One thing about Sonic Free Riders that impressed me pretty quickly was the amount of interactions there are in the game. This is much more than a ‘lean forward, lean back’ style of board racing. I’ll get to the goods and bads of the controls shortly, but first, a word on the available modes of play in Riders.
You can play in local single and two player modes as well as on Xbox Live with support for up to eight players. I spent the vast majority of my time offline in the World Grand Prix, which is basically your story mode that contains a variety of missions. This is the heart of the experience and overall it’s a good one with a variety of courses (sixteen actually that you unlock as you go) and upgradeable items and so forth. There is also a Free Race mode where you can compete against another player or computer controlled racers. Tag Race allows simultaneous play with a friend and Relay Race allows you to switch off with multiple local friends. Finally, a Time Attack mode and a very useful Tutorial round out the Offline modes. Over Xbox Live, players can view Leaderboards, jump into a Party (up to eight players), hop into a Quick Match, or Create/Join a Custom Match.
Before starting the World Grand Prix or any mode, I suggest the tutorial which takes about fifteen minutes. In addition, the detailed manual is worth a look too. That said, the Basics tutorial will guide you through the bare minimum of what you need to know to play Riders. In it, you’ll learn to control your Gear, which is the term given to the hoverboard which players ride on. Leaning forward, i.e., towards the screen, speeds up your board, while leaning back and forward (as in bending) are used for steering. Coins can be collected by holding out your left or right hand, or by putting both of them above your head to grab overhead coins. You can perform a kick dash, just like in Tony Hawk: RIDE by taking your back foot and swiping it along side the (imaginary) board. Jumps are also vital in Sonic Free Riders — you need them to earn Air which is the stuff that allows you to boost, and you’ll need to boost to beat the clock and/or other racers. To jump, you just have to hop up off the ground, but to get the most enjoyment and benefit out of a jump, you can power jump by crouching down first and leaping upwards. To add to that, you can also spin around in the air to perform tricks which net you additional points that go towards an overall letter grade score and you get more Air.
The tutorial will take you through all that, and before long you’re ready to hop into your first race. I should mention at this early stage that navigating the menus in Riders is a chore if you’re using motion, so try the voice commands. I found the voice commands to be much quicker than using my hands to scroll through and select menu options. Commands like “back” and “select” worked well for me. That said, when you’re ready to start the World Grand Prix you’re allowed to choose between two teams, the Heroes (Sonic, Tails, Knuckles) and another group led by the alligator character (I forget his name). Apparently, you’re ultimately able to choose two more teams, but I haven’t unlocked those yet.
The Is Race On
In World Grand Prix, the story has Dr. Robotinik in disguise, hosting a tournament. The winner of this tournament is to receive a lot of money, so naturally it attracts several contestants. In between missions, which you unlock one at a time, a basic cutscene plays that advances the story along. There are several different mission types including all out races, Ring Collection, Damage Survival, Air Tricks, Grind Challenges, and more. Ring Collection is just as it sounds, where the player must gather so many rings before time expires. With Damage Survival (I believe I have that name right), your character (i.e., Knuckles if using the Heroes team) must bash through barriers as you approach them, which is done by swinging your fist in a punching motion. Grind Challenges require that you start a grind and ride it out until the end of the rail, and you have to do so many of those in a given time frame. Air Tricks require that you get x number of points before reaching the end of the stage.
These modes are often tougher than they first appear, and that’s more so because of the control troubles than anything. I didn’t feel like any event was asking too much in itself, but combined with the unreliable controls, things became much tougher and frustrating. I had to do the second mission of the Heroes team World Grand Prix probably a dozen times before I could finally guide Tails to gather enough rings. There were all kinds of rings available — enough that I could have finished in half of the allotted time probably if I could have only gotten my steering right — but that was indeed the hardest part. Cornering, i.e., turning or steering, is often a real pain. It’s so easy to miss a whole series of rings because your leaning forward or backwards doesn’t get detected or gets detected too late. I’ll say this, too — you really have to lean far (most of the time it was 60-70 degrees from center) to get the game to recognize it. It’s rather odd though because before each mission, there is a very brief calibration sequence in which players turn as though braking (i.e., full body facing forward), then turn to get on the board (i.e., turned sideways), and then you weave in and out of a few turns. I tried to do this in such a way that I didn’t have to lean so much but it never took. Whether I hit the cones or not I never had to recalibrate, so…
Jumps are another point of issue with the Sonic Free Riders controls. When you pull off a great power jump, you’ll love it because your character does something cool, you get a ton of Air, you get points if you need them, and a nice A+ or S+ pops up on screen. Darn thing is though, you’ll do the same motion for the next jump, or the next go around on the same level, and you may end up with a C, i.e., the lowest possible score. Mission 7 with the Heroes has Knuckles needing twelve points from tricks to clear the stage. You get exactly three chances to make this happen, and you can earn a max of 6 points at a jump. That should work out fairly easily but time and time again I came up short, largely due to the inconsistency of what the game registered with my motions.
Failing an event, especially repeatedly, is a pain. Each time you fail, expect to wait a good ten to fifteen seconds to get another chance at it because you have to watch the fail animation, wait for the game to save content to your console everytime, and then select or voice command to retry (thankfully load times are very short). It doesn’t help that some courses are designed in such a way that you might not fail until the very end, or sometimes the distance between two mission-critical points is pretty far apart (which kinda draws out the event).
While I’m on the topic of controls, there are more in Riders that I need to mention. There’s a function called Restore View which is kind of neat. Whether splashed by the ink of an Octo-ink that someone threw at you or if you’ve just gone through a foggy area, sometimes your screen gets covered and your view is distorted. To amend this, you actually just wave your hands to wipe the screen clean. Additionally, there are sequences where you will be swimming or in a rail cart and you can optionally move your hands in such a way that makes sense (swimming motion for example) to get through the area faster. If you don’t do these motions your character will still get through the area, just not as quickly. The ‘bike gear’ utilizes motorcyle style control as far as handlebars and kick-starts (for speed boosts) which is pretty neat.
There are quite a few Action Items available for pick up during a race to help you topple your competitors. Some of these require using certain motions to activate. The Soda Rocket requires that you perform a shaking motion with your hand (as though you were shaking up a can of soda); activating this Item gives you a massive speed boost for several seconds. An underhand throw motion will release the Bowling Strike item, and I enjoyed doing an overhand throwing motion to toss a target torpedo at a racer in front of me. There is also a golf swing motion to hit the racer in the front of the pack and a tapping motion to pop open the Octo-Ink/Octo-Boost item. I found these motions to be some of the most reliable in the game.
You may be wondering what ring collecting does for you in this particular Sonic game since you don’t have x number of lives to worry about as you would in a normal Sonic title. Well, in the main menu, there is a Shop icon in which players can spend their rings to purchase new Gears (hoverboards) or Gear Parts. There are twenty different Parts that you can buy to improve everything from the amount of Air bonus you get for doing tricks to your top speed. Each Gear can hold two Parts (although the Bike Gears can only hold one) but you can’t use custom Gear parts for every event. There are thirty-eight different Gears you can buy as well, some of which only differ in their color. All Gears are ranked based on a six star system that takes into account Dash, Limit, Power, and Turn criteria.
As far as presentation is concerned, Sonic Free Riders is somewhat mixed. The voices and music are a bit grating, but the effects are okay. Visually, Free Riders maintains a great framerate and is very colorful and good looking. There is a lot of nice visual variety across sixteen different stages as well.
To the summary…