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Ridge Racer Unbounded

Crash course.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

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.

Christopher Nolan's been pegged as an influence, but isn't that always the way when it comes to the gritty reboot.

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.