Reviewed: March 11, 2006
Released: February 23, 2006
HmmmÖwho to believeÖNational Geographic would have me believe the Cheetah is the fast land animal alive, but here comes Sega trying to tell me itís a hedgehog. Well, maybe if you put that loveable Sega mascot on a futuristic airboard. Apparently Sonic has been hanging out with Marty McFly these days.
Sonic Riders is yet another attempt to branch from Sonicís original platform gaming roots. Sonic Team keeps trying to come up with new ideas when (if the DS version was any indication) all the fans want is more classic Sonic.
This time Sonic and his crew are put on futuristic Extreme Gear airboards for a game that desperately wants to compete with SSX but fails in almost every way. First and foremost, there is such a lack of content here that Sonic Riders would have been better suited as a sequence of mini-game races in a much larger 3D adventure.
There are only five tracks (six in story mode), and you can probably win the story and play as much of the multiplayer as you can stand before the rental store closes the same day you picked it up. Perhaps I am being a bit harsh, but read on and decide for yourself.
Sonic Riders kicks off with a cool animated movie featuring some excellent cel-shaded graphics that are juxtaposed with some slick CG in-game movies that rival something you might see on the big screen. These movie help to extend the life of the all-too short story mode, at least the first time you play. You likely wonít watch them on future passes.
So from the main menu you have your Normal Race mode that offers Free Race, Time Attack, and World Grand Prix. Free Race allows for up to four boarders in split-screen while Time Attack is for solo players and Grand Prix is for one or two players only. This is where you go for instant gratification.
Story mode chains the five core tracks together with a fun story that will delight the pre-teen gamers and bore everyone else. At least the movies are technically amazing. The only problem with the story mode is that your progress is locked into your profile so you cannot return to prior races without creating a new profile or resetting your current one.
Mission mode can be unlocked by playing the other modes and gives you various trick challenges to complete during a race. Tag mode is a 2-4 player variation where players team up to share the same air tank. Survival mode is another game for up to four that has you either racing or fighting for the top spot.
As you race around the tracks you will collect hundreds of gold Rings, and much like any Sonic game, if you get hit you will lose those Rings. If you do manage to hang onto a few you can spend them in the Shop to buy Extreme Gear like new boards .
So you actually have more modes of play than tracks to race on. In all fairness, the tracks are quite massive but with no ability to reverse or mirror them, most gamers will master them all in just a few races each and there is nothing left to motivate future replays.
Racing itself is a bit problematic thanks to some overly sensitive controls. Most of the time I seldom felt in control of Sonic, Tails, or whoever else was racing. I was merely hanging on for the ride. The analog movement offered acceptable steering until you hit a sharp turn and then you are supposed to squeeze the right trigger to air slide (drift) through the turns, but this is so sensitive that you almost always over-steer and end up in a wall or turned completely around.
Of course the whole premise of the game is racing, so you will want to navigate over turbo strips on the track and collect power-ups, all the while keeping an eye on your air meter. Your board runs on air and if you run out you are running to the next pit stop for a refill.
Boosting and air slides use large amounts of air but performing tricks replenishes that meter. There are also some sections on most of the tracks where you go into an autopilot mode for a few seconds. Here, you can rapidly twirl the right stick to manually refill your air supply.
The tracks are wildly imaginative and easily the best part of the game. Youíll blast through futuristic cities, skim over rope bridges and raging jungle rivers, plot your path through twisting machinery in a dark and fiery factory, and swoosh over tree limbs and bounce on giant spider webs in a giant tree. The story culminates in a diabolical bonus track that rises from the sands, one of the few tracks to offer any real challenge.
Tracks all have primary paths and numerous shortcuts and branches. There are usually large rail sections that are difficult to attach yourself to, but if you do, you can enjoy some serious grinding. The trick is always to balance your air with your knowledge of the track and the position of the other racers. In this game you can ride the slipstream of your opponents, much like a half pipe made of air, so being in first isnít as desirable as it usually is. Riding those air currents can make navigating the trickier portions of some tracks extremely easy.
Performing tricks is pretty standard. Press the A button as you go up the ramp and release at the stripe along the edge for maximum air. Once in the air you can move the left stick to spin or flip but that is the extent of your trick library. There are no grabs or any of the other thousands of moves you find in other boarding games. You are graded on tricks based on number of rotations and how good your landing is, and the better the grade the more air you get.
Iíve already mentioned the stylish opening movie and the killer CG movies that tell the story. The rest of the game is all tracks and fast-paced racing. You get an informative fly-through of the track before the race and then itís up to you to try and navigate these twisting tracks as they blur by at Mach 2.
Sonic Riders doesnít support widescreen or progressive scan so things didnít look so hot on my HDTV. There were some jaggies and shimmering that werenít there on the GameCube version, but most of these are lost in the blinding sensation of speed. Each track offers a distinct environment and plenty of classic Sonic charm. Everything from the spinning gold rings to the power-up icons were all rooted in platform gaming.
At first glance the HUD would look to be large and invasive. There is a lot of info on the screen but you learn to look through it after a few races. I was impressed that the game was able to deliver consistent framerates, even in split-screen races. Admittedly, the textures arenít terribly advanced and there isnít much going on with lighting, although there are some nice particle effects and the slipstream effect is very cool.
The sound effects are suitably futuristic and also quite simple. You have the swooshing sounds of an airboard, whatever that might sound like, and all of the arcade-style effects for picking up power-ups or doing something noteworthy. The game is mixed in Dolby Digital so you can hear the other racers as they try to pass you.
The music is classic Sonic starting with the fantastic opening song and carrying over into custom theme music for each track that totally suits the environment. Itís the perfect racing music.
The voice work is okay if you are in the target audience. Iím sure those who watch Sonic on TV will get a kick out of the story mode. There were a few conversations that admittedly made me smile, but that annoying race announcer turned that smile upside down with some of the most annoying commentary sinceÖwell I canít remember.
Ouch Ė here is the stinger. You have five tracksÖsix counting the extra one in the story but you canít race that one in the other modes. I finished the Story mode in just over an hour and played around with the multiplayer for maybe another hour or so. Everyone that I tried to get to play this game with me didnít really like it, either playing alone to get used to it or during split-screen races.
I supposed if you are 8-12 or have a kid who is in that age group they might get some prolonged use from Sonic Riders, but for anyone else this is a rental at best and a short one at that.
Itís odd really; I initially took Sonic Riders for a short spin on the GameCube and liked it a lot, but when my Xbox copy arrived for review and I sat down to dedicate some serious time to the game everything went sour.
First, the game doesnít require any serious time. You can probably finish it quicker than it took me to write this review. And with no incentives to replay, minimal tracks to master, and simple gameplay that is made difficult with faulty controls, Sonic Riders is best left to the kids and our blue hedgehog needs to return to his tennis shoe roots.