A road over-traveled.
The first thing you see when you put the Ridge Racer 6
disk into your Xbox 360 is Pac Man. Not an image
of Pac Man, but the original game itself. Fully playable, you can start munching dots immediately, exactly as you might have done back in a 1980's arcade.
I can't think of a better intro for Ridge Racer 6, because it hasn't really changed since the very first version was in the arcades, either. It might be a launch title for the newest, most powerful next-gen console available, but this ride has somehow managed to swerve out of the way of oncoming innovation.
Ridge Racer has been a launch title for a ton of systems over the years, but other than improving graphically, has stayed as mysteriously unchanged as Casey Kasem. The most recent game was a launch title for the PSP and had exactly one new feature í¢â‚¬“ your nitrous would replenish when you would powerslide around corners. That feature is back on the 360, which also only manages to add one small tweak to the experience.
But before we get into that, basic introduction might be in order for all the newborn children and Rip Van Winkles who somehow haven't played one of these before. Ridge Racer is, and always has been, an arcade-style racer featuring closed tacks, fictitious cars and no collision damage. It's quite unrealistic, but the fun tracks are known for their bright, cartoony feel and terrific eye-candy, often in the form of helicopter and airplane fly-bys.
But Ridge Racer is best known for its crazy, crazy powerslides (more professionally known as "drifting"). Once you get the hang of it, the drifting is ridiculously easy thanks to some hefty computer assists. After you start a slide, the game will keep you glued to the track all the way around the curve, so all you have to worry about is pointing vaguely in the right direction when you straighten out.
Ridge Racer 6 is, in fact, all these exact same things with one addition: a big map. The main single-player mode is called Ridge Racer World, a campaign laid across a huge hexagonal map made up of a whopping 111 races. You can chart your own course across this map, unlocking different things depending on which way you go, all the way up to the hardest challenges at the end. It's actually a pretty cool way to progress through a single-player racing game.
Hold on to your goggles, though, because those 111 races don't span a hundred tracks. I believe that Ridge Racer invented the now widely-used "backwards track" idea in racing game design, leaving Ridge Racer 6 with, in truth, only 15 different tracks. That's still a decent supply, but far from the initial promise.
It's also a little boring driving against the challenging but fairly mindless A.I. Opponents drive at different speeds, so the only time you're dealing with a clump of them is at the starting gate. Though they'll move to pass you, they aren't at all aggressive with one another. Again, this isn't new to Ridge Racer, but considering the wicked cops of NFS: Most Wanted and the far superior A.I. of Project Gotham Racing 3, it just feels old.
So you'll probably want to hop online rather quickly. Other than a few base models, cars used online have to be unlocked in the single-player first. If you don't have some of the game's better cars at your disposal, you'll find yourself left in the dust in most races through no fault of your own.
You can race in both ranked and unranked races to either get in some practice or climb the leaderboards. There's really only one type of race - who crosses the finish line first - but the host has quite a bit of control over the allowed vehicles, the use of nitrous, the tracks and the number of players.
Which, by the way, is a whopping 14. In one of the game's few victories over its 360 competition, Ridge Racer 6 puts PGR 3's 8 players and Most Wanted's meager 4 players solidly in the rear-view mirror.
Otherwise, though, it's not a very compelling online game. Aside from basic races, there's Global Time Attack mode, which sort of exists in between online and offline. It's a series of solo time trials, but you can also race against the "ghosts" of other real racers from the leaderboards just as they can race against your best times.
No matter how you drive, the graphics are well polished but certainly show a few dings and scratches in the paint. It's the least visually impressive of the 360's current racing games, with less detailed cars and simpler scenery. Occasionally it's downright awful, like the ridiculous crowd and the grandstand that appears on many tracks. Forget current generation - this crowd would look right at home in the original Ridge Racer. What saves the whole thing aesthetically is just about the fastest framerate I have ever seen in any game. With nary a hiccup, Ridge Racer 6 moves so smoothly it's eerie.
I'm not sure anything can save the sound, though. The poppy, electronic fare is the sort of stuff from last decade - yet another thing that hasn't changed. Every car in the game screeches with the same noise on every drift, but only your car ever squeals; your opponents all silently slide sideways, which is just bizarre.
And nothing, absolutely nothing, is worse than the announcer. This chatty bitch sounds like a reject from the Sprite Thirst character casting call and simply will not shut up. After the thousandth time you hear him say "Nitrous!" (which will be during your third race or so), you'll drive straight over to the options menu looking for a way to turn him off. Fortunately, it's there.
But I'm gone. The truth is that I'm indeed a fan of Ridge Racer, which is precisely why I'd like to see it do better than this cookie-cutter offering. It's well past time for Namco to start tinkering under the hood of this old jalopy, especially considering the impressive new engines powering games these days. Pac Man, on the other hand, they should have left alone.