Bandai-Namco’s Vita iteration of their long-running racing franchise is a strange value proposition that manages to mix some addictive gameplay with some horrible design choices, making a very mixed package.
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World-building & Story
Set in the planetary racing league, Ridge Racer asks you to choose a team upon booting up and you’ll contribute to this team’s global success – alongside other real-life players – in everything you do.
It’s an interesting setup – by participating in races, time trials or other challenges you’ll earn points, and these are uploaded to your chosen team who will compete against each of the other three teams for supremacy. As such, you feel part of a global community through what you’re doing (even if numbers are a little thin on the ground these days), always contributing towards an overall goal.
Sadly, this is all done in lieu of a story or really any single-player content. This is not an oddity for the genre, given similar Vita racers like WipEout 2048 feature nothing in terms of plot, although the franchise has dabbled with it in the past with titles like R: Racing Evolution. It is, however, important to be given an overall goal to be training towards to keep you motivated and as such Ridge Racer achieves what it sets out to do with this, even if it is in an iffy socially-connected manner.
Presentation & Sound
One of a number of launch title racing games for Vita, Ridge Racer manages to achieve a good level of graphical fidelity that is below its console counterparts but still gorgeous to look at thanks to some great modelling and effects work, even if some elements don’t hold up to close inspection
The game’s vehicles are probably the star of the show – they’re impressively detailed and realistic looking (even if they’re all fictional makes and models). They soar through the courses available – glimmering in the light; screeching around corners and feature some fantastic texture and modelling work. What’s most impressive is that they can be largely customised with new colours and decals, meaning you can tweak a car you like into one you love.
Environments are similarly impressive, at least at first glance. The areas available are mostly quite varied – from cityscapes by the waterfront; to grassy mountains or abandoned ruins, meaning variety is high – and each feature some visually fantastic spectacle somewhere during the race. Whether it be an aeroplane taking off overhead; a crowd of people cheering you on or a waterfall-filled cave, there’s plenty to take in as you drive around – which can occasionally be distracting while you learn the layout of each track.
Once you’ve blasted through each area a couple of times, however, you’ll begin to notice some of Ridge Racer‘s flaws. Texture work can be rough, particularly on rocky environmental items but sometimes on the tracks themselves. Things like fields often look like they should have more vegetation and wildlife in them than they actually do – especially when compared to Ridge Racers 6 & 7 which the game is based on. These really are minor gripes though, considering everything else about the title is beautiful.
Menu work is also incredibly solid – the first time I scrolled through all of the options available I genuinely thought I was playing some futuristic concept game, thanks to some oddball design choices and an image of series mascot Reiko Nagase in the background. Although it was a long way removed from the franchise’s traditional arcade-friendly screens, it works incredibly well.
Just a quick word on performance – the game performs incredibly well, hitting stable framerates throughout – something very important in a fast-paced racing game, although it is a shame to see the title not target the genre standard 60fps that would make it a real visual showcase on the handheld.
Sound is solid – from the cheerful tracks in the background of the menus to the techno beats pounding when racing, music is always a high point. Similarly sound effects – ranging from the screeching of tyres on tracks to the satisfying whirr of nitrous injecting into your engine – is always a thrill. The only annoyance is an overly-perky announcer, but she serves as a fitting reminder of Ridge Racer‘s arcade roots and I somewhat enjoyed her as a result.
Gameplay & Content
If you played the franchise back in the days of the PS1, with this Vita iteration you’ll discover that Ridge Racer has come a long way. Although street racing is still the focus and drifting the key mechanic, additions like nitrous boosting and drafting have been added to create a nuanced, exciting driving experience.
At its core, Ridge Racer is about completing laps on street circuits against competition, with the goal of coming first to obtain rewards and progress to the next challenge. Vehicles don’t exactly handle like normal cars, however, as this is an arcade racer – instead, they often feel like they’re driving on ice allowing for easy skidding and drifting around corners. As such you won’t always feel fully in control of your vehicle, which is exacerbated by the high speeds you’ll be whizzing around the tracks.
It’s difficult to describe without experiencing first hand and definitely takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s essential you do adapt – as the loose handling of the cars means they fly around corners in a drift while keeping up their top speed, meaning you don’t lose precious ground against your competitors. This also serves a dual purpose, as the higher your speed while drifting, the more you’ll fill up your nitrous bar which is used to increase your top speed to even more insane levels.
To keep the franchise in line with the changing market at the time – dominated by illegal street racing – Ridge Racer on PSP introduced nitrous, special fuel that allows you to increase the maximum speed of your vehicle. It’s essential to winning races as AI competitors will use it too – and smart use is rewarded, as you’ll be given extra nitrous for successfully drifting around a corner at your car’s maximum speed. Courses in general are cleverly designed to be full of twists and turns mixed in with stretches of straight road, therefore track memorization is important to know when to boost and when to stock up.
You’ll be given control over how to use your nitrous too, thanks to the game’s skill tree. As you level up you’ll earn points to spend on a web and can activate one of three perks that will change the way you race. For example, you can elect to swap your nitrous from two bars that provide a powerful boost but can only be used when full; to one bar which can be used whenever but is comparatively weaker. It’s not full of the most in-depth customisation options, but it does provide enough choice to allow you to influence the way the game plays. Aside from this, you’re also given a load of aesthetic customisation choices to change the look and decal of your vehicle.
It all comes together to create a smooth, enjoyable driving experience once you’ve gotten the hang of drifting, boosting and bombing around the track. There’s other considerations too – for example, driving close behind an opponent will allow you to draft, increasing your speed due to a lack of wind resistance; but colliding with them will cause a dull thud and you’ll lose some serious speed (sadly, damage is completely absent from the racing here).
So what’s not to like? Well sadly, Ridge Racer‘s sticking point – and the thing it got critically slated for – is content. The base purchase nets you just three tracks (plus mirror modes) and five vehicles. Plus, there’s a severe lack of modes too – single race; time trial and fastest lap are present (alongside online variants) but there’s a complete lack of any career or continuous progression mode, leaving you to your own devices to be entertained. Even the online is bare-bones without the ability to change tracks within a lobby.
The game attempts to remedy this with a large amount of downloadable content, one of the most extensive selections available on Vita — which is something I’ll cover in my next section – but whether or not this is all worth it is up to interpretation.
Ridge Racer offers lots of pieces of individual DLC, but most notably two pieces group these all together into packs – the ‘Silver Pass’ and ‘Gold Pass’ packs, for £3.99 and £5.79 respectively. Despite the difference in names, each contain three additional tracks alongside a handful of cars. This means a total of 9 tracks are available with these packs, plus mirror versions meaning a total of 18 variations to learn (each track can be bought separately should you wish to do this).
With these, the game becomes a more compelling package, although the lack of modes is not fixed by any DLC available. And despite the tracks all being ported over from previous titles in the series, it’s still enjoyable to race through the canyons of Redstone Thunder Road or blast through the streets of Sunset Heights. If, like me, you’re engaged by the core gameplay of Ridge Racer then this expanded content is well worth having – the issue is the additional expenditure just to make the game functionally worth it.
What is worthwhile is the free music DLC. Each pack contains a number of songs from previous Ridge Racer titles and you can pick and choose which ones you want to install by deleting them as appropriate from your download list. It’s not a fantastic solution, but I found myself loading up with the stuff I liked, all of which was freely available to me.
It’s difficult to make an outright call on Ridge Racer for Vita. On the one hand, the value of the package is seriously undermined by its DLC structure and even then, you’re not getting as much as I would have liked thanks to missing modes. Yet on the flip side, this is a gorgeous racer with fun mechanics; some decent environments (once you’ve paid for them) and a pick up and play nature that makes it great for a handheld. Personally, I managed to look past its flaws and had a fun time engaging in single racers and beating my best lap times, but I can see the game being off-putting for those not willing to shell out for the DLC on top of the vanilla title.