Ridge Racer Unbounded passed a lot of people by -- perhaps because it was more like Burnout than Ridge Racer -- but I enjoyed it rather a lot.
Thus it was with some trepidation that I fired up the current beta version of Ridge Racer Driftopia, a free-to-play adaptation of Unbounded presently in closed beta for PC and coming soon to PS3. Could Namco and developer Bugbear maintain Unbounded's destructive, chaotic magic while implementing the divisive business model?
The results, judging by my early impressions, are somewhat mixed. But there's some interesting ideas at play, at least.
Upon starting Driftopia for the first time, you're presented with a "starter pack" that contains three cars, 50 repair kits and two booster items. The free-to-play structure is placed front and center with the way this is implemented -- both cars and boosters are represented as collectible cards with varying degrees of rarity, and you're awarded a free pack every 24 hours, or you can purchase more for real money at any time. The more you spend in one go, the more likely you are to get uncommon, rare or "mythic" cards that feature better vehicles. Booster packs are similar -- the more you spend at once, the more likely you are to get rarer cards that are more effective in improving your performance.
The reason why cars and boosters are represented as cards is because they can be "discarded," and indeed over the course of your Driftopia career you'll likely be discarding as many things as you acquire. Cars are discarded if you wreck them and choose not to repair them -- or don't have enough repair kits to repair them, more to the point -- and boosters are discarded immediately after the race in which you use them. While this may sound as if you can get into a position where you can't play any more without paying, Namco and Bugbear have implemented a failsafe for this eventuality: run out of cars and you'll be provided with a free "backup car" to use until you acquire some more cards, though you can count on this vehicle's performance being the equivalent of bringing a go-kart along to a Formula One race meet.
There are presently two main modes of play in Ridge Racer Driftopia. Timed Challenges task you with completing a circuit alone as quickly as possible, while Spirit Career challenges you to compete against the ghosts of other players downloaded from the Driftopia servers, with new ghosts being downloaded from the leaderboards each time you set a new time. Unfortunately, attempting to start a Spirit Career race consistently resulted in a game crash for me -- your mileage may vary according to your PC's configuration -- so my experience with the beta was limited solely to the Timed Challenges mode. There's also a Challenge Race mode in which you can compete against specific opponents in order to win their cars by beating or wrecking them, though this mode only becomes available under certain circumstances.
Timed Challenges update regularly -- at present, they seem to be changing every hour. While the Challenge is active, you can compete as many times as you like -- or are able to -- in an attempt to beat the three increasingly difficult target times. There's a leaderboard for each Timed Challenge, so as well as competing against the target times, you can see how you're performing against others -- the leaderboard not only shows the players' names and times, but also which cars they were using, any upgrades applied and their experience level. The leaderboard also marks the position of the closest player to each of the three target times, giving you an idea of who you should be attempting to beat next.
Completing a Timed Challenge provides several rewards. You'll get a reward -- generally a single booster card -- just for participating once the Challenge is over, but beating each of the three "tiers" of par times rewards you with a free car card, plus a few boosters in some cases. Beating the third (lowest) tier awards you an uncommon car card; beating the second tier gives you a rare card; beating the top tier gives you a mythic card. As such, performing well in Timed Challenges can be an alternative means of collecting the available cars without having to spend money -- assuming you can make it around the course, that is.
Driftopia is less forgiving than Unbounded in some ways, more so in others. In the original Unbounded, for example, in order to break through destructible walls and take shortcuts, you had to use your boost; in Driftopia, shortcuts are clearly marked well before you get to them, and there's no need to boost through them. On the flip side, crashing in Unbounded simply resulted in a Burnout-style "crash cam" (though crashing too many times would put you out of a race); meanwhile, in Driftopia, having one overenthusiastic confrontation with a wall will immediately wreck your car and disqualify you from continuing. If this happens, you have a choice: repair your car using repair kits and try again, or discard your car and try again with another if you have any available.
At present, this punishment for crashing feels overly harsh, particularly given that your initial allocation of 50 free repair kits is actually only enough for you to make five race-ending mistakes. At the same time, there's a certain white-knuckle thrill to playing the game like this, knowing that you could lose a valuable vehicle if you risk it in a difficult race. This almost roguelike-esque tension is further compounded by the fact that the longer you manage to hold on to a car and successfully complete races with it, the more it levels up and improves its performance, up to a maximum of nine times altogether. Repair bills become more expensive the more a car has been upgraded, too, so the risks become greater. The aforementioned backup car, meanwhile, cannot be upgraded; it's simply a stopgap to allow you to continue playing until you acquire some more cards.
Progression through the game as a whole is primarily determined by your score, which you rack up by smashing through shortcuts, causing collateral damage and hitting specific "targets" in the tracks, much like in Ridge Racer Unbounded. Score directly converts to experience points, and levelling up gives you access to more tracks in the Spirit Career mode.
The free-to-play element, meanwhile, manifests itself in several ways besides the aforementioned car and booster cards. Besides these packs of cards, you can also purchase bundles of repair kits (though these may also be acquired by selling unwanted car cards); score boosters that increase your score (and subsequent experience gain) by 50% for one, three or seven days; and packs of one, 10 or 20 additional garage slots to add to your initial two -- the more garage slots you have, the more car cards you can have available for racing at any one time, and the more cards you can be working on upgrading simultaneously.
At present, Ridge Racer Driftopia has some interesting ideas but is a little harsh on penalizing unskilled or beginner players. It's all too easy to burn through your initial allocation of 50 repair kits and find yourself stuck with the backup car until you either pay up or wait for a new free pack of cards.
The game also lacks depth overall -- while the Spirit Career and randomly-generated Timed Challenges do provide a decent amount of content for players to challenge, the fact there is no live multiplayer mode is disappointing, and the absence of the track editor from Unbounded makes it all the more clear that this is an experience in which Namco and Bugbear are firmly in control, not the players.
There's also not enough of a feeling of community -- it'd be nice to be able to trade cards, for example, or to have your friends' performance in the game more prominently displayed. At present, it feels more like a single-player game with online elements -- the latter aspect of which also leads to some frustrating load times as selecting many of the menu options seems to result in the game having to "communicate with the Ridge Racer servers" for several seconds at a time.
Driftopia is currently in closed beta so it's possible -- perhaps even likely -- that certain aspects of the experience will change prior to it being marked as ready for "release," but based on this early impression, you're probably better off trying to score a cheap copy of Unbounded, since it's an overall much more satisfying, complete-feeling experience. While Driftopia can be fun when it's not being frustrating, it's hard to ignore the fact that it clearly has one eye on your Steam Wallet at all times, whereas Unbounded is very much a game that invites you to just have fun with it however you see fit -- for as long as you like, and without having to pay anything extra. It's also hard to play this and not mourn the apparent passing of Ridge Racer's good old days when it was a colorful, cheerful franchise -- what I wouldn't give for a new game with Pac-Man cars, Reiko Nagase and cheesy Japanese dance music -- hell, and a bit more racing in the actual daytime rather than moody J.J. Abrams-style lens flare-tastic twilight wouldn't go amiss, either.
If you do want to try out Driftopia for yourself -- and despite its flaws, it is at least worth a look if you're curious and/or unwilling to drop $20 on a copy of Unbounded -- you can sign up on the official website. Despite the fact that the game is supposedly in "closed beta," there do not appear to be any restrictions on who can sign up -- moments after providing my basic information, I received an email with a link to confirm my account; minutes later, I had a Steam key in my inbox.