Over the years, the world of racing videogames has expanded to include a number of different sub-genres that lend themselves to a specific style of gameplay, and cater to a gamer of a specific taste. The Project Gothams and Gran Turismos are vaunted as the pinnacle of racing simulation, games like Need for Speed Underground are for the Fast and the Furious crowd – with their neon lights and shiny rims, and so on. But those are just a flash in the pan compared to the most enduring type of racing game there is – the arcade racer. At the forefront of the arcade racers today is the Ridge Racer series, which has for years delighted gamers with its simplistic and easy to pick up style of gameplay. It’s only appropriate then that Namco released its newest entry to the series alongside the Xbox 360, in direct competition with the newest Project Gotham and Need for Speed games. While it’s certainly not the top contender for the racing throne (which would arguably go to PGR3), it’s an absolute delight for longtime fans of the series, and newcomers who are looking for an easier bit of gaming goodness.The easiest way to describe the Ridge Racer gameplay, as it differs from other racing games, is that Namco could have done away with the brake altogether and the game wouldn’t play a hair differently. To win races you have to have the pedal to the metal at all times. Negotiating turns isn’t a matter of nursing the e-brake to get good angles around turns; it’s about ridiculously dangerous high-speed traction-losing drifts. No matter how sharp the turn, all you have to do is quickly let off the gas, throw the wheel to one direction to initiate a skid, angle the front of your car towards the exit of the turn, and throw on the throttle again. At no point does the brake ever come to the equation.
In addition to giving you the ability to keep up your speed around turns, drifting also fills up your three nitrous bars, which can be used to give you a burst of sustained speed. The faster you move while you’re drifting, the more nitrous you get, so a common tactic is to nitrous on a straight-away right before a sharp turn, and use the added speed to rebuild your next burst much more quickly. In the higher classes of cars, this turns into something akin to a combo system. Since those cars negotiate the distance between turns much more quickly, you can start linking those drifts together for maximum nitrous gain. It’s a difficult feat to manage, but by the time you get up to the top races, you’re going to need every trick you can get to run a perfect run.
One unfortunate consequence of the arcade style is that the physics can be pretty unwieldy. As far as being able to pull off impossible turns, this doesn’t seem like a very big problem because it’s so fundamental to the gameplay, but it’s not without it’s side effects. The most obvious is the ridiculous way the cars handle colliding with different things. One you’ll notice almost right away is the pinball effect that cars have on each other. Your car will almost be moving more quickly than your computer opponents, especially at the beginning of the race when you’re trying to work your way to the front of the pack. The problem is, when you rear-end a car going more quickly than they are – you essentially switch speeds. They get a speed boost equal to the distance between your two speeds, and you get a hit in speed to the same amount. This is a bit of a boon for the online component because it means that people can’t maliciously try and spin you out, and it also allows you to steal speed from opponents by having them rear-end you when you’ve taken a hit in speed, but it adds another layer of problems at the higher-levels, where the game demands perfection.
The majority of the racing in Ridge Racer 6 is done in the World Xplorer mode. You’re given a fairly robust-looking map, full of numbered races. In order to get to the more difficult races, you have to create a path of completed races. It’s not a linear path, of course, as races branch out in various directions making a sort of maze. Difficulty is measured by the height of the race on the map, and the class is determined by how far to the right of the map it is. You can unlock new cars by completing all the races around empty areas in the map, or by completing the last race in a specific class. There is an air of addictiveness about it, as a new unlockable car is always only a few races away. You even have the ability to string a series of races together, so you don’t have to keep going back to the menu each time. There’s a lot of racing to be done, with over two hundred races and four classes to finish, including special unlockable races once you complete the first one hundred or so.
The multiplayer online component supports up to 14 players in a race, but defaults to a more realistic 8. There’s nothing to stop you from picking the maximum number, but racing games are of the sort where even a hint of lag can ruin the whole experience. You earn points for winning races, and the game keeps track of the overall points leaders. A neat little nuance included with this is that higher ranked players will be put in the starting positions further to back, adding another layer of challenge. It’s a nice touch. In addition to the traditional online component, you can compete in a global time attack mode that tracks your times and ghosts over Xbox Live. A leaderboard is kept for every vehicle/track combination, and the competition is extremely fierce. You can download the top players’ ghosts and race against them to try and figure out and improve on their lines, but the vast majority of guys at #1 are there for good reason.
Ridge Racer 6 is nowhere near the graphical behemoth that PGR3 is. The cars are very sharp and well modeled, the backgrounds are scenic and interesting, and the game blows by at a blisteringly fast and remarkably consistent framerate. Still, it seems at times like it could have easily have been done with near-equal success on the original Xbox. For one thing, the road textures are very subtle to the point where there don’t seem to be any, and the cars themselves look a little too smooth and shiny. And not only do the cars not have a dynamic damage model, but they don’t even include a token aesthetic damage system – your cars are essentially invulnerable. Having it on HD is nice, but far from mandatory. The added visual fidelity comes in handy for deciphering the degree of turns in the distance, a well as giving added sharpness to small details like the burnout marks on the asphalt that usually indicate a turn can only be negotiated with a drift. You won’t suffer any for having an old CRT set though, which is good to see.
The presentation is pretty slick, if a little sparse. The menus have a lot of loading, but they are aesthetically cool as well as intuitive and to the point. The sound effects are pretty subdued and underplayed, as is the generic techno which seems to fade into the background of your mind as you get a really into an intense race. The only thing that really stumps this trend is the announcer, who chimes in rather persistently every time you or the people around you do anything right/wrong. It’s easy to see how he could get on your nerves, but his encouragement is actually rather helpful at times, though it may just be a matter of taste.
Realistically, very little of the series’ gameplay dynamics were changed for Ridge Racer 6. The nitrous system is an evolved form of the one found in the PSP version, but beyond that, it is still a good old-fashioned Ridge Racer at heart. It’s an extremely fun game to just pick up and play, and once you get a little ways into the World Xplorer mode it starts to get extremely addictive. So if you find that the other racing games really aren’t doing it for you and you’re looking for some simple arcade fun, there’s no alternative. Ridge Racer 6 goes highly recommended.