narrow my eyes until one too many "All haaail to the CHIEF!" comments sent me in search of the "off" button. Thankfully there is one. The game itself hasn't had me reaching for the Xbox's yet, but it's going to have to work quite hard in the next few days to score anything beyond the numerical reach of the average gearbox.
Ridge Racer 6 is due out in Europe on January 20th.