November 11, 2006 - It seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same. For the third consecutive time, Bandai-Namco's Ridge Racer has accompanied a PlayStation system during its launch. The original Ridge Racer came with the PSOne, and Ridge Racer V was with the PS2, and now with the PS3, players can powerslide into the next generation with RR7. A lot has changed since the debut of the PlayStation 2, with the advent of online gaming and high definition graphics, both of which are the main highlights in the latest iteration of the Ridge Racer series.
This time around, Ridge Racer 7 is a much bigger beast than the earlier entries. The World Tour mode - now called Ridge State Grand Prix - has been greatly revamped compared to the PSP and X360 titles, and now features an actual world map for you to traverse. Gamers will start off with nothing, but as soon as you perform some Manufacturer Trials, you'll start to gain more cars and items. The Manufacturer Trials are usually sixteen car races where you play to win support of certain car makers, such as Kamata and Age. Once you have gained their favor, you'll have access to car parts, which you can use on any of your cars to spruce them up. This customization actually improves your vehicle's performance too. Everything from maximum top speed to how much nitrous you gain during drifts is affected by your decision. Once you have gone through the trials, other races will start to pop up. The Ridge Racer Grand Prix is a traditional grand prix-style circuit where you face off against a group of cars over the course of several races. For example, once you have finished the Kamata Manufacturer Trial, the first Grand Prix will open, consisting of three races. First place in each race gets 8 points, while second gets 6 points, and so on. Is it better than the World Tour and World Xplorer in recent Ridge Racer titles? I like it more than the PSP titles, but the 360 World Xplorer mode was done better. Not that it's shoddy on the PS3, but being able to plot your own course on the 360 is just more appealing to me. The customizable cars, on the other hand, are a welcomed addition to the series and are going to make online play really interesting in the coming months.
Speaking of which, having done battle with a couple of Japanese players already, the online portion of the game is extremely smooth and nearly lag-free from what we've experienced. Most of the battles have had a full group of competitors racing against each other, and there have been no problems with lag, although the game does drop some frames in crowded situations. Slipstreaming is a new feature in the title, and it's indicated by a small meter at the bottom of the screen. Once you've entered a competitor's slipstream (or if they've entered yours), the blue meter at the bottom of the screen lights up, and it intensifies as the cars get closer. The good news is that drafting techniques are totally viable online because of the minimal lag. You shouldn't have any problems getting behind someone and then successfully taking them over.
By racing, players can earn Fame Points (FP), and the more you have, the higher your rank is. It seems that a lot of Japanese players are enjoying it, because after finishing first in three matches and second in two, we had a total of 80 fame points. By 10pm, we were up to 150 FP. The leader of the pack? He had well over 8000FP already. Yikes. There's no word on whether Namco will reset the rankings every so often, but let's hope so, because right now the Ridge Racer King currently has over 8000 points, and so does the man right behind him, but after those two, the difference in points is absolutely huge. The gap between first and fourth on the rankings list is well over 4000 FP, and one can only assume that's going to continue growing with each passing day. Basically, once the U.S. gets their PS3s, catching up to the king is going to be an impossible task unless the rankings are reset. In addition to the free-for-all races, you can also compete in team battles as well as download special UFRA (United Federation of Ridge Racers Association) event races from the PlayStation store, although none are available at this time. Overall online play is really fun and there's no lag present from what we've played. The only drawback is when you want to communicate with others. There's text chat available in the game, but players can only choose from a set number of pre-set phrases instead of being able to use a keyboard.
I don't have an HDMI-ready set, so I can't comment on how the game looks in 1080p, but there are some marked differences in the game when compared to Ridge Racer 6, where most of the art assets seemingly come from. A lot of the courses have stayed the same design-wise, but there are some small tweaks, such as leaves floating in the air, or airplanes and birds hovering overhead. Compared to RR6, the colors seem more vibrant and lighter, giving the game a much better look. Personally, if you don't have a setup capable of 1080p, you probably aren't going to notice much difference in visual quality between the two games, so don't go in expecting to see a huge visual leap. The loading times are really long if you don't bother to install the game onto the system's hard drive. It can take up to half a minute to load one course, but after you've installed the game, that number is reduced to an average of eight seconds. Plus, you get to play Xevious while you're waiting for the game to install, so it can't be that bad.
The major gripe I have with the game is the amount of material that's been brought over from Ridge Racer 6. Nearly everything looks the same, albeit with several visual upgrades, such as better colors and different textures. There are five new environments introduced, and all of them have a particularly Asian theme to them. One takes place before a huge Buddha statue, while another (in the same location) takes you behind a gigantic waterfall. The other areas include a jungle location and through the streets of a Japanese city. While the new areas do look great, the number of new courses are small compared to the old, reused ones.
Even though this is supposedly the next generation of gaming, I can't shake the feeling that Ridge Racer 7 is more of a special edition rather than a full-blown sequel. Yes, the new Grand Prix mode is cool and online mode is awesome, but nearly all of the tracks have been reused from Ridge Racer 6 with only minimal improvements, and although there are several new tracks in the game, they're greatly outnumbered by the old ones. As a launch title it isn't bad, but it's definitely not the best title out right now; that honor belongs to Resistance.