The key problem facing the racing game, according to Ridge Racer: Unbounded producer Joonas Laakso? "Nobody seems to know what sort of game actually sells." It's hardly what you want to hear in the context of a high profile brand reinvention, but it is strangely appropriate to the game's fictional urban backdrop, Shatter Bay - a desolate huddle of jaggy post-modern turrets and suspension bridges, sinisterly cloaked in mist.
Glimpsed beneath the mode select screen, the city is the edgiest manifestation of a slippage towards the surreal in racer settings, epitomised by Burnout's Paradise City. Despite the statue jutting out of the estuary, the feel is more Silent Hill than New York. It's as though Bugbear has tried to model the genre's murky future. Unbounded, indeed.
If Shatter Bay is an uncertain prospect, the game it hosts plays like a spectacularly brutal attempt to buffet those worrisome enigmas flat. Ridge Racer fans will be pleased to know that drifting remains key to beating both courses and your opponents, but where prior Namco efforts repaid conspicuous cornering in seconds, the rewards here are more dramatic: atomised concrete, tattered car hulks and the rumble of swooning apartment blocks.
Drifting charges a meter which can be spent on power attacks, temporarily transforming your ride into a crimson bolt of death, capable of smashing straight through walls and setting competitors alight. Nitro with a side order of Frostbite 2, in short. Or, as racing veterans are even now sagely saying to themselves, Split/Second in all but name.
Not every wall is susceptible to impacts. Instead, courses break down into a number of destruction points - some masking short cuts, others terrain traps like inexplicably parked fuel tankers that can be used to slow pursuers. Money shots are frequent, Bugbear spinning the view to frame our beefy Hurricane CX head-on as we plough through a billboard, up a ramp and off a bridge. Totalled motors get a dose of the same flashy camerawork. If you don't trust the computer to drive while you coo over your own stunts, you can skip these sequences with a button press.
The destruction ramps up further in Frag Attack mode, which puts you at the wheel of a Behemoth 200 truck and challenges you to wreck as many circling cop cars as you can before the time runs out, with each copper trashed equalling another handful of seconds. But it's dialled right back down in Drift Attack, where additional seconds are earned by spending as much time as possible moving sideways. An obvious nod to fans of pre-Bugbear Ridge Racers, the latter mode would benefit from more sophisticated handling and physics systems.
Unbounded's real longevity, the developer hopes, will lie with the track creator. It's as user-friendly as they come, letting you clip fat, rectangular blocks of cityscape together on a blue wire grid. That accessibility may come at the cost of intricacy, however, with no opportunity to rearrange the specific contents of each block. The resource budget is also a little tight. There's an Advanced version to sample in the final release, however, and Bugbear's plans for regular user content competitions suggest that it'll be substantial enough to keep compulsive tinkerers plugging.
Besides the slightly underwhelming editor, Unbounded's most serious flaw is that it doesn't always signpost what you can and can't destroy. The juicier vulnerables are spotlighted by gigantic white graffiti, but the implementation is harder to call at the micro level. You can punch out the corners of some buildings, but not others. Only a few stairwells can be used as ramps. The arbitrariness of it all leaves a flat taste in the mouth - as do the graphics, which pale before the high-gloss frenzy of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit.
Unbounded is a fun racer but, right now, not a riveting one. Destruction is a card we've seen played before, and for all the hyper-cinematic direction, the execution isn't particularly deft. Though clearly alive to the genre's commercial problems, Bugbear doesn't, as yet, have the answer to them.