Sonic is back. For better or worse.
I don’t think many people were expecting racing games to be one of the most populated genres available on Kinect at launch. Piloting a vehicle just doesn’t seem natural on a device invented to track body movements. Sonic Free Riders releases alongside Adrenaline Misfits, Kinect Joy Ride, and many other games that include racing mini-games. The good news is that we have a lot to compare these games to. The bad news is that they’re almost unilaterally terrible. Sonic Free Riders is no exception. It has some decent moments, but overall this is yet another tech demo that offers a barely serviceable gameplay experience.
The Grand Prix mode begins with the notorious Doctor Eggman dressed up in a hideous disguise in an attempt to trick all the heroes of the Sonic universe into racing against each other in a Grand Prix. As if it weren’t insulting enough that they’re subjecting us to such a ridiculous plot introduction, the story is played out in lengthy cutscenes that offer absolutely no value whatsoever to the viewer. Half the time it takes several minutes for the narrator to ask the crews if they’re ready for the upcoming race and for each of the characters to say “yes” in their own snarky way. These scenes are excruciating to watch, and there’s no discernible way to skip them as far as I was able to tell. The inability to skip these scenes is one of many reasons why Kinect was a bad platform for this game. It might have been remotely enjoyable had it used a game pad.
Once the race starts things continue to slide downhill. The Kinect controls for this game are consistently terrible from start to finish. You control your character on a hoverboard, motorcycle, etc. by standing sideways at a ninety-degree angle away from the camera. You then lean back and forth to turn left or right. The detection for these turns is awful. It fails to register slight turns one moment, and the next it will crash you into a wall for the same motion. Then when you try to make a major turn, you’ll wind up barely turning at all!
This wouldn’t be so bad if the whole race wasn’t designed around precision turning. You not only need to make it through the track, but you also need to be able to grab Sonic’s famous rings and skill capsules. A bad game mechanic is not necessarily a damning thing for a title. However, when the developer fails to recognize that their system doesn’t work, it becomes a problem. A skilled developer will build in work-arounds for these kinds of problems, or better yet, design a game that doesn’t focus directly on those problems.
Free Riders similarly fails when asking you to jump. There are ramps placed across some levels that give you a boost and a super-rad jumping animation if you jump on them at the right time. When it works, it’s pretty neat and a fun little addition to the track. However, I had huge problems getting Kinect to recognize me jumping consistently. Even when I was jumping as high as I can, I still had problems getting it to respond more than twenty-five percent of the time. When winning or losing depends on these jumps, and it often does, it’s completely unacceptable for it to work so rarely.
Sonic Free Riders is one of only a few Kinect games to support online competition. However, this is one area where I’m pretty much unable to offer comment. After logging on periodically over the last four to five days since Kinect’s launch, I’ve seen very few people in the online lobbies. On the rare occasions that I found a game to join, thrice the connection was lost or I was logged out right after trying to get into the game. And once the connection was lost right before a game was about to begin. After that I simply gave up and moved on to the single-player content. My guess is that this is a pretty good explanation for why so few people are trying this game online so soon after launch.
There are a few modes in the single-player section such as tag race and time trial. Time Trial is the most fun of all of the modes since it’s just a race down the track. You don’t have to worry about precision turning and picking up power-ups. That takes some of the pressure off the bad mechanics. There are also a good amount of unlockables and upgradeable content, although it requires you to slog through a lot of bad racing. So take that compliment with a grain of salt.
Even the menu system is weird and difficult to navigate. You use motion control to flick through a set of options on a circular ring. Flick to the left and the circle will spin like a horizontal wheel, allowing you to access new options. It sounds decent on paper, but in practice the system often screws it up. When you flick to move the ring, you have to bring your hand back to the side to flick again. I lost count of the number of times the system registered that as me wanting to flick the ring in the opposite direction. It’s not a big thing, but trust me, when you just got done being frustrated with a race and the menu doesn’t even work, it becomes a very annoying issue. This is in contrast to Adrenaline Mistfits which has a nearly flawless menu system that I hope many upcoming games will copy.
The soundtrack and the voice acting barely warrants mentioning beyond simply saying it’s really bad. The voices sound like terrible Saturday morning cartoons that have been imported from Japan and dubbed with English voices. Some kids may respond to that kind of thing, but most adults will find them to be like nails on a chalkboard.
Sonic Free Riders never really had a chance. On the one hand it’s a Sonic game, and Sega has demonstrated many times over the last decade that they have no interest in making quality Sonic games. Those titles will sell the same number of copies no matter what. Free Riders does nothing to break that tradition. Moreover, this game is a racing game on a brand-new system that clearly was not designed with racing games in mind. It never had a chance to be good, and in almost every respect this game falls short.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 2.4 Graphics
he graphics looks pretty much the same as most other Sonic games. Colorful and decently modeled, but certainly nothing special. 1.5 Control
The Kinect sensor falls drastically short of expectation here. Motions are often poorly mapped or not registered at all. 2.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
I give them credit for including a lot of voice acting, but what’s here is terrible. 2.0 Play Value
There’s some fun to be had in the Time Trial mode, but only because you don’t have to struggle with the inadequacy of the rest of the game. Online play may eventually offer some fun as well, but right now it doesn’t seem to work. 2.0 Overall Rating – Poor
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.