Police cars stampede like antelope across the freeway, careening into oncoming traffic and riding up on crash barriers. Behind them, ploughing implacably onwards, is an angry red truck. I am driving the truck.
To say that Ridge Racer: Unbounded encourages aggressive driving would be an understatement. Released by Bugbear Entertainment, developers of the original FlatOut games, it represents a thorough reworking of the previously console-exclusive arcade racer.
The series' signature drifting simulation features only peripherally in the Frag Attack mode I'm currently playing. As the timer ticks down, I swing my truck from side to side, sending police cars flying, bursting into balls of flame. Each one crushed earns me a few seconds on the clock, and a boost to the power bar that periodically enables me to surge forward, wrecking everything in my path. I'm chiefly sticking to the wrong side of the road: the hapless oncoming traffic neither slows me down nor earns me any points, but I can't see what else it could be there for.
Frag Attack isn't the sum of the game, but does capture the vehicular carnage at its core. Even the more traditional race mode, Dominate, encourages you to crash into anything that isn't nailed down on your way to the finish line. Unbounded is so named for the fact that its drivers are unrestricted by sense, physics, or respect for property. Want to drive smoothly and cleanly? Forget it. A delicate drift around a corner earns you power, and that power lets you open shortcuts by ramming headlong into obstacles, shooting forward in a cone of red light, rubble and shrapnel. The first time you take the scenic route through the walls of a mausoleum, Unbounded's mission statement becomes more or less clear.
The vehicles feel weighty enough that slamming them into walls isn't a concern, but it only takes a moment's miscalculation – or the aggressive attention of another driver – to trigger a spin-out. Crashes are rendered from first principles, without a reliance on canned animations. This means you get twirling, flaming hunks of twisted wreckage sent soaring across the track as the game shifts into an appreciative slow-motion panning shot. Producer Joonas Laakso says his favourite game is Burnout 3, and its not difficult to figure out what he thought was the best thing about it.
In Dominate, respawns are quick and crashes are an inevitable but recoverable setback. In Survival mode, however, every racer gets a single life. This changes the rhythm of play completely, encouraging considered risk-taking and precise timing. Firing off your boost at the wrong moment can see you wreck yourself, even without the help of your competitors. It's necessary to check yourself before this happens.
The other modes are designed to teach the basic skills needed to succeed in the core game: Frag Attack for aggression and Drift Challenge for, well, sliding around corners in order to communicate how damn cool you are.
It's important that these mechanics are solid, because Unbounded comes with its own track editor that enables players to compete on whatever kind of course they feel like making. This feature came about due to a desire to add value to what is otherwise a straightforward experience. “The time has passed for this kind of simple arcade offering,” explains Laakso. “We felt like we really needed to offer something extra.”
At the most basic level, constructing a track is a case of laying out blocks – each a tiny clump of city with a predetermined racing line – on an eight-by-eight grid. As long as your course has a starting line and loops back on itself, you can build whatever you like within the confines of a budget.
That budget is determined by the available texture memory, and Bugbear are willing to consider increasing this for PCs that can handle it. In order to upload a track for online use, you will first have to prove that you can beat it yourself. This establishes the par time for the course, and confirms that the track is valid – which is essential, given Unbounded's persistent ranking system.
Simply getting a track up and running is as easy as playing a game of Pipe Mania, which the basic editor strongly resembles – albeit with roads and cars instead of pipes and goo. For the dedicated few, however, an advanced mode will allow for the placement and minute adjustment of individual track elements on the fly– and yes, it will support mouse and keyboard on the PC.
It's possible for the same repeating block to be manipulated into a whole race course, with custom-tooled barriers, jumps, and physics defying loop-theloops. It's incredibly flexible, Laakso claims, which he subsequently demonstrates by driving headlong through a stack of explosive barrels and a giant plywood dinosaur. As you do.
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