Review: Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity (PS2)

Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity
Genre: Racing
Developer: Sonic Team
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: 01/08/2008

Hey look, it’s Sonic the Hedgehog in another racing game! That’s… well, yeah.

On one hand, the idea of Sonic in a racing game makes absolutely perfect sense; his entire gimmick is that he RUNS REALLY FAST, and it would stand to reason that racing games would fit with the character and his MO perfectly. Plus, hey, Mario pulled it off successfully, why can’t Sonic, yeah? On the other hand… most of Sonic’s racing games are what we will charitably refer to as “not very good”. Sonic R on the Saturn was a cute novelty game at best that completely failed the moment one actually sat down and started playing it, the Sonic Drift games were essentially Sega’s answer to Mario Kart (only not as good), and the Sonic Rivals games on the PSP, while they’re getting closer to what one would expect of a Sonic racing game, are pretty limited.

Which brings us to Sonic Riders. The first title was, sadly, not very good, but unlike a lot of other people, I was never terribly offended by the core idea of Sonic Riders; reasonably speaking, having Sonic (the fastest thing alive, so to say) running around while everyone else is using powered devices to catch up isn’t terribly friendly to uniformity of play, so it stood to reason to just stick everyone on hoverboards and be done with it, and if the GAME had been any good, that would have been perfectly fine. And hey, the first game, at least, had a convenient explanation for why the characters were all using said boards; there was a tournament to enter, after all, that REQUIRED use of said boards to participate.

Anyway, I think all of these games happen in different continuities from one another anyway (to save my own sanity), and the original Sonic Riders was weak, so it’s not like it matters or anything. The point is, a sequel could certainly take advantage of the concept of the game and, if done correctly, could actually give us a game worth playing. And lo and behold, Sega has actually delivered on the promise of the first concept with Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity, a Sonic racing game that, while certainly not the best racing game ever, is far and away the best SONIC racing game available to date.

It doesn’t start out that way, mind you. The story in SR:ZG is a mess of fairly large proportions, regardless of which side you play on. You start with the Team Sonic storyline (odd to think how Sonic and Knuckles used to be adversaries and now they ride around in the same… wait, car? What?) and move on to the Babylon Rogues story, each of which fills in the gaps from the other’s storyline until you have a complete story between the two. Sadly, complete doesn’t mean “understandable”. The gist is that meteors have fallen from the sky, only they’re not meteors, they’re strange devices that allow the user to control gravity around them. Team Sonic finds one, the Rogues find one, and the other three end up in various different places throughout the story. The thing is, this never really explains why the characters are all running about in hoverboard races in the first place. The first stage of the Rogues storyline sees the characters trying to escape from a temple that looks to be falling apart… but, um… why, then, are you racing around in it instead of TRYING TO ESCAPE?

In simple terms: the storyline works perfectly fine, and the game itself works perfectly fine, but the two DO NOT WORK TOGETHER. At all. That’s really the beginning and the end of it. Were this storyline attached to a normal Sonic game, it’d be fine, but in context it doesn’t work and it’s really weird. So there you go.

The presentation makes up for this blunder, however, and it does so pretty well. The character models are vibrant and look quite nice, and seem to be cleaned up quite a bit in comparison to the original Sonic Riders. The noticeable clipping and camera problems from the previous title also seem to have been dealt with sufficiently, leaving us with a game that looks quite a bit better than the original. It’s not perfect, of course; breakable environmental objects are obviously less detailed than the racers, and some frame rate issues still pop up here and there, but there’s a definite improvement to the visuals, so kudos. Aurally, the music is quite a bit better this time around, and the various little techno beats that permeate each of the stages actually feel right in context. They’re also pretty good in their own right, which is a pleasant surprise. The sound effects are as good as they always were, and the effects attributed to Gravity effects give it a fairly anime-inspired sense of mystique and power, which certainly works in the favor of the game. And if you, as I did, hated a few of the English voice actors (Amy Rose still hurts, I’m sorry), good news: Sega included the option to use English and Japanese language tracks in the game, which is novel as the more annoying voice actors have less annoying Japanese counterparts… though it’s certainly weird hearing the Japanese pronunciation of Sonic’s name (“Sonic-u the Hedge-hoga”). Still, it’s certainly nice to have both options available, so whoever nominated that idea, give him a pat on the back and a raise, would you Sega? Awesome, thanks.

So, yes, okay, Sega has punched up the graphics a tiny bit, made the music better on the whole and given us the option to listen to Japanese voice acting if we don’t like the English voices. That’s splendid and all, but it’s hardly the best part of SR:ZG. That would be the gameplay, which is a bit of a shock I know, but you need to understand: Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity is actually FUN TO PLAY, because the gameplay ACTUALLY WORKS.

The core gameplay is about as simple as you can get: press forward on the left analog stick to accelerate, and turn the stick left and right to turn. That’s it. Pressing back on the stick, presumably, applies the brake, but you’ll really never need to do this thing, as the game is designed so that you can take most every normal turn in the game without having to apply the brakes to any significant degree. This is actually a blessing; by taking out the need to slow down at any point, the game actually feels fairly fast paced and retains a fairly arcade-oriented sense of play, which works in its favor. This is one of two dynamics held over from the first game; the other being the item capsules, which are a staple of the Sonic series of games and work more or less like Item Boxes in Mario Kart. If you hit one as you’re racing, you get out of it some random thing, which can be anything from rings to Gravity power (more on that in a second) to the power to attack other racers to blobs of ink on the screen that make it hard to see. Aside from that and a few other small things here and there (grinding rails, speed panels), most of the game is brand-new, but this is to its benefit; the few gameplay and design elements that were held over from the first game were the better game elements, and most everything excised wasn’t terribly exciting.

The changes to the gameplay in SR:ZG are actually pretty solid all in all. The Air system from the original game, which controlled your ability to make tight turns and turbo boosts, has been changed to the Gravity system, which actually works a lot better in practice (mostly because the Air system was crap on a cracker). The Gravity system has two key gameplay elements: tight turning (called Gravity Control), which allows you to simply stop in mid-air and adjust yourself before shooting you off in the direction you choose, and turbo speed (called Gravity Dive), which allows you to go rocketing down the track at lightning speed while adjusting your altitude with the left stick. However, there’s more to these elements than one would initially think; for instance, if one initiates Gravity Control after flipping off of a ramp, one can stick to a wall (if there is one there) beside it and take a different route through that section of the track… and if one uses a Gravity Dive in an area filled with junk, one can bounce off of said junk for a turbo boost (called a Meteor Burst) and an additional refill of the Gravity meter. What’s more, the tracks are generally designed to take this into consideration, so you’ll generally see one real area where the Gravity Dive will come in handy (usually between trick ramps, which we’ll cover in a second), so you can initiate your Dive, rocket through that section, and then (in case you’re low on gravity) hit a trick ramp to fill up before the next tight turn. In other words: the course design is a lot more thought out this time around as well.

The trick system from the original game was also excised in favor of a much simpler mechanic: as you speed up a ramp, you press X when you feel you are closest to the edge to make a trick jump. If you are successful, you get Gravity points (and, if you’re REALLY successful, a boost ahead of the other racers); if not, you get nothing. This is a SIZEABLE improvement over the previous trick system and makes the game a lot more accessible all around. The type system from the previous game (where you would have Speed, Fly and Power typed racers) has been expanded upon considerably as well; there are all sorts of neat shortcuts you can take throughout the tracks dependant upon your racer type, which depends upon the board you pick to race with. In Story mode you’re stuck with the default board the character uses, but in normal races you can change up to whatever board you like, each of which has different special abilities built in, which could be anything from Grind (for grinding rails) to Fly (allowing you to take off and fly through rings) to Bike (blast through doors and obstacles with ease), among others. In another novel twist, your Extreme Gears (the name for the racing vehicles… I don’t get it, either) have their abilities locked by default, and each ability can be unlocked collecting rings littered around the course, which you can spend on abilities on the fly by pressing Triangle. The abilities each board possesses are different, so some might be able to change their form multiple times, while others might grant speed or item bonuses; what the boards do is noted in their description, so finding the board that’s right for you is simple enough. This places the racers on even footing for the first sections of most races (until you can collect enough rings to unlock abilities) and can allow a racer who spends their time aiming for those rings to make a strong comeback by unlocking abilities in their board to take a few judicious shortcuts. Most of the stages incorporate several different shortcut options at a time, so one need not feel like a specific gear is best for a certain course, as they all have their pluses and drawbacks.

In general, even beyond those changes, SR:ZG offers a lot of other small things that improve the experience further. In the first Sonic Riders, several of the courses featured bottomless dropoffs that your character could (and often would) plummet into, shaving valuable distance and time off as you were placed back on the course; in SR:ZG, this is less of a problem, as only a few of the courses have this problem, and those that do generally work around that well (the last stage in the Sonic Heroes storyline, for example, features bottomless drops along the tight turns; by using Gravity turns at the right time, you’ll actually fly off the course, turn, and rocket back into bounds, which provides a neat visual if nothing else). You’re also offered a hint option while you race that essentially tells you when you should be initiating turbo, tricks, and hard turns, which is good for teaching you the basics of play as well as a good way to help friends get into the game if they don’t know anything about it. The game also features a ton of content outside of the story mode, with multiple play modes for one or more players, a bunch of missions to plow through, and a whole lot of unlockable characters (including NiGHTS and Billy Hatcher for you diehard Sega fans out there) and Gears to earn.

That said, the single biggest problem with SR:ZG is the game still feels somewhat limited, even with the large variety of courses, Gears and characters. Yes, it IS a novelty racing game and as such isn’t held to the same standard as most normal racing games, but compared to something like a Mario Kart or a Ridge Racer, there’s not as much content here as in those franchises. Also, while the game is a marked improvement over its predecessor, aside from some gameplay tweaks it’s essentially the original Sonic Riders with new content. The changes in gameplay are really, really cool, don’t get me wrong, but that’s all that differentiates the two titles from one another; were the Air/Gravity systems excised entirely, you’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart. Also, the lack of online play here, say it with me now, hurts the value of the game because playing split-screen isn’t ideal for multiplayer experiences. And while the CPU AI is quite manageable once you have the basics down and have a firm grasp of how the game works, you REALLY need to have that firm grasp of things to really do anything with the game; jumping into a race with just the bare-bones essentials is going to leave you choking on dust every time until you learn the mechanics. This isn’t a problem for single-player games, but for multiplayer it’s a detriment, as the gal or guy who constantly comes in dead last isn’t going to want to play very long.

If, however, your friends are willing to sit down with SR:ZG and learn the game a bit, or if you’re totally fine with spending hours unlocking everything by your lonesome, you’ll have an absolutely blast with the game. There’s definitely some tweaks to be made here and there and some more meat to be added to the experience (even with the hidden characters, there are only something like eighteen characters to play with across twelve or so stages), but what’s here is a marked improvement over the original and is definitely worth checking out. If you were a big fan of the original, SR:ZG is even better, and if you weren’t a fan at all, second time’s the charm here.

The Scores:
Story: 5/10
Graphics: 7/10
Sound: 8/10
Control/Gameplay: 7/10
Replayability: 7/10
Balance: 6/10
Originality: 4/10
Addictiveness: 6/10
Appeal: 7/10
Miscellaneous: 7/10

Overall Score: 6.4/10
Final Score: 6.5 (ENJOYABLE).

Short Attention Span Summary
Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity is really a classic example of what developers should try to do with their mistakes: improve on them. Sega has taken the interesting and enjoyable elements from the first Sonic Riders, stricken the less entertaining elements and replaced them with things that are simple to work with and fun to use. It’s still a little limited and needs some more extras (and maybe a few online play modes), but as a second try at the franchise it’s fantastic, and on its own it’s pretty damn fun. Definitely worth checking out.



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