Review: Sonic Free Riders (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Sonic Free Riders
Publisher: SEGA
Developer: SEGA
Genre: Racing
Release Date: 11/04/2010

So far, 2010 has seemingly been the year of the hedgehog. With Sonic Colors ripping up many jaded gamers’ low expectations, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 taking a first step in the right direction and the solid, yet dated, Sonic Adventure DX remakes popping up, the tail end of the year might lead one to believe the blue blur is rising once again.

Here we have Sonic Free Riders, a real black sheep standing out among the releases. The series has never been able to capture critical success, but the fanbase surrounding the characters has evidently kept it afloat and we’re now looking at a fresh entry in the series to take advantage of the Microsoft Kinect accessory. When I think of Sonic Riders, sort of like Sonic Drift, I just immediately question why SEGA would have Sonic do anything outside of running. That’s seemingly irrelevant, though, as Nintendo’s mascots do everything short of brain surgery and the last time Sonic took to a vehicle, it resulted in Sumo Digital crafting what I found to be a surprisingly phenomenal kart racer. With SEGA at the helm of this new racer, will the Sonic crew make me a fool a second time?

This installment sees the introduction of yet another World Grand Prix in which competitors race on hover boards known as gears. The competition featured in this title is hosted by a poorly-masked Eggman, who promises cash and treasure to the winners of the grand prix. Undaunted by the impending danger, four teams, headed up by Sonic, Jet, Shadow and Amy, enter the competition to best one another and, certainly, each competitor has their own personal agenda in the tournament. Unfortunately, the storylines are only spilled out through the use of fuzzy stills displayed through a television monitor, so there isn’t anything exciting to see throughout the storyline. This omission could be alleviated through some great scripting, but this fails to surface as the characters engage in straightforward chatter, smack talk and bickering and any “twist” brought forth by the main villains can be seen coming from a mile away. The story is also held back by the rapid-fire nature of challenges implemented in the World Grand Prix mode do not tie into the story at all, yet they encompass roughly 60-70 percent of the game mode.

So, obviously, the story behind the game isn’t exactly stellar, but Mario Kart never had a story and that series turned out well. With this, the real weight of the game’s offerings is on the shoulders of the modes offered by the game. Aside from the World Grand Prix mode, which offers multiple team perspectives culminating in a final rival race, Sonic Free Riders does serve up a free race mode, a time attack mode, tutorials and a few game variants such as damage survival.

While this serves up a fair chunk of options, these are standard fare for racing titles, so the most interesting modes on tap lie in the tag and relay modes. While neither are groundbreaking, they certainly fall in lie with the goal of Kinect in getting multiple people involved with the game. If you’re feeling crowded, though, up to eight players can be pitted up against each other in online races. For a more family-targeted racing title, Sonic Free Riders has a deceptively high amount of content to tackle and this doesn’t even factor in the gear boards and parts I’ll be touching on later. Players will no doubt find themselves hanging on to the quickfire modes more than the lackluster story, so the spread of offerings saves the day for the title’s offerings.

The core gameplay of Sonic Riders hasn’t changed a bit and it is expected any gamer will understand most of the game modes are races and getting first place is a good thing. With this, I enter the field where Sonic Free Riders is made or broken – the control. To be honest, I spent a huge amount of time trying to judge whether or not the controls in Sonic Free Riders even worked.

Going online, it’s actually a bit confusing with so many people stating the controls do not work, yet, on the other hand others insist the controls work just fine. After putting an hour or two into the title, completing the basic tutorials, rearranging my living room for the third time since I bought Kinect and making sure my camera was calibrated, I thought I was going to be on board with those claiming the game just didn’t work. However, giving the title an extended chance I realized the controls did in fact work, it’s just I needed extra finesse in order to get my characters to do what I wanted … well, for the most part.

With my understanding of what the game wanted me to do, I was finally clearing the story challenges and dominating the competition. This understanding was in doing what I expected to in the first place, manipulating my positioning as if I was on a snowboard. The leaning always worked to turn right, but to turn left, I have to awkwardly bend backward and extend my arms back like I was HHH spitting water during his WWE ring entrance. While it wasn’t exactly comfortable, I had finally grasped how to manipulate my onscreen character without bumping into every wall on the track.

The controls actually worked. Still, even with a number of interesting mechanics involving arm positioning, jumps and foot pedaling, I just wasn’t having fun doing all of this. Sonic Free Riders actually throws a good amount of motions, positions and actions at players, so it makes use of Kinect, but I never found some of the implementations to be intuitive, which goes above some of the younger players the game will no doubt attract. At the simplest level, I could imagine a younger audience completely getting into the game with the full energy required from the foot pedaling to activate boosts, the crouching to prepare for jumps and the actual act of jumping. On the other hand, though, it took me a good amount of time to fine-tune my turning and jumping, so anyone not willing to put some time into figuring out how they need position themselves to fully manipulate the game is going to be immediately turned off by the game. In my case, I just can’t say my hour spent perfecting my form through the tutorials translated into a fun and rewarding experience.

This is unfortunate as the game has a fair share of intuitive motion controls, such as the pedaling to boost and reaching out to grab on to structures for tight turns and shortcuts. I personally got a kick out of the ruins track, which is littered with these shortcuts, and the descent down the temple stairs, and I believe the track design is the only aspect injecting some fragment of fun into the game. The shortcuts even added an element of strategy to the title as the gear slot selections can allow players to access shortcuts reached by riding air streams, grinding across rails, punching out blockades and more. Any player without these powers will have to find another way around, so this aspect definitely creates some tough decisions and forces players to learn the tracks.

However, it’s almost as if SEGA designed these tracks around the limitations of the controls as there are plenty of boost belts placed at strategic positions in order to thrust the player around turns and into groups of rings. As hard as it is to navigate a 90-degree turn, slamming into the wall immediately repositions the player on the correct course with very little penalty to speed. The inclusion of these elements slightly bothered me in a racing title, but I soon understood these elements were essentially the only thing preventing me from completely giving up on the title. Some of the tracks even feature segments where your character will leave the gear board. Oddly, these sections that have players switching paths on a train track or sledding through a cave, for example, feature spot-on control – a puzzling occurrence considering I have to bend backward almost 45 degrees just to bank left on my gear, no matter how I configure the Kinect camera and this carried over into different people’s living rooms as well.

It also doesn’t help that navigating menus in Sonic Free Riders is a monumental task. The game clumsily requires players to shuffle through options using swiping motions and moving the selected icon into the corner. This creates a sometimes lengthy process that is far more complicated than it should be. Thankfully, a speech option is included to allow players to speak out certain elements such as game modes in order to select them.

It’s again disappointing considering some of the unique elements of the game, such as leveling up your gear by accumulating rings, triggering item attacks with unique actions (such as shaking up a soda can to burst it for an extended boost) or utilizing the power-ups players can slip into their gear’s two slots. Outside of a few clever gimmicks, though, Sonic Free Riders is essentially a standard “kart racer” that becomes overcomplicated by the Kinect camera, especially for those discouraged by the game’s controls.
Outside of the gameplay, gamers will receive some decent presentation elements, thanks mostly the focus of speed in the title. The game’s characters are presented in the same style we have grown accustomed to since the days of Sonic Adventure and, to some degree, the Sonic X animation. Having mentioned the animation, it is pretty disappointing to see the route SEGA chose to unveil the story segments, as I’m sure they were going for a clever sports presentation approach, but it just comes across as uninteresting.

In the game, however, most everything looks quite sharp, which isn’t too hard when everything is zooming by at hundreds of kilometers per hour, but, unlike some other racing titles, nothing in the environments look overly offensive when at a stand still, either. The game features a lot of sped-up animations on the characters during tricks and other actions, but this preserves the speed of the game fairly well. There is a bunch of animation involved in the environments as well, including lava spurts, waterfalls, vehicles and wild animals that give the tracks a little flair and there are other subtle touches involved such as the game screen steaming up while crossing a bridge over lava. Overall, the graphics get the job done and while nothing screams amazing, there is a handful of clever touches to be seen and nothing comes across as poorly done.

On the other hand, while acceptable, the game’s audio just couldn’t suck me in. This is a shame as Sonic Free Riders (much like Sonic Colors) finally introduces a fresh voice cast for the characters involved. Most of the main characters, like Sonic, of course, still remained quite pleasant to my ears, I actually found a few voices, such as that of Tails, to be more fitting and, of course, I found some deliveries, such as Shadow’s, to be even more dry. Regardless, the painfully generic script writing doesn’t exactly help some of these deliveries out, so I can cut a little bit of slack on the voice actors, but anyone outside of diehard Sonic fans or kids will probably find themselves skipping the cutscenes. Also, I’m probably not the target market for such a game anymore, but the opening theme absolutely made me cringe due to its cheesy lyrics and vocal delivery. Still, it fits the Sonic style developed by SEGA ever since Sonic Adventure, so at least there is some continuity involved.

In the game, though, I found the music to be much more bearable, even though some of it got lost in the shuffle of the game’s sound effects. Being shoveled over from most other Sonic games, the trademark sounds of picking up rings remains intact and players are also treated to a number of environmental sounds that are all very appropriate to the surroundings. Overall, the sound in the game is very serviceable, but with all of the jumping and actions involved in gameplay, players’ attentions will most likely be diverted from this element, making it easy to dismiss them.

On a final gameplay note, I’ve made mention some players will be able to adapt to the controls and there is some fun involved in the title, so how does Sonic Free Riders keep a player hooked? I’ve already made mention of the multiple modes, especially those involving multiple players, but the title adds another positive notch with its extensive offerings of special gear boards and parts.

With the accumulation of rings, the game has a shop where players can cash in for special boards with not only increased stats, but special abilities to boot. For example, some boards may expand certain abilities such as earning more boost or being able to hold higher amounts of boost, while others can add additional effects, such as creating a damaging explosion around the player while kick boosting. On top of that, boards can be equipped with two power-ups that include actions such as grinding or passive abilities that can increase your top speed or more. Dedicated players will be tackling the game quite a while to uncover every single item and the abilities add more to the elements of strategy and customization. On top of besting track times and achievements, there is actually a fair share of content to dive into in Sonic Free Riders.

The Scores
Story/Modes: ENJOYABLE
Graphics: GOOD
Control and Gameplay: POOR
Replayablity: ENJOYABLE
Balance: DECENT
Originality: POOR
Addictiveness: BAD
Appeal Factor: DECENT
Miscellaneous: BELOW AVERAGE

Short Attention Span Summary
Sonic Free Riders is a decent attempt at a Kinect-enabled racer, but every fun and brilliant element is marred by how finicky the camera’s recognition of the player can be. I can envision the younger demographic really getting into the game as the track design eliminates some of the frustrations of crashing into walls and the game becomes quite immersive with its jumps and usage of items and the environment. Outside of this, however; I can’t imagine many people having the patience to work with the controls and even when I finally nailed them down, I didn’t find what I was doing to be fun or rewarding. The game has a healthy amount of great ideas and interesting features and the catalog of gear boards and parts and spread of game modes could have players coming back time and again. Unfortunately, the awkward controls, clumsy menus and underwhelming story make this title more of a chore than a treat.



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