Ridge Racer Review (PSP)
Like death and taxes, a Ridge Racer game launching alongside a new PlayStation system is one of life's certainties. The series has made a name for itself based upon its strong graphics and accessible game play, and it now finds a new home on the PSP.
Make no mistake: this is Ridge Racer, and those interested in realism should avoid it like the plague. This bears almost no resemblance to real world driving, and that's the intention. The criteria for an arcade racer should be responsiveness and consistency, not necessarily realism. Ridge Racer passes this test with aplomb, as the control scheme and physics are excellent. I didn't think the PSP analog stick would be good for much, but it's implemented perfectly in this game, and provides precision control. Though the physics owe more to "Speed Racer" than anything on our planet, they become familiar quickly and "feel" right. You'll go into a power-slide or drift at the drop of a hat; but that's the essence of the series and always has been. It's simple, streamlined arcade racing, and it's been polished to a high gloss.
New to this incarnation of Ridge Racer is a "Nitrous Boost", as it appears the old man of arcade racing is learning something from the new kids on the block like Burnout, Need for Speed Underground and Midnight Club. You'll earn more boost as you drift through corners at high speed, and then trigger that turbo for the now obligatory screen-blurring sense of speed. It's a fun addition that adds a bit of risk/reward game play as you try to gather more turbo, but it's not implemented as well as in other games and seems limited because drifting is the only way nitrous can be gained. If you don't drift through a lot of turns, you simply won't be competitive. There is no alternative way to race in Ridge Racer - drift early and often, or you'll lose.
Anyone who would play Ridge Racer expecting any of the other new wrinkles introduced into the arcade racing genre will be sorely disappointed. For starters, there is no "crashing model". I'm not even talking about a damage model; where you'll incur visible damage to your vehicle. I'm referring to any sort of ability to have a serious collision: you'll bounce off fences, railings, mountains, and other cars with equal ease. While you'll lose a touch of speed brushing up against roadside objects - and take a slightly larger hit when colliding with another car - you'll never flat-out crash. Keep your finger on the gas button, and you'll recover from that speed loss within seconds. Recently added in more modern arcade racers is the concept of alternative gameplay. There is nothing in Ridge Racer besides straight-up racing. Occasionally there is a one-on-one race instead of racing in a field of twelve, but that's the extent of the variations you'll see. Between the lack of variety, the fact that nothing disastrous ever happens, and that a drift/turbo strategy is the only way to win, the races really start to feel the same after a while.
The meat of the game is to be found in "World Tour", where you'll race through a collection of tracks culled from previous Ridge Racer games. Although it initially smacks of recycled shovelware, all the tracks have been spiffed up graphically and the whole thing is presented as a tour through the history of the Ridge Racer series. There's even a playable version of the 1981 arcade racer New Rally-X to occupy you through some of the loading screens. As you progress through the races, you'll unlock more cars. The cars aren't authentic, and all the cars in a given class are relatively identical except for the drifting model; some are easier to control than others. It's not a rich selection of vehicles compared to most other modern racing games, but it serves its purpose. Since all the cars in a given class are equal, it means that your success is going to be determined more by your driving ability than by your ability to unlock cars that will outclass your opponents. The AI you'll be trying to beat is a bit of a mixed bag. It's not truly competitive, as you'll race through grouped packs in true arcade fashion, but at least the AI intelligently uses Its nitrous and will try to block you as you come up behind them.
Within "World Tour" you'll find an innovation that essentially becomes a new gameplay mode: the "Custom Tour". Namco really took the PSP into account, and realized that much of portable gaming is bound by time constraints: you'll likely have a 20-minute bus ride, a half-hour lunch, or maybe an hour in the doctor's waiting room in which to play. "Custom Tour" allows you to set the class of car you want to race with and the amount of time you'd like to spend racing, then sets up the tour for you. While it's maybe not as powerful as you might find in a console racer, it's an inventive addition that is platform-specific and I suspect that we'll see similar features from other publishers in the future. "Single Race" and "Time Trial" modes are also available, allowing you simple jump-in-and-race action. "Wireless Battle" allows for two- to eight-player racing, but only in what is called "ad-hoc mode". This won't allow you to go on the Internet to find opponents, but you can play with other players in your immediate area. I wasn't able to test this feature out, and wish there was true Internet multiplayer (known on the PSP as "Infrastructure Mode").
It's pretty standard that launch titles aren't usually able to squeeze the most power out of a system, especially in terms of graphics. Usually the eye-popping stuff a console is capable of doesn't appear until the second or third generation of games. If that's the case with the PSP, then those titles are going to have to do a lot of work to beat out Ridge Racer. I have a hard time imagining that the PSP could produce a better-looking racing game, as Ridge Racer seems easily the equal of all but the very top tier of PS2 titles. The cars look great, and sport some real-time reflections; the lighting effects are perfect, and the tracks themselves are detailed and sport environmental animations like waterfalls, passenger jets, and helicopters. There are certainly fair shares of "jaggies", but no more than I expect from a PS2 title.
There are five different soundtrack "discs" featuring six different songs each, so there's plenty of music to be played. None of it makes me want to rush out and buy the soundtrack, but it's appropriately fun, fast and easy to drive to. You can easily switch soundtracks before the race, or even in-race - which is a welcome feature. It's not as fun as an Xbox-like custom soundtrack would be, of course - but it's presented well, and makes setting the soundtrack easy. There's another great idea here that takes advantage of the media player aspects of the PSP: the "AV Player". Here, you can load saved replays of races, then set the music you want to accompany the replay. You may also choose to have no display at all; you can simply play the various soundtracks by themselves - perfect for putting on some headphones and listening to "Eat 'Em Up!" (the hilarious remix of the Pac-man theme) as you go about your daily business.
There is also the now-standard "extreme" announcer, much like one would expect to hear on an EA Sports Big title. The commentary's not terribly funny or entertaining, but can sometimes be useful as it alerts you to racers closing in behind you or when it alerts you that you've earned more nitrous turbo. The ambient noise is good; engines are a bit tinny, but otherwise sound appropriate, and you'll hear sound effects like the raging surf or low-flying aircraft.
This is a stunning arcade racer and is a must-buy for any PSP owner that likes arcade racing. In fact, anyone that doesn't actively despise the genre will likely enjoy it immensely. Ridge Racer's game play is refined and smooth, and it contains some nice features specific to the PSP platform. However, the series is starting to act like geriatric "classic" rockers who take the same "Greatest Hits" out on the road year after year. It's got its play list down pat, but there's nothing new there. Games like the stunning Burnout 3 changed the expectations of an arcade racer: damage models, an intricate risk/reward system, varying game types, as well as other innovations. Ridge Racer executes what it aims to do perfectly, but its aim is a bit too low at this point for me to max out the OS review scale. It's a fantastic launch title and I'll keep playing it for some time, but I‘ll also be waiting for some more modern racers to hit the PSP, now that I know what this little machine is capable of.