Developer: Sonic Team
Release Date: January 8, 2008
Sonic Riders was released earlier last year to something a bit less than critical acclaim. The irritating premise, lackluster storyline (even by Sonic's often sub-par standards as of late) and truly frustrating gameplay combined into a rather poor effort, especially cast against the only slightly more recent Sonic and the Secret Rings. One year later, Sonic Team's decided to give it another go with Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity for the PS2, and the results are clear: Super Smash Bros. Brawl is going to be the best Sonic game this year, but Zero Gravity is at least enjoyable.
Zero Gravity begins with a ring-shaped meteor that lands and rolls into a security robot, causing an entire army of them to go berserk. Tails happens to find the meteor and tells Sonic and Knuckles about it in a bored monotone while they mosey along in a car. They end up getting attacked by the berserk robots and knocked out of the sky highways, discovering by sheer Sonic-butt-saving luck that the meteor allows its wearer to control gravity. Taking advantage of this and the airboards that they've been keeping handy since the last game, they get away from the rampaging robots, figure out what's going on (hint: Robotnik's not the cause, but he's involved) and settle their rivalry with the bird-themed Babylon Rogues once again.
It's your typical Sonic plot that's just convoluted enough to attract kids and maintain interest. Thankfully, it also avoids falling into certain issues with past games, such as Sonic not being the main character, Shadow being the main character, Shadow showing up in any significant fashion and Amy being the incarnation of annoying. Oh, wait, that last one's still there, albeit toned down and handled better than since Sonic Adventure.
The actual gameplay of Zero Gravity starts with a modified version of your basic racing game rules. One course, three laps, lots of alternate routes, and you don't even have to hold down a button to accelerate; you simply steer with the analog stick, brake with one button and, at certain points, activate tricks with another. You won't want to brake very often, though, with the first of the game's three defining tricks. Remember how that meteor lets you control gravity? Tap a shoulder button, and you'll go into a null-gravity state, which allows you to aim yourself down a new path fairly quickly, to the point of it being the preferred method of turning on a sharp corner or reaching advantageous shortcuts. You're also able to use the same effect to basically point gravity forward, sending you flying down the course and ramming into varied objects, which is rewarded Burnout-style with more time on the gravity gauge, a successful replacement of the air gauge.
The game also follows the interesting choice of separating vehicles from characters entirely. Whereas the original Sonic Riders limited your vehicle choice by your character, Zero Gravity gives each character an iconic vehicle for story mode, but switches this out for free choice of a variety of vehicles. More significantly, your choice of vehicle doesn't just affect stats that can be virtually ignored when taking full advantage of gravity control. Each vehicle has three "mods" that can dynamically change how it plays. Mods typically include a max speed increase and gravity gauge extension, but one switches the vehicle to one of five special types. Whereas bikes can ram through just about anything, Air Rides can take special jumps to float along midair shortcuts and Skates allow you to grind along special pipes. Each offers its own shortcut-taking method, and taking advantage of these transformations quickly becomes the primary technique in play, for better or worse.
The three core features of Zero Gravity could hold up extremely well, were there enough courses and variety to fill a decent strategy guide. Unfortunately, the opposite is true, with only 16 courses that last about a minute and a half per lap … and then require you optimize your time so that a complete three-lap circuit lasts only three minutes. This is split between two storylines, which means that you'll understand the plot and can probably predict the ending after one hour of actual gameplay time. There is the Babylon Rogues storyline and an additional plot for the second World Grand Prix, but both involve repeats and minor variants of the first set of courses, and the World Grand Prix is only different in the course order and its co-op options. The result is that the game isn't just short, but the efforts to extend it make it feel shorter than it actually is. Furthermore, the storyline has some very strange gameplay-story segregation issues. For example, how you go three laps on every course to catch up with Amy Rose, as if running in circles will somehow get you closer to her. While this makes sense from a play standpoint, it's kind of confusing when you step back to look at it.
When you look at Zero Gravity's presentation, though, things improve a bit. Sonic Riders manages to be perfectly competent on the graphics and sound fronts, with one notable exception. Every character manages to look and move consistently, with positively manic courses that have enough going on that you might think the game was running on the PS3 or 360 instead of the PS2 and Wii — all with impressively short loading times, no less! The sound effects pack a surprising punch, and the soundtrack is loaded with great techno works that add to their respective courses. Unfortunately, the game chooses a rather terrible place to drop the ball on the presentation front, with the worst voice acting in the series in a long time. Remember when I described Tails as talking in a bored monotone? This is apparently how he sounds interested in what's going on. Most of the characters sound perpetually bored, and this severely weakens plot sequences, nearly killing the slightly limited interest that it carries.
Overall, Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity does what it set out to do and not a whole lot more. It's fast, it's fun, it has a comprehensible plot and it manages to go through an entire game with no Shadow. Robotnik even manages to come across as effectual. The title also manages to improve and fix the many poor concepts in its direct prequel, but it's weakened by its length, voice acting and sometimes off-kilter writing. Sonic fans will probably eat it up nonetheless, and racer fans looking for something different may wish to give it a fair chance. Just don't expect it to last too long.
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