2010 was a good year for Sonic the Hedgehog, on average. Sonic 4 Episode One was a bright and breezy homage to the good ol’ days, and Sonic Colors finally added a competent 3D game to the series. Sonic Free Riders, the third game in Sega’s off-beat ‘Sonic Riders’ racing series, was also released in 2010. You’ll notice how earlier I said ‘good year on average’. A launch title for Xbox 360’s Kinect, Free Riders had quite a challenge in front of it. Not only did Sega have to provide a decent whole body control system to help prove the worth of the Kinect, they also had to create a fun and intuitive kart-style racer to rival Mario Kart – something which, to be honest, has yet to be done by anybody.
We can get an idea of how well Sonic Free Riders has managed with these mission objectives by taking a look at what an average gameplay session expects from the player. Taking the role of Sonic or one of his umpteen useless friends, you’re asked to stand in front of your TV as if you were riding a skateboard or, if you live in California in 2015, a hoverboard. Speaking of hoverboards, the ‘Extreme Gear’ devices that Sonic and co use for these races are quite similar to them. Lean left and right for steering, and lean towards the TV to make yourself more aerodynamic and pick up some speed. Fancy a bigger boost? Bring your back foot to the front and make a kickstart motion. Jump over obstacles and ramps by crouching down and leaping into the air. If you’re showing off in front of girls, you can add a trick to the jump by spinning around 360 degrees in midair. Way to stick it to Health & Safety guidelines, Sega. You can collect the power rings scattered throughout each course by sticking your arms out to the left, right or upwards. They help level up your ride, making you stronger and faster. You can also collect Mario Kart-style items which require completely different hand actions to activate, like shaking motions or throwing. Sound a little complicated? Those are just the basic controls. You’ll soon be punching obstructions out of the way, grinding on poles, throwing your arms in the air to fly, wiping mist and ink off the screen, swimming, grabbing poles to make sharp turns and flipping your body from right to left to ‘switch’ your power set – and all of these require independent movements from your body. It doesn’t help that the control system is woefully imprecise, especially when turning and jumping, and many of your movements will not even be picked up by the camera. There’s nothing quite like leaping in the air, spinning around, slipping on the floor and landing on your face, only to find that the Kinect camera hasn’t spotted any movement from you. Oh, and if you try to do too many things at once and accidentally put your arm in the wrong place, the Pause menu will spasmodically appear, interrupting your flow and potentially putting your racer in harm’s way. And then you have to bicker with one of the menu screens, which are stupidly hard to control.
Most of the game proper takes place in the Grand Prix mode. The usual selection of annoying fluffy animals are available, split up into teams of three, with each team member representing one of the main attributes: Speed, Flight or Power. The only team you’ll want to play is Team Sonic, made up of Sonic, Tails and Knuckles. Team Babylon (Jet, Wave and Swallow), Team Rose (Amy Rose, Cream and Vector) and Team Dark (Rogue, Shadow and mysterious robot E-10000B) are also available (don’t worry, there are halfway decent secret characters to unlock later). The Grand Prix is a slow, laborious task, made up of a string of races interjected with annoyingly pointless challenge levels. Your reward for success is a DS-quality animation, pushing the “story” along. These consist of banter between the teams, the kind of banter that makes the mute button seem really appealing. The only character who does not inspire suicidal thoughts is Knuckles – he’s just as annoying as the others, but the writers appear to have actually been intentional with him. The story is dumb of course, and lacks the self-aware parody of Sonic Colors, so it’s not even so-bad-it’s-good. It’s just bad.
As the voiceover on the main menu brags, there are a “variety of game modes”. Most of these are better than the awful Grand Prix. Playing alongside another human being is fine if you’ve got the space in your living room but don’t blame me if you end up reaching out for a ring and taking someone’s eye out. A much better idea is the Relay mode, where players take turns and ‘pass the baton’ to one another, and there’s also old fashioned Xbox Live multiplayer. Outside of the Grand Prix, you will have more freedom in what you do and how you ride. You can concentrate on proper races rather than nonsense challenges, customise your ride so you bring along the powers you want, buy and sell new vehicles and parts, and even play as your avatar. My avatar looked incredibly squashed and fat, but maybe that’s just because I’m squashed and fat. You can even drop the whole hoverboard gimmick and jump on a bike, which is easier and less stressful for your body (you stand up straight and grip onto the handlebars) but don’t be surprised if your character suddenly brakes to a stop for no real reason. Such are the controls.
The main problem with Sonic Free Riders is not its wonky control system. Sure, it’s frustrating, unpredictable and, in some cases, just plain sadistic, but I’m sure most people, with enough patience and spare time, could iron out the kinks and learn how to manipulate themselves into the positions the game wants from them. The actual main problem is that even if you sacrificed the Kinect controls and just put it all on a regular control pad, the game still wouldn’t be that much fun. It’s too fussy, too complicated, and even the kids I played this game with were not enthralled by the bright graphics and the chatty animals. The design of the courses is pretty uninspiring, as are the things you’re asked to do in them. The menus will wind you up, as will the repetitive tutorial voiceovers. The highlights are minimal: the soundtrack is pretty good and multiplayer, in the right surroundings, is decent. If you can play the game just as a vanilla racer, ignoring the fluff and fiddly bits, you might be able to have a couple of decent afternoons of gameplay here. But Joy Ride does it better. Sonic Free Riders receives a 4 out of 10.
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