This time, the entrant in the "don't forget our mascot" saga is Sonic Rivals, a screaming dash to the finish line, not unlike we've seen many times since 1998's Sonic R (or 1994's Sonic Drift, but that didn't come out in the States) established that Sonic and his friends are rather fond of footracing when the situation calls for it. This time about, it's all caused by Eggman's latest plan: By using a special ray he's developed, the rotund bringer of evil around Mobius has turned Tails and Amy into playing cards! The only way to get them released from an eternity of living in booster packs is to get the Chaos Emeralds yet again for purposes that are not well described. Of course, in this case, other people want those Emeralds first, which brings in the whole racing element on which the entire game is built. You'll run very very fast, jump a lot, and hopefully make it to the end of the track before your rival.
The mechanics of Sonic Rivals itself are about simple as you'd expect from a storyline like that. Most of your time will be spent running to the right through what are primarily two-dimension maps, trying to outpace the other racer toward the goal. There is nothing hugely demanding in that; while levels attempt to act 3D with mountains, huge drops, loops, and rotating segments a la Sonic Adventure, you're still always moving mostly on a linear route to the right. Power-ups are strewn about randomly and can be used either offensively or defensively. For example, the Ice Attack will shoot out and freeze your opponent if used offensively, but it acts as a mine of sorts when used defensively.
It adds a touch of strategy, but some of the items are too useful; the Star gives you nearly double speed and invulnerability, and the Confuser reverses your controls, completely toasting any momentum you may have had and oftentimes forcing back-tracking so you can hit required Speed Boosters. Enemies, spikes, and holes in the ground or lava pits provide their own degree of interference, and always with Sonic titles, you'll need to pick up Rings to ensure your survival. They're rather prevalent, so it's not a problem to keep a smattering in hand.
Beyond holding "right" on the d-pad a great many times and flinging random power-ups, you also have periodic "action" zones, where you can quickly make a choice to either vault forward or vault upward. Each is handled by a single button press (either X or O) and is usually never wrong or right. How you move can influence your route, and once in a while, doing nothing is even the better choice; the game will sometimes provide the best suggestion for what to do. There's a mechanic for shoving your opponent around, but my sessions found it worthless, as it involved being very close and didn't seem to work effectively anyway; a traditional "homing jump" to bounce off my rival's head worked just as well. The Story Mode offers four characters — Sonic, Knuckles, Shadow, and newcomer Silver — but they all play exactly the same and work through the same levels.
What Sonic Rivals has in spades is speed: this engine is fast fast fast, with levels flying by as fast as any Sonic Adventure level ever did. The camera keeps up amicably, but from the distance at which it's positioned, there's not much in the way of details, not that you can tell. To be very honest with you, Mr. Gamer, Rivals moves almost too fast. On the tiny screen of the PSP, levels become blurs, and the only way to tell where your chosen character is at is their signature color on-screen. It can almost be overwhelming as the scenery flies by and you're asked to suddenly pull a series of Vaults, especially with holes and spikes all over the place. The levels demand you keep up, too, as most obstacles require at least nearly full speed to overcome and there are boosters all over the map. It's very quick, with no race taking more than maybe three minutes to finish.
This actually brings with it one of the more ignorable but still obvious shortcomings. Because Rivals is screaming along to the end of a level at full-tilt, rubber-burning speeds, you really can't see much of anything. Beyond your character and your rival once in a while, the levels whip by in a blur. To keep up those framerates (and probably because there's no reason to do otherwise), levels are very simple affairs graphically, using repetitive ornamentation and very little spice. It's something you can overlook because you'll be solely focused on The Other Guy, except in levels where there's not as much moving, which leads to levels that aren't races.
The other levels are Boss Fights, where, after beating up your rival-of-the-moment enough times, you can take on one of Eggman's creations for an emerald. These are surprisingly easy and much slower-paced than the races, always involving hitting a certain spot on the boss a certain number of times before your rival does. In these fights, Rings respawn especially quickly, and your rival often doesn't have the coordination required to put up a decent fight. Running out of Rings also does nothing more than freeze you for a moment or two, so there's a limited challenge brought on by the robots themselves.
These things smash, shoot lasers, fire missiles, and generally do the things we're used to from Eggman in strong Sonic style. These fights can be fun, but they're built on very distinct patterns that do not change and can be over before you blink. It's nothing to listen to, either, with exceedingly generic "high-energy" music that's completely drowned out by the same running sound that every Sonic game has used for years. Sporadically, someone will grunt, shout, or jump (with the same cartoony "boing!" we heard in the original Sonic The Hedgehog 16 years ago) to put a break in the monotony, with no speech to be found other than one-word exclamations.
If anything brings Sonic Rivals to a screeching halt, it's the generic formula that builds the product: race all of the levels in a given Act until you win (you can't progress in Story Mode until you beat your rival every time), and then beat the boss. Along the way, you'll gain a few cards as rewards and advance along the rather thin storyline. While it's fast enough for a challenge to mount, the game never brings anything more to the party beyond high-paced racing, average graphics, and functional controls. The cards you earn in the Story Mode only bring in extra costumes for the four base characters, never actually unlocking anything significant. There is a Multiplayer mode available via the wireless connection, but because of the nature of the game, it is strictly a two-player affair — you can race against another guy ... or you can race against another guy.
In many ways, I give Backbone Studios kudos because this is not the same Sonic we've been seeing on the bigger consoles, and it really does lend itself better to the portable system than porting something like Sonic Riders. Unfortunately, it brings little to the table beyond sheer speed and smacks soundly of the "battle" mode we spent many a day playing back in the Sonic The Hedgehog 2 era. While it's a fun distraction in small bursts and certainly does few things intrinsically wrong, Sonic Rivals is not going to be the next best thing.
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