Ridge Racer and PlayStation fit together like hand in driving glove. Namco's racing series has helped to ignite the launch of each Sony console to date, but with such a strong launch line-up for Vita its finishing position is not quite as assured this time around.
With a new online-focused approach, Vita's Ridge Racer is Namco's attempt to take advantage of social media trends and increasingly important internet connectivity. Unfortunately, it's gone about it in a frustrating manner: including just five cars, three courses and seven pieces of music as standard, this Ridge Racer will only become the title it's meant to be through a stream of downloadable content. At the time of writing, that amounts to a single extra course, a solitary new set of wheels and, somewhat more impressively, 40 free music tracks scraped from previous games and spread out into ten packs.
The slim content pickings extends to the selection of gameplay modes: you can run through time trials of three or 30 laps, race against CPU drivers, bust the times of ghost drivers collected through PlayStation Network or Near or jostle with other players in more traditional multiplayer online or via ad-hoc. The low number of vehicles and locations blocks off the possibility of a large single player mode, such as a world tour or grand prix, so you're pretty much restricted to one-off races through the same environments, repeatedly trying to beat times more than anything else.
Ridge Racer's arcade racing still holds enjoyment, still drives well and still looks rather lovely in the way that surroundings reflect from the cars' shiny bodies. If you've played a Ridge Racer title before, you'll know what to expect and enjoy what content there is. However, it doesn't take long to tire of what's on offer – there's just not enough here, even for a budget release.
The overarching theme supposed to link everything up is the division of all players into four teams, based on PlayStation's face buttons and player-chosen at boot up. Every online-connected player's wins and points contribute to their team's ranking, which adjusts on a daily basis. Each day teams are set a new challenge, accessed through a simulated TV broadcast, and awarded bonus points depending on their team's overall position. Players are randomly awarded V.I.P. status, and if you increase your skill rank you might get 'interviewed', your comments pasted in a table online for all to see.
It's a pretty cool idea, but one that doesn't fulfil its potential. There are no particular benefits for choosing one team over another, and the challenges essentially boil down to besting players from a specific group when racing online. You're stuck with your initial choice for the foreseeable future, too: if you want to switch sides for any reason, it costs an insane amount of credits, an amount you're probably not going to reach simply because you'll get bored of the content long before reaching the requirement.
Money from races also goes towards car improvements, such as boost power, carried across all vehicles in your garage. Upgrades are unlocked through a tree that branches off in numerous box-adorned directions, each container cracked open with a donation of 400 credits — about three races' worth. Annoyingly, there are plenty of squares that don't contain anything, while others are home to a line or two of text, which makes for a deeply unsatisfying set up.
For a game that's obsessed with the internet, to the point that it's practically worthless unless you're connected to the web, Ridge Racer's online is actually pretty sloppy. When taking on others in real-time it can be tough to get into lobbies, and it dumps you back onto the main menu to skip through the menus again if it can't access a game. Pre-set messages can be sent to other players, but these limited chat options are cut off altogether once you've switched your race status to 'ready'.
If the host quits, there's no attempt at migration to another player: the lobby just closes. In line with the content, there are very few customisation options: allow or disallow the turbo boost built through drifting around corners; enable drivers in lower positions to reach greater speeds to rubber band races; friends-only or public. Hunting for suitable ghost data to download is more a case of scrolling through a list and hoping for the best, as you can't set search parameters. All this said, the actual racing carries across well online; we never spied any significant lag.
The one area of Ridge Racer that deserves wholehearted applause is the wonderfully presented interface, all controlled by touch screen. The futuristic panels beg to be touched and are a joy to navigate; the TV channels' introductions are smooth and stylish. If only the rest of the features had had the same amount of care lavished upon them.
Ridge Racer is a bold experiment with a proven franchise, but it hasn't turned out to be a particularly enticing deal. Releasing at a budget RRP is no excuse; Ridge Racer is devoid of content and modes as standard. It plays well, handles as you'd want it to and is as fun an arcade racer as ever, but there's just not enough here to hold interest for more than a few hours – unless you want to wait for all the downloadable content to arrive and reluctantly tip more money into it.