Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Namco Bandai
Release Date: November 17, 2006
With the exception of the (currently) import-only Ridge Racers 2 for PSP, every Ridge Racer title in the last five years has been a launch title. Why? Considering the strength of the brand, Namco Bandai should be able to spit out a sequel like clockwork every Christmas season.
I wonder if the general familiarity of the series has something to do with it. After all, most of the Ridge Racer games have something (or many things) in common with their predecessors, be it vehicles, tracks, or fictional hotties. After spending hundreds of dollars on all of this new technology, doesn't it feel good to see Reiko Nagase strutting her stuff around all of those wondrous vehicles?
Or perhaps it has more to do with the lowered expectations that come with launch lineups. In recent years, many of the new systems have been accompanied by one truly great launch title (Halo, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess) and a bunch of "merely" good or so-so titles. With Ridge Racer, you usually know what you're getting — fast cars, funky physics, and that aforementioned sense of familiarity. It is usually a safe purchase in a field of unknown titles.
For all I know, it could just be a coincidence, but here we are again with the PlayStation 3. Resistance: Fall of Man stands high above the competition as the sole great launch title, and Ridge Racer 7 is one of the few other exclusives atop a stack of sports titles and multi-platform releases. And again, it is yet another safe entry in a series built on recycled concepts. In fact, much of the content has been directly lifted from last year's Xbox 360 launch title, Ridge Racer 6. While the formula remains largely unchanged, an enhanced single-player experience and a surprisingly enjoyable online mode make Ridge Racer 7 a solid pick-up for your shiny new console.
For those of you who haven't played a Ridge Racer title since the 2000 PlayStation 2 launch title, Ridge Racer V, I have some good news — Ridge Racer 7 is a little faster and maybe a bit crazier than the Ridge of old. Drifting is still key to your success with the hairpin turns, and the vehicles are now separated into three drift categories: Mild, Standard, and Dynamic. The titles are pretty much self-explanatory; Standard cars are loose but feature reasonably controlled steering, while Mild cars boast a tighter drift style, and Dynamic ones are all over the place. However, the Dynamic vehicles can typically reach higher max speeds, so it may be worth your time to learn how to tame the beasts.
As in Ridge Racer 6 and Ridge Racer for the PSP, all of that drifting now fills up a boost meter, which is activated by tapping the R2 trigger on the SixAxis controller. Double and triple boosts can be achieved by modifying your boost style via the Ridge State Grand Prix mode. Whatever the amount of boost, you must learn to use it effectively, especially during online battles. Boost wasted at lower speeds or in the midst of multiple turns can be the difference between placing first and finishing last.
Slipstreaming is the biggest enhancement in Ridge Racer 7, as it allows you an additional opportunity to regain speed if you have fallen behind. Positioning your vehicle behind that of a competitor will reduce wind resistance, allowing you to pick up a fair amount of speed and get back into the race. A small indicator in the lower left corner of the screen will tell you if you are slipstreaming, so be sure to keep an eye on that. However, just as you can use others to gain an advantage, they can do the same to you. The female announcer will let you know if someone is on your tail, though those of us with a surround sound system can usually tell by the extremely loud noise coming from the rear. Seriously, it sounds like an airplane is about to rear-end you.
Otherwise, the gameplay is exactly as it was in Ridge Racer 6, and that's not really a bad thing. It plays like a hybrid of the simulation and arcade genres; sure, you can skid sideways through the turns at 150mph, but precision is absolutely essential. If you don't master the drift, you'll never win a race against the CPU, which uses a very competitive set of A.I. drivers. While I did not often have trouble winning a race, it was usually by no more than three seconds. A single crash will have you struggling to weave your way back to the front of the pack.
Thirteen years after the arcade debut of the original, Ridge Racer 7 finally lets gamers customize the vehicles in a variety of ways, with a heap of visual and performance modifiers. Sure, it may not be as deep as in other racers (like Need for Speed: Carbon), but it feels great to finally have some input into the design of these fantasy roadsters. I'm not the type to spend an hour crafting the ideal digital vehicle, but if I can paint the thing orange and buy a fancy spoiler for it, then count me in.
With your fancy new SixAxis in hand, you will probably feel tempted to try out the motion controls in Ridge Racer 7. Go for it — the handling is very fluid and responsive, and I was impressed by the general feel of it. However, as someone who has been playing Ridge Racer games for seemingly ages, I did not find it to offer the kind of precision that is absolutely necessary for a game of this sort, largely because the motion controls are still entirely new to most of us. After all, it's been barely seven weeks since the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii hit the market. Still, I praise Namco Bandai for including the option and also for not requiring anyone to use the motion controls. Imagine the fanboy reaction if they had!
Replacing the dreadfully boring World Xplorer mode of Ridge Racer 6 is the Ridge State Grand Prix. While still largely a story-free affair, the Ridge State Grand Prix gives you a heap of racing options, from multi-race Grand Prix events to Manufacturer's Trials and UFRA Single Events. After you acquire a car by completing one of the many Manufacturers' Trials, you can get started on the first of the 14 Grand Prix events, which represent the core of the single-player mode; completing all of them will take you to the credits screen.
Additionally, finishing the final Grand Prix will unlock a number of Extreme Battles, a title that is only half true (hint: it's not the "Extreme" part). Essentially, these are just additional races with different styles of play, but it can be difficult to whip up enthusiasm for them when it all takes place on the same set of courses. In fact, upon completing the final Grand Prix, I found it tough to motivate myself to finish up some of the other events, as if they were no longer worthwhile. If you want to extend the single-player experience, my advice is to intersperse as many UFRA Single Events and Manufacturer's Trials between the Grand Prix events as possible.
Another way to extend the single-player experience is to not play online, as racing against real players puts the slightly monotonous A.I. opponents to shame. It can be hard to go back to racing against predictable, somewhat-robotic drivers after getting a taste of the online play. Ridge Racer 6 never seemed to develop much of an online community, so I did not expect a whole lot from the online play in Ridge Racer 7. While it was still tough to get a full field of racers together, the actual play was unexpectedly fluid and surprisingly enjoyable.
Ridge Racer 7 supports up to 14 simultaneous racers, though I tended to find some lag with a full pack. When capped at eight players, the action was always fast and lag-free, and a hell of a good time. Ridge Racer 7 uses a simplistic system that works well and allows you to get into a match with little hassle. Additionally, the online integration within the rest of the game is superb, allowing you to see your world rank at all times from the main menu, while leaderboards and random quotes from other gamers are displayed via a news ticker at the bottom of the screen. You may have to wait for a few seconds after a race for your stats to be reported to the server, but the trade-off seems worth it, as the results are rather impressive.
Speaking of impressive — maybe it's just the HDMI cable speaking, but Ridge Racer 7 looks great in motion. I've seen the screenshot comparisons (which show Ridge Racer 6 with a slight detail advantage), but there's just something different about it. I played the titles back-to-back and found the PlayStation 3 game to be a bit more vivid, with the vehicles and environments popping out like never before. By comparison, Ridge Racer 6 on the Xbox 360 looked a bit faded, like it had a dullness filter tacked on (as if any developer would do that intentionally). The HDMI difference seems to be the most likely explanation. After all, my Xbox 360 is only hooked up via the standard component cables, but it shouldn't make that much of a difference.
Of course, if you have an HDTV, you hopefully also have a decent surround sound system, of which Ridge Racer 7 will gladly take full advantage. As I noted earlier, the most surreal effect comes when a competitor is looking to overtake you. From sound effects alone, you will be able to tell whether he is to your right or left, which makes it easy for you to close the lane. The soundtrack of upbeat electronica and generic techno can wear on you a bit, but there are some solid tracks in this collection. Be warned, though — Ridge Racer 7 runs extremely loud. I usually had to turn down the sound by 10 points when I started playing, or else the bass would reverberate throughout the house (and frighten the cat something fierce).
Though hardware issues are not the responsibility of Namco Bandai, I would be remiss if I did not include this final note. While playing Ridge Racer 7, I experienced several issues with the SixAxis wireless controller. Without warning, the controls would cease to function, and I would slam into the nearest wall or simply fail to accelerate. Unlike with the Xbox 360, the system will not force the game to pause until the connection is reestablished. Until Sony can address this issue with a firmware update, no racing title will be perfectly playable with the standard hardware. I didn't count this issue against the game, but it definitely damaged the experience, considering that a single crash will often eliminate your chances of winning a race.
Following the unremarkable Ridge Racer 6, I went into Ridge Racer 7 with decidedly lower expectations. Though I'll wholly admit that the game feels a bit soulless and overly calculated at times, I was pleasantly surprised by the overhauled career mode and the superb online play and integration. Ridge Racer 7 can be faulted for recycling concepts and content from previous iterations, but isn't that what we expect from the series? Considering the excruciating software drought expected over the next couple of months, Ridge Racer 7 may represent one of the only safe bets on the PlayStation 3. That may not be the most exciting or positive sentiment, but that's Ridge Racer.
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