As the last of his games hit shelves, so ends a big year for Sonic. 2010 brought with it some hotly anticipated Sonic titles: The SEGA Superstars returned for All-Star Racing, 2D Sonic returned to consoles and 3D Sonic has cleaned up his act. Meanwhile, off in the corner sat Sonic Free Riders.
Free Riders, the third game in the Sonic Riders series, made ripples (not waves) in the SEGA community when it was announced to be a launch title for Microsoft’s Kinect. The series itself had earned little respect in the past, and coupled with a new piece of hardware, enthusiasm for the game was mixed. But now the Kinect is here, the game is out. No more speculating, it’s reviewin’ time!
Graphics, sound effects and music
The Riders HD graphical debut isn’t groundbreaking by any means. When compared to Sonic and SEGA All-Stars Racing, Free Riders looks like a step back. Despite this, the graphics are leagues better than the last two Riders titles and suit the game very well. I always welcome bright and varied colors in an HD game. Framerate is solid, and I don’t recall encountering any dips. There is always a lot going on in race environments, including fountains, waterfalls, steam, volcanoes and even a hover subway. The coolest thing is that all of those environmental effects affect gameplay, either by splashing water at the screen, acting as hazards or steaming up the players vision.
While no classic environments return a la SASASR, perhaps SEGA is saving those for Sonic Anniversary, each track follows classic series themes. Themes include a tropical resort, a desert canyon, a winter forest (more like Sonic 3’s Ice Cap and less like Sonic Unleashed’s Cool Edge), a futuristic city, a volcanic mountain, ancient ruins and an evil factory.
Gone are the overly exaggerated noodle-armed character designs, with every character now represented by the standard designs established in SASASR. This, in my opinion, is a much welcomed change as it brings a much more consistent look to the Sonic games.
Sound effects are true to the series, with the usual ring “dings” and dash pad “whooshes” in place. Music is good, with some tracks evoking a Jet Set Radio Future feel thanks to some rather crazy uses of samples. My particular favorites are the twangy Rocky Ridge theme and the Metropolis Speedway theme. Some tracks go the typical hover racer techno route, but even then they suit the game and don’t detract in any way. Did I mention the classic Hang-On theme and “Outride a Crisis” from Super Hang-On appear? Character voices are all new and much improved. Call me crazy but I think Sonic sounds better in this than he does in Colors.
Gameplay remains similar to the previous titles, but has been simplified to accommodate the motion controls. Players race to the finish, performing jumps and tricks to build up their air gauge which in turn is used to perform speed boosts. Turbulence air streams and zero-gravity moves have been dropped in favor of a variety of gimmicks including swimming, mine carts and snowmobiles. Besides hazards, such as lava, which must be swerved to be avoided, players also will have their view obstructed by smoke steam. While all of these gimmicks may not sound as exciting as air tunnels and zero gravity, in practice they’re a lot of fun. No two gimmicks control the same way, which is a big step up from the thumbstick spinning in the previous titles.
The number of race modes is impressive. Players can race online via XBOX Live and offline. Offline mode includes the World Grand Prix, which offers a series of missions connected via static cutscenes telling the Sonic Free Riders story. The story is about as deep as Sonic Heroes, but then again this is a racing game so no harm done in keeping things light. Offline also features Time Attack and Free Race. Multiplayer can be played in co-op. Tag Mode allows two players to race together, requiring players to keep their movements in sync. Relay mode, which supports up to 4 players, requires teammates to swap places after each lap. Local multiplayer supports up to two active players.
Players have their choice of 17 unique characters from the Sonicverse (including Riders newbies Vector and Metal Sonic), as well as a super mode for Sonic and avatars. Compared to previous Sonic titles, Free Riders playable roster easily beats the first two Riders and the Mario & Sonic titles in the number of Sonic characters available. The trade off for more Sonic characters is that the game has unfortunately dropped the inclusion of other SEGA characters. While this is a shame, it does make sense that SEGA would want Free Riders to be purely a Sonic title while the All-Stars series acts as a Sonic and SEGA title. At least Ulala, Amigo, Opa Opa and Crazy Taxi appeared in a racing game this year. Just not this one.
Gear include boards and bikes, with each character providing their own and additional gear being available in the shop. Gear are supplemented by parts which give the riders special skills such as grinding, flying and improved boosting.
You know why I was saving this one for last. The game’s controls have been a major point of contention in reviews for the game. Some say it works, others say it is the most broken game they have ever encountered. Upon calibrating my Kinect and doing everything the hardware guide specified, I popped the game disc in, ran through a few tutorials and jumped right into a Free Race with Sonic in Dolphin Resort. I placed 2nd.
Overall my experience with the controls have been positive. Leaning right and left is near perfect when using my arms and shoulders in conjunction with bending at the waist, S ranked jumps are a matter of timing a crouch and jump at the right time. Boosting is done by kicking and sweeping the ground, as one would with a skateboard, rings are collected by reaching left, right or down and items are triggered by mimicking how one would actually use them. In a typical race, things can get really hectic and fun thanks to all the varied actions. Action specific missions, on the other hand, may prove challenging as they require consistent execution of exhausting actions. I can tell you that pulling off six perfectly timed jumps is a workout, considering all the times I had to restart to earn an S rank.
Overall, controls DO work, but only if one fully calibrates their Kinect for their room (this can be a one time thing and in no way is necessary at each start up) and has enough space for the camera to see their full body. Most importantly, the key to the game controlling well is to execute poses that the game is looking for rather than playing freely as one would in Kinect Sports or Kinect Adventures. Of course, this is how things worked out for me and others rooms and body shapes may cause controls to vary.
Free Riders does not break any barriers when it comes to console racing. If you’re looking for a solid Sonic racer, check out Sonic and SEGA All-Stars Racing. If you’re looking for a game that makes Kinect a must own, look elsewhere. However, if you already own or intend to own Kinect, I recommend picking up Sonic Free Riders. The game offers up much more of a challenge than other Kinect launch titles and features a lot more in modes and gameplay than Joy Ride or Adrenalin Misfits. The motion controls make for some fun racing and really gives the game an arcade-like feel.
+ The largest number of playable Sonic characters ever
+ Tons of online and offline modes
+ Not a casual friendly racer, a “challenge” is actually a challenge
– Controls take time to master
– Static cutscenes
– Graphics aren’t stellar
– Lack of SEGA fanservice