Wednesday 27 May 2015

Ridge Racer 6 for the Xbox 360

I love racing games. Yet, as long-time readers know, I'm not so keen on modern games. By 'modern' I mean the era inaugurated around 2000 onwards with the coming of the Playstation2, and it's "competition" from Microsoft and Nintendo. Yes, for readers under 25 that is aeons ago. 15 years is a long bloody time, but I'm sticking with that definition because reasons, and that your humble scribe has, sadly, long passed his mid-20s. But I'm well aware I run the risk of being the video game equivalent of a too-cool-for-school dad who declares current music crap because we had Hendrix, the Stones, and The Carpenters back in the day. This granddad needs to get with the programme and start jiving to more modern fare. And so I've been kicking about for recent(ish) stuff to get my teeth into and have picked up Diablo III for the PS3 (of which more another time) and this, Ridge Racer 6 for the Xbox 360.

Readers might remember this blog visited its illustrious predecessor last year; Ridge Racer Type 4 for the original PlayStation. That was a superlative racing game that hit these shores back in 1999 and excelled via its compulsive arcade-style gameplay and, what were for the time, stunning visuals and soundtrack. As I am a fan, when I saw Ridge Racer 6 going at a bargain bin price in a local gaming emporium, I thought why not. It was a wise choice because I haven't played anything else for the past couple of months.

RR6 is a worthy entry in the franchise. Apart from the visuals, obviously, this 2005 release is clearly stamped by the marks of its ancestor. The premise is much the same. Race around the tracks and qualify for the subsequent race. You start off with the basic route and once all those races are, um, raced, more areas of the game universe are unlocked. In all there are a range of tracks going from the aforementioned to the hidden master level. It also presents different challenges to the players. As you might expect the cars get faster as you move through the game, and the races vary from standard you versus a field of 14 to one-on-one duels to quad challenges. These are especially challenging and get nigh-on impossible toward the game's end (being rubbish, I'm stuck on the 94.5% completed mark). Unlike racing games of the last five years, it's very simple to pick up. Turn on the automatic gear system and all you need do is press accelerator, learn how to corner, and that's about it.

Also, being Ridge Racer, it prides itself on the absurdity of its arcade roots. If you like realistic physics as part of a super serious racing experience, this definitely is not for you. Imagine, if you will, taking corners at 320kph - that is how this game rolls. In fact, in the dozens of hours I've sank into RR6 I don't think I've used the brake button once. Success here depends on mastering its drifting mechanic. This just isn't so you can steal a march on the computer-controlled opposition, but in this game universe the friction from drifting charges you up with nitrous oxide which, as per every racing game from the 16-bit era on, provides you with a temporary shot of mega speed. Winning, especially on the higher levels where you frequently go up against cars faster than yours, depends on its acquisition and strategic use. Another lovely touch, especially for gamers of a certain vintage, is the liberal use Namco makes of its classic catalogue. You can play Pac-Man on the loading screen and unlock it as a permanent option as you race. Several of the teams and models of fictional cars are named after old arcade favourites like Mappy and Galaga, and one of the tracks features a remixed soundtrack from the latter too. Namco being Namco, you can unlock a Pac-Man themed car too.

Speaking of cars, despite not being entirely serious RR6 does follow the conventions of car porn established long before it in more serious racers. Perhaps there's a little bit of sending up going on. With each unlocking, a car is off-loaded from its transporter and is greeted by a camera that almost leers at its lines, curves, and reflective surfaces. It happens regardless whether it has a sleek, elegant design, or is boxy and awkward-looking. Also, again in-keeping with licensed driving games, the cars are indestructible. It doesn't matter if you smash straight into a wall at ludicrous speed or scrape against the side of the track for the best part of half a mile, the motor always emerges unscathed.

The only downside is the length of the game. Having 200 races is fine, but there are only so many basic tracks. When you have to race on each one well over 10 times each against progressively faster opponents it can get a bit wearing, especially on the lower levels where half-decent players can breeze through without so much as a by-your-leave. It does, however, make up for it as the cars get faster. The other point is the lack of customisation, not that this particularly bothers me. I've never seen the attraction of fiddling with car components to build up the ultimate racer. Yet for those who do like to personalise their stuff, you can unlock and apply unique colour schemes. Each to their own.

There are two points of interest from a chin-strokey perspective here. Back in Ridge Racer Type 4, I noted how its longevity rested on the pursuit of ephemeral gaming experiences. You've won all the races, had the credits roll, banked the glory ... now what? In the earlier title, more gameplay could be found by racing through the different difficulty levels and meeting a myriad victory conditions to unlock more cars, of which there were 320. That's a lot of driving with cars that differ very slightly in terms of speed, handling, and appearance for no discernible end goal rather than the pleasure of play itself. And with each racing campaign taking about half an hour to get through, that's a lot of bloody time soaked up that most gamers would have - and did - expend elsewhere. In RR6 this superfluous element is incorporated into the core game design. To get the 100% and complete the game fully, you are compelled to pursue ephemeral experiences. However, it is unclear whether the game considers itself completed if you fall short. Once you go through the basic run the end sequence, which is just the credits, start rolling without warning. Go through a couple more "expert" levels and the same happens. All that appears to change is the swirly patterns that dance along with the staff roll call. The rewards for pursuing the experience, however, is the unlocking of super fast and increasingly surreal-looking cars. These include a rocket booster on wheels, a hover craft, a car with four legs, and a limo with a fearsome nitrous thrust concealed in its boot.

The other point is why I went for this game. Not being au fait with modern games, I did my research and was ultimately looking for nothing more complicated than OutRun, which is what RR6 is. It has all the core gaming mechanics of the really old racers I used to (still) love, but steered away from the serious simulation claims of some, and the whacky race-and-destroy nonsense of Ridge Racer Unbounded and the Burnout series. In all essentials it's probably an example of why I usually stick with retro product: it's about comfort gaming, of being content with what you might call the gamer/gameplaying habitus I've acquired since first playing Phoenix all those decades ago. I can't be bothered to sink the time necessary to learn (comparatively) new gameplay conventions or taking up a RPG that might demand 100 hours to finish, but thinking nothing of doing just that for a game that is as simple as modern gaming can be. So, incredibly, while lots of gamers and gaming commentators wax lyrical about emotionally engaged story lines and the depths to which one can be lost in brilliantly realised gameworlds, for me at least all it took was something brainless to get me to reflect on my understanding, experience, and orientation to gaming.

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