Game Review: Ridge Racer: Unbounded

For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360

From: Bugbear Entertainment/Namco Bandai

ESRB rating: Teen (mild language, mild violence)

Price: $60

Between the awkward subtitle and the fact that it neither looks nor plays like a "Ridge Racer" game, "Ridge Racer: Unbounded" arrives with a supremely unfortunate name as its introduction.

Happily, just about everything else is superlative going the other way. If this is the future of "Ridge Racer," then so be it, because "Unbounded" is one of the most exhilarating arcade racing games ever made.

Per "Ridge Racer" tradition, drifting plays a key role in "Unbounded," which includes a dedicated drift event as part of a large roster of single-player events centered around racing, time trials, "Burnout"-style car combat and occasional special events. Drifting (along with tailgating, trading paint and other dangerous driving feats) contributes to a power meter that, when full, lets you wreak some exceptional havoc on both your opponents and the track at large.

At its most benign, cashing in a full power meter is good for a quick shot of turbo. But it's far more valuable as a means for fully obliterating another racer. Activate the power and ram a car before it depletes, and it's good for a takedown that punishes your opponent and quickly refills your power almost completely. String together consecutive takedowns, and it's the most fun you can have dominating the field. But with high bursts of speed come frequent opportunities to completely miss a perfect takedown and ram a wall instead. "Unbounded" is fast by default and completely reckless at top speed, and the risks, rewards, reflexes and snap decisions needed to succeed are appropriately thrilling.

A properly-timed power activation also allows for some visually spectacular track modification. Want to drive straight through a building for a shortcut while everyone else takes the road around it? Go right ahead. Again, though, you'd best time it right: Barrel into that building just as the meter empties, and the only wreckage will be your car.

The ensuing bedlam perfectly complements a blend of physics and heft that's considerably different than the customary "Ridge Racer" laws of motion. Drifting no longer is a comically easy maneuver you can perform for a half-mile at a time: There is a pronounced weight to these cars that, along with a terrific sense of speed and momentum, turns every drift and power activation into a risky play. Different cars handle with varying levels of ease, and there are instances where a touch too much can cause a tailspin that dooms your race position.

That can be problematic, because "Unbounded's" single difficulty setting is fair but harsh. Commit some ugly blunders, and you'll find yourself in 12th place with no way to scrape back to third or better (which, in races, is required to pass the event). A persistent upgrade track means even a pitiful finish brings some reward in terms of experience points that eventually unlock new events and better cars. But the goal remains to place or win, and "Unbounded" won't hold your hand and take you there. That's refreshing, and it's genuinely satisfying to ace an event, but if you're easily discouraged, consider yourself warned.

"Unbounded's" upgrade path carries over to multiplayer (eight players, online only), and while the head-to-head races are as straightforward as online racing gets, it gets the job done.

Much more interesting are the community challenges. "Unbounded" includes a surprisingly versatile track editor, and you can create your own "city" by packaging created tracks and events together. Your creations are shareable online, and "Unbounded" arranges the content into time-limited (some an hour, some a day) challenges where players worldwide compete for the best score. The event creator's score is prominently on display as well, and even if you can't best all comers, there's immense satisfaction in outclassing a player in an event he or she designed.

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