Review: Sonic Free Riders

If Sonic the Hedgehog has been on your bad side for a few years now, it’s quite understandable. I’m still a fan, myself, despite the haphazard attempts at 3D adventures in recent years. In terms of my own personal Sonic list of disappointments, Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) was a complete and total disappointment and is where the so-called fastest thing alive almost lost me, but the fantastic and Super Mario Galaxy-esque Sonic Colors recently rekindled my love for all things furry, blue, and be-sneakered. It may seem a bit unfair, then, that I returned to Sonic Free Riders in order to offer my opinion, when I’m riding high off of one of the best Sonic games of recent times. But here we go.

Sonic Free Riders, as one of Kinect’s very first offerings, is a lot like the Tony Hawk Ride of the Kinect era. At first glance it seems like a perfect first outing for Microsoft’s seemingly-magical new peripheral, which by now seems to be running out of steam a bit, but that’s another article entirely. It attempts to marry high-speed, Sonic-style skateboarding with colorful, frenzied tracks, and the zany cast of Sonic characters you know and love with the liberating full-body motion control of Kinect. You just know that with a little effort it can probably be tons of fun, especially for the children you know clamoring for their first Kinect title. But surprise, surprise, it’s not. At all.

In the third entry of this Sonic spinoff series, you’ll need to stand sideways, mimicking the way one stands on a real skateboard. Previously, this was all done via controller, and it didn’t exactly flourish with hardware, and it certainly isn’t too accessible here. Throughout a set of different races and missions according to which character you choose to play as (I chose Team Sonic), bending at the waist forward and backward in order to change which direction you’re zooming by your opponents. You can switch your stance with a simple alteration of the foot, and crouch in order to gain speed. It’s everything you would expect a motion-controlled racer to be, except most of the time, the game just won’t cooperate.

Before unleashing you to wreak havoc on your opponents (yeah, right) the game asks you to complete rigorous tutorials and a series of calibrations in a futile attempt to ensure proper tracking, so it seems as though you’ll be fully prepared when it’s time to take up your board. Still, even after painstakingly practicing the movements the game threw at me (calibration cones and all) I still felt completely unprepared and spent most of my time careening into barracks and the edges of each track. I soon came to found out this was less of user error and more of, well, the game not responding.

I’d turn my body just a smidge to find that my racer never even bothered to turn – what could I have possibly done wrong? I had ensured I met all of the Kinect prerequisites, rearranging my already-small living room, and allowed plenty of space and time to scan my body, surroundings, and everything else required to make Kinect a success. And where Zumba and Kinect Adventures have no trouble detecting my movements, for some reason Sonic Free Riders had far too many issues doing so.

Of course, on straightaway pieces of course that ask you only to speed up and blaze ahead, the game shines. The rush of speed you get from blowing through the varied environments is actually quite refreshing, and offers so many glimpses of what may have been, but for the life of me no matter how I changed my movements to attempt to match what I thought the game wanted, I still could not play the way I felt in my mind was the “proper” way.

Despite all the glaring technical issues, you can attempt to make headway in the “Grand Prix” mode, which acts as the game’s story mode, where you’re introduced to each team’s different skills – Sonic has special grinding abilities, Tails can fly, etc. You can hit some impressive jumps and get some sweet air time from some of the ramps, but all of this coupled with collecting rings and tiresome objectives makes for an extremely lackluster game that could have stood far more time in the test stages before being forced out to market.

Don’t let the tropical locales, oddball tracks, or the explosions of color sucker you into purchasing Sonic Free Riders for your game-starved Kinect, a game that feels, at best, like a half-finished effort. Even the menus are tough to work with, and if you can’t be bothered to explore via menu, that should be a sign that this game just isn’t any kind of success. What’s most tragic is that, underneath its many issues, there are signs of the game that could have been had Sega taken the time to polish the rough edges and made sure it actually worked; riddled with glitches and control problems, the game should never have been released in its current form. Here’s hoping the next installment either finds its way to a platform that doesn’t require the unpredictability of motion gimmicks, or at least gives us the option for game pad support.

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