This isn't the first time Sonic has gone racing. He's done so on foot in Sonic R and Sonic Rivals (and the sequel), and he jumped into a go-kart against fellow Sega icons in Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing. It also isn't the first time Sonic has jumped on a hoverboard, as evidenced by Sonic Riders, which was released in the previous generation of consoles. It is the first time, however, that Sonic is being used on the Kinect for a racing experience. Sonic Free Riders acts as a sequel to the second hoverboard racing game, Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity, but this time, it does so without a traditional controller. This suddenly makes a once-mediocre racing title more intriguing. Can Sonic's racer pull off an amazing racing experience, or is it still a mediocre title with a shiny new control scheme?
The plot for the game is a little different than what was seen in the previous games in the series. Dr. Eggman, set up in a rather poor disguise, is holding a second EX World Grand Prix tournament where the winner gets plenty of cash and treasure for his efforts. Four teams have been invited to enter the contest, each with its own ulterior motive. Team Dark (made up of Shadow the Hedgehog, the robot E-10000B, and Rouge the Bat) enters the race for the big treasure while Team Babylon (comprised of Jet the Hawk, Storm the Albatross, and Wave the Swallow) wants the treasure and the chance to prove that they are the fastest team in the world. Meanwhile, Team Sonic (Sonic the Hedgehog, Knuckles the Echidna, and Miles "Tails" Prower) want to win the race and figure out Dr. Eggman's latest scheme while Team Rose (Amy Rose, Vector the Crocodile, and Cream the Rabbit) wants to win so that Amy can gain Sonic's approval.
The single-player game offers a standard assortment of modes that's in almost every modern racing title. Free Race has you doing standard races of three laps (unless the lap number is changed in the game options) on any track using any character you've unlocked, including your Xbox 360 Avatar. Time Trials has you doing the same type of race but without any competitors, and the goal is to get the fastest possible time on a track. The real meat of the game is in Grand Prix, where players get to view the story through the eyes of any of the four racing teams, two of which must be unlocked. Oddly enough, the mode doesn't feature too many standard races because it features specialty races instead. You'll be punching down objects, collecting a certain number of rings, or getting a certain number of trick points before you reach the end of the course. You'll also engage in a few one-on-one races before the mode is done. The mode is quite lengthy, so you should be able to squeeze a good amount of gameplay from it.
Like the single-player modes, the multiplayer ones offer some good variety. Tag Race has you and a partner racing together against computer-controlled opponents on any of the available tracks. While each player can do what he pleases in terms of steering, both players must execute tricks and moves simultaneously to score the most air from a maneuver. Relay Race involves four people, and each person is responsible for trying to complete one lap before handing off control to another individual. What's interesting about the offline multiplayer modes is that there is no option for a standard versus mode between two players. It's co-op or nothing. For versus play, one must go online, where up to eight people can challenge each other to races. Unfortunately, the online community for the game seems to be inactive at the moment, so unless you can convince a friend to go online with the game, you won't have much luck finding versus play aside from computer-controlled opponents.
The racing is fine, as it feels just like a kart racing game with hoverboards instead of go-karts. There are a few speed-boosting platforms available on the track, and players can also run over random item boxes to produce offensive or defensive weaponry. There are even a few shortcuts on each track, though some require you to have the right character or the right ability for access. The game feels different in its use of air, which determines how high you can jump when hitting a ramp and how many times you can use a kick boost to catch up with the competition or lengthen your lead. Because the meter is finite, and only time and tricks can refill the meter, it adds some strategy because you'll want to carefully manage when and where you use the kick boosts. Another element that makes the game feel different is the rings that you collect; you can use them to temporarily boost your hoverboard's stats. Of course, the opposite is also true, so any rings lost during a race will bring down your stats to normal levels. The rings can also be used as currency for new boards and board modifications, though that affects every other mode but Grand Prix.
If there's one element that destroys Sonic Free Riders, it would be the controls. It's the simple maneuvers — and not the more complicated ones — that the game has a hard time deciphering. Manual speed boosts are initiated by sticking your back foot forward and kicking it back as if you were on a skateboard. Ring grabs are done by sticking out your arms to the side or above your head, and punching out barriers (for those characters equipped with the ability) is done by punching at the screen. Jumping causes your character to jump, while a jump with a twist initiates a trick in-air. Various arm movements are used for weapons, such as a bowling throw for the large bowling ball, a football throw for missiles, and shaking to power up soda cans for an extra boost. Other maneuvers include paddling forward during the swimming portion of a level and sticking your arms to the side to glide from one power ring to another in some Grand Prix levels.
The complicated maneuvers work perfectly fine, but the act of steering your board, which is done by leaning in the desired direction, only works half of the time. Leaning to the side where your chest is facing will initiate that turn perfectly, but leaning to the opposite side will rarely cause your character to go in that direction. More often than not, your character will simply stay on his current path or initiate other moves, like the kick boost or a stance switch instead of performing the turn. After some time with the game, you'll discover that the best method for fixing the issue would be to simply switch your stance, though this makes the game a more tiring experience than it already is. For a game with tracks that aren't always straightaways, this becomes a very big dealbreaker.
The graphics in Sonic Free Riders are on par with most of the Sonic outings on the system. The texture work on the environments is nice, and while it isn't exactly detailed down to the last bolt on an iron game, the textures are clean and have no hint of stretching or pixelization. The environments look good when you're moving fast and when you're at a dead stop, and though there aren't too many things happening all the time in each course, there are a few instances where lava shoots up after a jump or dolphins jump from the ocean, making the tracks feel alive. The character models look fine as well, though the texture work isn't as detailed as it was in previous Sonic games, where you could see the stitching on characters' gloves. The animations contain a few hitches, such as a lack of smooth transitions, but they still look good. The characters and animations retain the series' bright, colorful look. The presentation of cut scenes in Grand Prix mode is perplexing. The game goes for the classic method of still pictures of characters in various poses. On top of that, a classic TV filter is used so the characters' colors look washed out, as the screen is filled with scan lines and a slight glass-tube reflection. Considering how the Sonic series has veered away from that style over the years, it is a bit disappointing to see them return to it, especially on a system that can handle full, real-time cut scenes.
The sound is good in some places and pretty bad in others. The sound effects are classic Sonic, so the jumping and ring capture sounds remain the same. The music is upbeat material that ranges from light platforming-like fare to harder techno beats, but all of them feel very appropriate for a futuristic-style racing game. There's also the requisite vocal theme song, and while the lyrics remain cheesy, the overall beat makes it a solid theme song for the Sonic series.
One aspect that remains annoying, though, is the voices. With the exception of Dr. Eggman, every character has been recast, though they do a good job of emulating the 4kids cast that used to voice the series. Some characters, like Cream, still sound terrible with the new voices, and their lines don't make them any more endearing. The voices and dialogue are bad enough that most gamers will probably skip them instead of trying to sit through more than one scene.
Sonic Free Riders would have been a decent, if not exciting, racing title for the Kinect had it not been plagued by a bad turning system. The modes are plentiful, and the story mode is quite long and has many racing variations. As far as graphics and sound are concerned, it ends up being equal to previous Sonic efforts on the Xbox 360. However, controls are paramount to any racing title, and it hurts the title immensely that everything else can be easily done — except for turning. For those itching to try out some racing on the Kinect, download the Sonic Free Riders demo on the Xbox Live Marketplace and see how the controls work out for you.
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