The PlayStation’s first Ridge Racer was videogames’ most extravagant paper tiger. There were 13 chunky polygonal cars, but just one track you could race eight different ways. Racing the course backward and through different underpasses felt different enough to create an illusion of variety, but the game’s only real pleasure was the easy way it let you sling cars in succulent drifting arcs around corners. The Ridge Racer of 2012 for the PlayStation Vita has much in common with that 1994 PlayStation-launch version of the game. It’s also a beautiful trick played by Namco, but where the original was ultimately a launch-pad for grand ideas in subsequent games, the new one is a cynical, impotent attempt at modernization.
At heart, Ridge Racer is an online multiplayer-only game. When you start the game, you choose to join one of four corporations’ racing teams. Your team identification dictates who your target competitors are in online races. If you’re a member of Trianchor, beating members of Xealot on one day is your route to more Victory Points, which raises your racing level, opening you to higher-ranked races. Online options include open eight car races and downloading “ghost” data, a record of other racers’ performance on tracks. Placing in races over all opponents, regardless of team goal, earns you credits which are spent on upgrades for your car (extra boosts, etc.) You can race alone in “Spot Races” against the computer to earn credits.
The emphasis on online multiplayer when recent Ridge Racer games were built on lengthy, slowly evolving campaigns is Namco’s first concession to modern tastes, but the big problem is how the game is accessed. New cars and tracks will be doled out as downloadable content in the coming months for people to purchase à la carte or in packages.
That the game is built around nickel-and-diming its audience isn’t why Ridge Racer is bad. It’s bad because the ecosystem of solo and online modes is broken. Earning credits to unlock new parts is time-consuming; You have to purchase the right to buy an upgrade before you can actually buy it. Since online competitors can drop out if you’re winning, losing you potential credits, the only reliable way to earn a competitive vehicle is through the never-changing practice courses or ghost races, which are ultimately the same thing. By the time you do have a competitive rank and vehicle, racing live opponents has lost its visceral appeal, due to familiarity with the tracks. There may be new challenges visible, but if you don’t own the tracks your opponents are using, you can’t compete.
The way games are made, how people play them, and how they’re monetized is changing. (Sawbuck Gamer is a testament to that fact.) Pragmatic business is in Ridge Racer’s DNA: Cellius, the Sony and Namco co-owned studio that made this game, was actually founded in 2007 to “help take share from Microsoft and Nintendo.” That’s no justification for complete incompetence, though. All structures need solid foundations, and Ridge Racer is built on soft ground. The saddest part? There’s still nothing else like slinging these cars around corners.