Review: Ridge Racer (Vita)

RidgeRacerVita

This is a modern arcade racing game that ships with three tracks. Assuming you are reading this relatively close to release and are presently standing in front of a bargain bin looking for advice via a smartphone on whether or not to buy the game in your hand or a pair of Cinnabons from the store next door, about the best you can hope to do on price is $25. Those two sentences ought to give you a decent idea of whether or not you are down for some Ridge Racer on your Vita at this point in your life. Or, if you’re reading this in the future, more into an old Vita release or sticky fingers and diabetes.

Whether or not it was a good idea is questionable, but the idea behind this release of the classic franchise and its reduced price tag is that more tracks and cars will be released as time goes on. Players can “build their own” game as it were, picking and choosing from the new tracks and cars that are put out online post-release. It is an interesting concept. All but a few racing games lose their appeal four months or less after a retail release as by then everyone way into the game has raced through all of the tracks hundreds of times, unlocked all of the cars and tuned a particular favorite to the point where young John Travolta will sing its praises. So unless the online scene is there, players will put the game down until another game in the franchise comes out.

Portioning out the content, to people with an internet connection, is a way to extend the lifespan of a racing game. The problem is that the initial investment here still is fairly steep for what one gets. There can be a ton of modes and songs and different looking cars to race, which there are not a ton of here, but it does not get away from the fact that there are only three tracks. This game should have either cost less or there should have been more given to players upfront. Early adopters, or those that can find an unopened, first run, hard copy, do get a Gold Pass to a few new pieces of DLC. Most significantly, this DLC will increase the track count from three to six and add five more cars to the player’s garage. But apparently this golden ticket was only valid through March 31st, which means anyone contemplating a purchase now is looking at three tracks for the upfront cost of $25-30, plus an additional — and completely optional — fee of $7.49 to buy the pass separately. A Silver Pass also just released this week (late April 2012). This grants access to three more courses and cars, as they are released over the coming weeks, for another payment of $6.99. (The same DLC cars and tracks are also sold individually for $1.49 – $2.49 each.) Copper, Platinum and Solid Hydrogen – that last one should be super cool and as dense as the other releases – have not been announced or priced yet, but if and when they are, I would guess they will contain a similar amount of content for the same price. A little arithmetic reveals that Namco is one more release away from equaling a full retail price when all content is bought separately. Which leads to the reasonable inference that there will be at least two more releases like the ones out now.

Even if there was only one track, it would become clear after the first turn that the gameplay in this Vita release of Namco Bandai’s signature racing series is not any different than it has been in the last couple of years. Writing less generally, the gameplay is the same as it was on March 22, 2005, the date when Ridge Racer was released for the PSP in North America. It looks a lot better, but it is the same basic game. For those that haven’t played one of these games before, the big thing that distinguishes Ridge Racin’ from cross country, NASCAR or futuristic hover machine racing is the art of the drift. More so than other racing games, anyone who decides to buy this game will come to understand that this series is about as arcade as one can get when racing without there being guns on the cars.

I assume the game has a button that activates a car’s brakes. I have no idea if it actually does because if you are using the brakes in Ridge Racer, you are playing the game incorrectly. Or, if not wrong, then not in the way that the development team envisioned. It is almost as if they answered the challenge to make a racing game with only a D-pad and one button for Nitrous and one for acceleration. This game series is very much about cars speeding down straightaways and then stopping the gas for a split-second while turning into a curve to drift through a series of hairpin turns while losing as little velocity as possible. A car racing on a ridge in Namco’s world will only slow down if the driver has made a mistake and gone off the road or when the car is drifting (and even then, not a lot). There is something very appealing about Ridge Racer that is maintained in this game. Shooting around corners while feeling like the car is barely under control with techno music mixing with the squeal of tires is as fun as ever, but it is not something that players have not seen many times before. This is one of the better racing games out now for the Vita in terms of just the racing itself, and from the looks of the release calendar it is likely going to remain that way for some time.

It is difficult to say whether or not the game looks good as this is a launch game (or at least a title released in the “launch window”) and so it is hard to tell if the graphics are nice for the system. Since all three of the default tracks appeared in Ridge Racer for the PSP, it is easy to make a comparison between the two. Unsurprisingly, the Vita game is significantly better looking than the very old PSP game. The deaf cows by the side of the road in Highland Cliffs look like actual animals, fireworks will occasionally pop off in the night track and look nice, and the road looks like a road with tire marks and streaks, not a dull gray river. The hardware improvement and the bigger screen show off just how much better the Vita is visually than the PSP when the two titles are run side by side. The cars themselves look a little jaggy in the menus but once in the race, they look fine. Only when the Nitrous is engaged does the game create a good sense of speed with motion blurs and dulled edges of the screen, mirroring the focused eyesight of a driver going two hundred plus miles an hour down a track. The menus are slick and controlled with the touch screen with big attractive icons.

The online interface is a disaster. Unless you have a dude in the room that wants to race, the options include Ghost Battles, racing against a collision-less car someone ran in the past, or online racing via Wifi. When racing one on one against someone’s ghost car, it works fine with the form and lines used by the other racer are replicated perfectly. The problem is tied to the way that cars are upgraded in the game. All cars have upgrade paths and a global system to determine how fast they can go. So, the longer and better one races, the better the cars will be. As it is easy to imagine, if someone just starting out racing against super high level racer-runs, they will get stomped and not have fun. There is no filter to show only ghosts that are level appropriate, meaning 500-odd ghosts have to be sorted through to find one that is beatable. In order to get the equivalent of experience points, racers have to battle ghosts or complete races online, and to get the most points, victory is required. Grinding against superior ghosts for points necessary to even stand a chance is not fun.

The online against other people is similarly problematic. On the plus side, here there is a filter to show only other races with drivers of the same level. The problem is that there usually are no racers of the same level online given the, what I can only gather to be, limited user base. Additionally, whenever a connection is dropped or a lobby fills up, or one wants to go back, the online menus will forget all other lobbies and dump users back to the main menu. “Frustrating and inexcusable” or “kind of online interface I would have expected before the year 2000” are phrases that come to mind. If there was a big, fat “Quick Match” button it might be OK, but there is no such feature. Assuming one can get into a game with appropriate opponents, it works well. As it seems that Online play in its various forms is the focus of this title, it is a huge shame that all the menus and syncing get in the way of playing the game because when the game finally gets started it is a lot of fun.

There is also a bunch of artificial social networking jazz heaped into the game where players are placed on teams apparently based on where you are when the game is first fired up. The Japanese team is winning those online leaderboards by a substantial margin as one might expect given that Ridge Racer is more popular over there than in America and Europe. Things that could be called “tweets by people good at Ridge Racer” can be read in the form of interviews with dangerous, top racers. But they aren’t tweets because then Namco would have had to integrate the game with an online network someone might care about. It is difficult to see users with access to real, uncut social media caring about any of this racer faction war.

Ridge Racer for the Vita is a good game to have installed on the console to play for a race or two between games with a little more meat on them or maybe in between matches on a regular console or PC game with the suspended Vita on a table nearby. For just ease of use, most are going to want to stick to the single player matches than wrestle the almost inaccessible online. In the context of once off meaningless racing, it is worthwhile and the price helps ease the lack of features and content. But if you’re swapping out Vita cards exclusively and know that your game playing does not incorporate two games running at once, you’re not going to want to put this card in a lot, maybe not at all, given that there is not a ton to do. Anyone on the fence might be best served to wait until some sort of ultimate edition comes out which contains all of the content to ever be released at a price that will probably be less than all of the packs bought separately.

TryIt

Pros:
+ Classic drift racing is out, again, just in time for a launch window

Cons:
– Online mode is not easy to use
– Strange content release model makes it difficult to recommend to those that want a complete racing experience without buying a bunch of DLC

Game Info:
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Cellius
Release Date: 3/13/2012
Genre: Racing
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1-8
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.