At one point during Ken Kutaragi's Tokyo Game Show keynote, he took time to emphasise how important innovation was, and how the industry can't rely on throwing out sequels if we expect it to grow during the next generation. Good point well made, but one made having just shown a video showreel featuring Devil May Cry 4, Virtua Fighter 5, Final Fantasy XIII and Ridge Racer 7.
It's slightly underwhelming to travel halfway across the Earth to witness the next generation of gaming entertainment, and then see the show floor clogged up with incremental updates to games you've fallen in and out of love with multiple times. In many ways, the very idea of Ridge Racer 7 epitomises the play-safe mentality of the games industry at the moment, but many of the hardcore fans will just be grateful for the appearance of this classic franchise so early in the lifespan of the PlayStation 3 - in this case as a launch title. European wise, it's almost certain to be on the starting grid from the off, so start counting those days until its arrival.
Slip slidin' away
Hardened fans might not thank us for saying this, but the inescapable first impressions of Ridge Racer 7 aren't of thrilling next-gen excitement. This time, it seems that Namco Bandai has exaggerated the drift handling to the extreme, making it even more of an acquired taste than usual. From the word go, the assumption is that you'll want to drive sideways around every corner no matter what, making it actually quite hard to not fish-tail wildly the very instant you turn into a bend. Obviously, drifting is the core part of the experience and we'll doubtlessly adapt as we get used to the nuances, but Ridge Racer 7 felt like it might be going too far with the idea just to give it a point of difference. Admittedly, it's far too early to draw too many conclusions on the basis on its TGS showing, but we'll find out soon enough.
Happily, the continued wholesale rejection of anything approaching real driving physics makes for a fast, loose and enjoyable arcade racing experience with the focus firmly on fun; but whether the die-hard will like this particular flavour will be interesting to find out. Around 20 tracks are said to feature, and from what we say from the demo, the 1080p visuals on show give it a softer, less harsh feel than the 360. Trackside detail on the factory-based Industrial Drive circuit was well up to standard and appears to offer a nice amount of variety, and makes up somewhat for the rather boring appearance of some of Ridge Racer 6. On that basis, long-term fans will be happy about that, at least.
As ever, the core of the racing experience relies on being able to drift successfully around corners, build up your boost meter (again, divided into three sections) and unleash it Burnout-style at strategic moments (double or triple boosting by holding down R2 and L2). You can also gain some extra momentum by 'drafting' opponents by edging close to the car in front of you and gain extra momentum in their slip stream, and a little indicator underneath the boost bar gives you a little visual indicator to let you know just how much extra pull you're gaining. With skill and timing, you can slip beyond opponents, boost on the follow-through and not only leave them for dust, but top up your meter again in the process. To emphasise the speed burst, the edges of the screen warp accordingly.
Not that it was apparent from the demo, but Ridge Racer 7 will also give players the ability to customise their ride. Bringing the series in line with practically every other driving game around, you'll be able to tweak the car's visual appearance including paint jobs, rims, body kits and so on. Meanwhile, performance upgrades will also give you the chance to give you the edge in improving everything from the nitrous to the spoilers, with some 375,000 permutations in all. This sounds lower than many games, but still offers plenty of scope to get your car looking just so. And if you want to show off your meticulously created beast, you'll also be able to share it online.
Talking of online, Ridge Racer 7 will include solo as well as team-based racing, the usual track leaderboards, ranking, a message centre, opponent matching and more. The threat of downloadable extras seems possible, giving Namco Bandai the chance to hold back game content for those willing to part with extra cash for the privilege of owning a rare spoiler.
With the launch of Ridge Racer 7 just weeks away, check back soon for an in-depth look at Namco's latest addition to the series. We've heard Tom's put his Gran on eBay, and is willing to listen to offers if you can get a copy of this to him early, ok?
Ridge Racer 7 is coming exclusively to the PlayStation 3 later this year from Namco Bandai. A European release is expected for the launch in March 2007.