Regardless of whether Ridge Racer Unbounded turns out to be the best racing game ever conceived, Namco's got its work cut-out convincing long-time fans that a more destructive racer is what they want.
It's a catch-22 really. If it dares to adapt and innovate then the publisher will feel the wrath of long-term Ridge Racer fans. But if it doesn't it runs the risk of isolating newcomers who might not necessarily enjoy Ridge Racer's serene brand of arcade racing.
One thing's for sure, Ridge Racer Unbounded does feel like it belongs in the series. The franchise's trademark drift mechanic is present, allowing you to slip into corners at a right-angles and glide back out into straights. The cars too occupy that same futuristic sheen as classic Ridge Racer titles — though there's a chunkiness that comes hand-in-hand with the game's new destructive coating.
Smashing through the environment awards you with points and boost that can then be used to trigger short-cuts or take out opponents during the race. Our demo was set in a city environment, and we managed to take a custom route through an commercial block before bundling out of a bank's front window. The action is framed really nicely, adding a slow-motion cinematic replay to every impressive action you complete, but it remains to be seen whether these sequences will get tiresome during the main campaign.
Unfortunately set-pieces aren't anywhere near as impressive as in the likes of Split/Second and so feel a bit inconsequential. It's cool that you can drive through buildings to get ahead of the pack, but it all feels a bit flat after the massive explosions of Black Rock's racer and MotorStorm: Apocalypse.
One thing that Unbounded does brilliantly is integrate much of its HUD into the game-world, with details of your score and position being projected onto buildings as you race. It's a technique Ubisoft's employed heavily in its shooter games, and it works just as well in a racing scenario, leaving the screen uncluttered while providing you with all the information you need.
Even at this relatively early stage Ridge Racer Unbounded feels polished. But even though it plays well, we can't help but feel like it's a conservative effort. Driving through banks and shop-fronts is fun, but we've been spoiled by the likes of Split/Second and would have liked to have seen Unbounded go further.
We can only hope there's more extravagant set-pieces in the full game.
Ridge Racer Unbounded is set to release on PlayStation 3 in March 2012.