SONY PSP REVIEW: RIDGE RACER

Outside of the Mario Kart series, I've never really liked racing games. Even Nintendo's "other" racing franchise, F-Zero, never really stuck with me (outside of their cool, mobile F-Zero AX arcade game). I've even played the PSP's other racing launch title, WipeOut Pure, and I really could not have been more bored.

Which is why I just can't put my finger on why I can't get enough of Ridge Racer.

There are several reasons why this is a very good game, but none of the ones that apply here have ever been enough for me to really enjoy a good racing game in the past. So why now? Perhaps it has something to do with how well Ridge Racer's many great elements come together to form one amazingly tight package.

I'll come right out and say this: I'm reviewing title as a total Ridge Racer newbie. I am, of course, familiar with the series and what it's about, but I've never played any of the past titles in the series, and so I don't know how they compare to this one. I do know that some of the installments have been less successful than others, but that's not the point: if this series has always been half as good as the game I have in my PSP right now, then I've been missing out on a quality racing experience that even a non-racing-game fan such as myself can enjoy.

Ridge Racer offers the usual stable of game modes to get you started. There's Single Race mode, which wastes no time in tossing you into a car and onto one of the game's 24 (after everything is unlocked) gorgeous tracks for a quick racing fix. There's also Time Attack mode, which is, of course, pretty self-explanatory. Multiple owners of the game in close proximity to each other can enjoy Wireless Battle mode, which lets up to eight people race each other head-to-head in gloriously lag-free multiplayer races. And finally, there’s World Tour mode, the definitive single-player Ridge Racer experience where you’ll spend most of your time competing against increasingly harder computer-controlled opponents in widely varied "tours" (basically, a pre-set series of courses) to unlock the game's massive amount of cars, tracks, and other unlockables, some of which include more and harder tours so you can, in turn, unlock even better stuff.

Frankly, there's an overwhelming amount of depth to this game. There's a lot more to it than first meets the eye, and you can expect to spend a lot of time with this game if you want to see all it has to offer. The game's Basic Tours will have you laughing all the way to the finish line (and probably in first place every time), but you better be ready to be totally on your game and have near-flawless driving skills if you want to best the often unforgiving AI of the Pro and EX Tours.

And you will want to best them, because this game is just so damned fun. This is the definitive racing experience for those who like their speed and adrenaline but don't want to spend hours with the technical side of things, or even better, don’t care to. In other words, if you’re like me and are frankly scared off by the ridiculous amount of automobile know-how required to make any sort of real, competitive progress in gorgeous-but-complex racers like Gran Turismo 4, then look no further: you’ve found your game. By the same token, if you like tweaking and tuning every last aspect of your machines to your exact preferences, look elsewhere: you won’t find anything like that here. Ridge Racer is all about picking a car, picking a tour/track, and then, well… racing.

That's not to say the game is all "hit the gas and stay on the road," however. There is one all-important technical aspect that is essential to success in Ridge Racer, and that is the art of drifting around corners, something that feels incredibly intuitive and comfortable right from the first time you pull off your first successful drift, to the Pro and EX Tours where you’re trying to drift around that tough, double-hairpin corner as fast and as tightly as possible (which requires some serious precision reflexles).

And this is ultimately the chief reason why Ridge Racer works so well: everything just feels so unbelievably right. The control you have over your car is so spot-on that you can literally "feel" it when you nail a drift just right or when you’re careening down a straightaway at speeds of nearly 200 MPH. Likewise, then – and here is the key – you will be as good at Ridge Racer as you want to be, because you have such direct and precise control over your car that both your successes and your failures can be attributed entirely to you. You can be as good at this game as you want to be. If you just want to take joyrides around the game’s gorgeous, paradise-like courses and not really dabble too deeply in the very intense, precise aspects of high-speed, accurate drifting, that’s fine; you can do that. But if you really want to be good at this game, learn how to control your machine extremely precisely, and feel the rush of careening past an opponent as you drift right inside of his line of travel around a hairpin corner at ridiculously high speeds, you can do that too. Like a good puzzle game, Ridge Racer is easy to pick up but very difficult to master.

The game's sense of speed and in-your-face urgency is overwhelming at times. It really takes me a lot to get into racing games so much that I’m swerving along with my car and holding my breath as I careen through crucial turns, but it happens to me all the time when I'm playing Ridge Racer… and I love it. The game’s sense of pure speed and velocity is just ridiculously intense at times, especially in the later tours, where the computer difficulty spikes and really makes you work for that first-place finish… and I have to put the game aside and ask myself, "how is a handheld racing game this freaking intense?"

Well, for one thing, it might have to do with the game's absolutely gorgeous graphics, which are just... almost trance-like in their beauty. Honestly, no launch game should look this good. All of the game's courses seem like they were lifted directly out of some brochure to some wonderful natural paradise, where bright tropical beaches, lush landscapes, shining bodies of water, and glitzy, neon cityscapes are the orders of the day. Add to this a subtle, trance-like blur effect applied to the game's fast-moving visuals, and you really do feel like you're slipping into a different world when you focus in on this game. Seriously, these visuals are just so attractive that it's easy to get lost in the game, feeling like you’re a part of it all rather than looking from the outside in.

And this all becomes doubly, or perhaps even three times as true when you play the game with some nice headphones. Ridge Racer sports one quality soundtrack, with lots of rich, crisp smooth jazz, island lounge, and mellow techno to complement the game's dreamy, almost therapeutic-visuals. Nearly every song seems to complement its assigned track incredibly well, although you have the option to choose which song you’d like to hear (and there are a lot to choose from) before the start of every race. The game's sound effects are spot-on as well, with some incredibly realistic-sounding cars (especially when drifting) as well as pleasing environmental sounds (such as the cries of the seagulls in the beach-based tracks). Even the game's announcer is mellow and non-invasive, though you have the option to turn him off if you so wish.

Simply put, this kind of seamless, pull-you-in audiovisual experience is rare in console games, let alone handheld ones. Plenty of games have gorgeous visuals and wonderful soundtracks, but many fewer are able to mesh the two together so seamlessly and deliver the kind of enveloping, "pull-you-in" feeling that Ridge Racer accomplishes. I know I probably sound certifiably insane right now, but all I can tell you is to play this game in a dark room with some headphones on; then you’ll see what I mean to the fullest extent.

A few small shortcomings keep the game from attaining that elusive score of 5 out of 5, though. On the gameplay end of things, the game seems to favor those who master the "Dynamic" style of drifting as opposed to the "Mild" style; though the instruction manual stresses that each player should use the one that suits his or her playing style best, the game seems much more eager to recharge a lot more nitrous energy (which charges as a car drifts at high speeds) to those who use the Dynamic style, and how often you get to use your nitrous boosts can often mean the difference between victory and defeat in super-tight races against computer opponents in the higher tours, and against human opponents. And as wonderfully beautiful as the game's visuals are, those who prefer the game's third-person, behind-the-car camera view (there’s also an in-the-car, first-person view) will quickly see how plain and, frankly, bland the cars are compared to the rest of the game, at least during the races.

Don't let either of these shortcomings stop you from what amounts to an absolutely awesome game, however. If you're the proud father or mother of a new, baby PSP and in need of a game for your new system that is both incredibly fun and deep and is also a great way to show off the audiovisual capabilities of the system, look no further than Ridge Racer. It may well be the PSP's star launch title, and is well worth your time.

 

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System: PSP
Dev: Namco
Pub: Namco
Release: Mar 2005
Players: 1 - 8
Review by Renkyu
RATING (OUT OF 5)
OVERALL
4.5
GRAPHICS
5.0
CONTROL
4.5
MUSIC/FX
3.0
VALUE
3.5