Cornering is something of an art form in any racing game. From your arcade racers through to detailed sims, it's the beating heart of any decent game. Namco realised this when they created the first Ridge Racer, and made it completely about cornering, or in this case, drifting. It's been an incredibly successful formula too, with the Ridge Racer series being one of the most respected racing franchises in the world. And when you have something like this on your hands, it's sometimes best to leave things alone, and that is precisely what Namco has done.
So it's with an air of familiarity that I start up Ridge Racer 6; there's The Ridge Racer girl, playing with some cars, dancing a bit - you know, the usual RR quirkiness. Once the game's menu and music start up, you're reminded of exactly what game you're playing, even if it is on the Xbox 360 rather than one of Sony's consoles. It's this adherence to a tried and tested formula that is this Ridge Racer's biggest appeal and its greatest weakness. It's a marmite game, with some people worshipping it, while others moan about the ridiculous driving model - which is missing the point somewhat. Ridge Racer was never meant to be realistic. Its aim has always been to produce a true arcade experience. You'll be glad to know that Ridge Racer 6 lives up to this legacy admirably.
It starts as all Ridge Racer games start - extremely easily. If anything, the ease with which the game starts lasts slightly too long and carries through the bulk of early races. Indeed, it seems to be a major mistake on Namco's part; racing against opponents who offer no real challenge can quickly become boring - though it would be foolish to quit so early. As the world tour progresses and faster cars become available, the Ridge Racer we all know and love comes back with a vengeance. No longer do the AI opponents fall back so easily, making the fight for the top positions a true test of skill.
The game isn't completely unchanged, however. Adopting one of the popular features from its PSP counterpart, Ridge Racer 6 includes nitrous, which is earned by drifting. I know I've touched on this already, but for those unaware of Ridge Racer (that'll be about 2 of you), let's just explain drifting for a moment. If you're wondering how the drifting in Ridge Racer is any different to the drifting in any other game, you need to know a few things. For a start, the laws of physics are completely out the window. Right out there. It's ridiculous, but in the very best way. Once you've sent your car into a drift, which is joyously easy to accomplish, you can sustain it for an age. This is where Ridge Racer's magic lies. Tweaking your drift as you tackle a U-turn, dangerously close to the inside wall, is gaming gold. It's a skill, and one that Namco has beautifully exploited. This is perhaps the more significant way in which the nitrous boost effects the game, by demanding that your perform drifts in order to recharge. It makes you drift considerably more that you'd perhaps want to, adding a wonderful risk/reward mechanic that can make the difference between first and second. Compounding this, drifting at a greater speed makes your Nitrous Boost increase much more quickly, making timing your boost to finish up in a corner a valuable, if slightly dangerous tactic.
World Xplorer is the game's main mode, and is structured in a different way than most other Ridge Racer games. It allows you to choose your own events and make your way through the 111 races in any way you choose. It's compelling, not least because it rewards you with different cars as you progress. However, the lack of courses means that by the time you reach the later stages, they'll all be looking extremely familiar. The game does mix things up by changing the race rules or reversing the tracks, but it doesn't solve the problem completely. One rule in particular starts you off with two nitrous boosts, and only allows you to gain nitrous while boosting. It makes things considerably more dangerous and means that the slightest mistake can lose you the race. There is a flip side to the lack of courses though; playing through them using the early car classes means you have the knowledge needed to get through the final stages.
Early 360 titles are under pressure to look truly next-gen, but Ridge Racer 6 isn't quite the leap many people are expecting. Compared to other racers on the console the visuals look pretty simple, but everything is so smooth, and it makes a huge difference. The rock solid feeling you get from the best arcade racers is here and it elevates the visuals beyond the geometry, textures (which are admittedly pretty sharp), lighting, car models and all the rest that usually makes for a good looking racer. What's here shouldn't look next-gen, but somehow it just does.
As good as the single-player is, the game really shines on Xbox Live. It's as smooth as silk, and provided you get a few decent competitors can be one of the best Live experiences out there. When you get the full compliment of 14 racers it can get pretty hectic too. Other standard game modes, such as single race and time attack are included too, but the bulk of your playtime is likely to be taken up with the multiplayer and World Xplorer.
At the end though, it all comes down to whether you're a fan of the Ridge Racer series. It's always been one of those franchises that gamers have a love/hate relationship with, and if you didn't like it before, there definitely haven't been enough changes to shift your viewpoint, though the fans are likely to be delighted with this new iteration. It provides more of the manic speed and drifting that we expected, and looks suitably arcade like. In fact, it's the closest I've seen to an arcade racer on a home console, in both looks and playability. So, it's more of the same then. But for any fan of Ridge Racer, that's exactly what we wanted.