Ridge Racer first debuted in arcades twelve years ago, whilst ten years ago it launched on the PlayStation as one of the flagship titles for the console. PALGN confesses that it used to be a huge fan of the series, and continued to be so up until the last PlayStation title in the franchise, Ridge Racer Type 4. After the fourth game, the series started to go downhill a little, with Ridge Racer V, R: Racing Evolution and Ridge Racer DS recieving lukewarm reviews. Hearing that a Ridge Racer game would form part of the PSP launch line-up, we approached it with caution. If this title was as average as the last three entries in the series, it could spell the end for the Ridge Racer franchise. But after some twenty hours of playtime, we have to admit it: we're pleasantly surprised.
What's here is a subtle mix of the old and the new. For the first time, Ridge Racer now includes a nitrous option, meaning that drifting fast will earn the player some nitrous, whilst filling the meter and pressing "R" will activate a burst of speed, prompting the screen to blur as your car flies through the pack. Nitrous really is the flavour of the year for car racing games right now, so it's inclusion is hardly surprising. That said, Namco's implementation of it here is brilliant. Rather than feeling as though the feature has been tacked on at the last moment, it instead comes across as a well-considered and worthy addition that works surprisingly well. The Ridge Racer series has always encouraged drifting (with no real reward), whereas now gamers are rewarded for their insanely unrealistic driving.
From the main title screen, players are presented with a few gameplay options, with the main ones being 'Single Race', 'Multiplayer', 'Time Trial' and 'World Tour'. The first three are self-explanatory, whilst the World Tour mode is the main feature of Ridge Racer. In this mode, players work through each tour, which is in turn divided into races. Each race has a qualifying position to move onto the next race. Finishing a tour will unlock the next tour. It is a simple, linear system of progression that takes a very long time to work through, the kind of structure that's not characteristic of the franchise.
The gameplay on offer here is certainly thrilling stuff. The cars are fast, there's zero slowdown and the environments are captivating. The sense of speed is impressive, and we can't help but feel that little more excited about the upcoming Burnout Legends after seeing Namco's lightning racer.
Alas, for the first time in a handheld title we've also experienced loading. The first few times the loading screen pops up it's more of a novelty, but eventually it becomes quite annoying. Things still get moving relatively quickly, but there's about five seconds of loading before the game goes into the title screen. However, Namco has added a quirky top down racing game that can be played during the initial loading. Another minor annoyance of the game is the collision detection. At times, your car can run into one of the walls or barriers, and getting the damn thing to move away from the wall can be one of the most thorough tests of your patience for a while. This happened for us a few times, and became really frustrating very quickly.
Things brighten up considerably on the multiplayer front. We had an opportunity to test the wireless multiplayer, and trust us: it's highly addictive. Whilst not playable online, the wireless compability more than compensates for this omission - the wireless play of the PSP extends a fair old distance away and definitely lasted a lot longer than we initially anticipated.
After the Nintendo DS was released without a analog stick, people rejoiced that at least the PSP had an analog nub. So, how does it fare here? Well, it definitely takes a while to get used to, and was a little awkward the first time we used it with Ridge Racer. However, after about an hour of practice it seems like second nature, and the nub really is better than having no analog stick. At times it doesn't move the cars over quick enough, but it's definitely more precise than the directional pad.
The graphics in the game are the best we've seen on any handheld. Even though we had seen screenshots, and even video, Ridge Racer just looks that much better in the flesh. When the nitrous is activated the screen blurs temporarily, superbly recreating a cheek-flapping sense of speed, all whilst planes fly through the sky, cows litter the landscape and birds soar in front of you. The view, it would be fair to say, is never dull.
All of your favourite Ridge Racer tracks have been recreated, and they look better than ever. It's definitely not an over-exaggeration to say this is the best looking Ridge Racer title yet, and this is including Ridge Racer V and R: Racing Evolution. Those who had their doubts about Gran Turismo 4 making it intact to the PSP ought to be quickly silenced. The lighting effects and shadows will draw gasps of admiration at first, whilst the draw distance is clear enough to see well ahead. Slightly disappointingly, there's the odd jaggies here and there, but it's absolutely forgiveable when the end result is as superb as this. The introduction video is amazing, and really sets a prededent for what we will be seeing on the PSP. And let's just say it's damn good.
Those who have played a Ridge Racer title previously will know what to expect audio-wise from the game. Yes, the incredibly off-putting, pressure-mounting techno tunes are back in force. Alongside the average techno soundtrack is the incredibly annoying banter of the DJ, who makes you want to turn the PSP to mute. However, the sound is so clear and crisp from the actual handheld that most people will find patience they didn't know they had.
The game will last about ten to twelve hours for the World Tour mode (depending on your skill), and in that time the player will unlock a total of twenty-four tracks and fifty-eight cars, the biggest roster for a Ridge Racer yet. Unless you've got friends with a PSP and another copy of the game, though, there isn't too much reason to come back and play the game through again. Namco has included some novelty cars which can be unlocked also. We won't reveal them, but there's at least four that are definitely worth the effort of completing the game to unlock.
Ridge Racer is not only the flagship title for the PSP, but also signifies the rebirth of the ailing series series. After playing this game we've completely forgiven Namco for the previous three average Ridge titles, and anyone who is a racing fan will get a kick out it. We shiver at the thought of how much better PSP racing games can get, as Ridge Racer isn't just the best racer on a handheld currently, but the best Ridge Racer title released so far.