Much like the world’s most famous plumber, our favorite blue hedgehog will turn his hand at anything, even though the changing seasons are messing with his hibernation schedule. However, unlike Mario and his Midas touch, not everything that Sonic touches turns to gold, or even produces a decent game. Not only is Sonic Free Riders one of the Kinect launch titles, but it is also the blue hedgehogs first outing with the motion free controller, so there is a lot to live up to. Is Free Riders pure gold, or as desirable as a plumbers wrench?
Free Riders sees the fastest hedgehog in the world take on a bit of extreme hoverboarding for a change, and not for the first time. This is actually the third game featuring the blue spiky one on his hoverboard, with the last two games not being especially well received. That does not bode well, does it?
The game has a futuristic edge, as you may well expect from a game featuring hoverboarding, and sees the player hurtling down what are some nicely designed tracks, using their own body movements to control their character. To be honest, it is nice to actually play a game on Kinect that isn’t a party game or mini game compilation.
As a proper game, Free Riders has a wealth of features and different modes. The actual events themselves take the form of your usual race to the finish, collecting coins, pulling off tricks or getting air, and the standard time trials. There are power ups to collect, as you would expect in this type of game, and there are even times when the hoverboard is discarded in favour of some other forms of transport, such as a bike or mine cart.
Looking at the game, it really can’t be faulted. The various tracks are, as already mentioned, nicely designed and offer a decent amount of variety. Visually, the game looks really good, with some well polished settings that are both bright and colourful, and fit in with the Sonic universe.
So, on paper the game looks like it could be quite good. But the proof is in the pudding, as they say, and the game is let down by one major flaw – it just doesn’t work properly.
As previously mentioned, the game uses the new full body motion control of Kinect and the player stands as if on a hoverboard (think snowboard), leaning left and right to steer, and forward to speed up. Stopping is a matter of standing face on to the camera and jumping is a matter of, well, jumping. Players can charge their jumps to get extra height by crouching down first. The other most important gesture is for collecting rings by stretching the hands out to the left or right, or both above for overhead rings. All of this would be fairly simple if the Kinect unit actually could recognise any of the movements that the player makes.
Steering is the first movement that you will encounter in the tutorial, and even there it becomes apparent that there is going to be a problem. The camera does mostly pick up these moves, but the severity of the turn seems slightly random, making the player either bounce from one side of the track to the other,or just move so slightly that nothing is achieved. It wouldn’t be too bad if I could say that this comes down to practice, but the effect really is random.
And the same can be said for collecting rings. Your characters arms will reach out to grab them with amazing inaccuracy. Then you have the jumping. It took ages just to get past the jumping section of the tutorial, so you can imagine how frustrating it became when actually in an event. Firstly the player has to take into account a certain amount of lag and try to jump early, which takes a bit of work. Secondly, trying to jump whilst steering and heading in the correct direction really made my head hurt. I spent so much time bumping into things and bouncing off walls, that it is surprising my character did not end up with a concussion. Again, it has nothing to do with practice, it just doesn’t work properly.
There are other actions in the game that perform well. The sections in which the character is not using the hoverboard require different types of motions from the player and perform much more as they should. The use of power ups, whilst difficult to get wrong, also supply a good laugh, such as hurling missiles at opponents or shaking a can of fizzy for a boost. The game is not without it’s charm and the potential is there for a damn good arcade racer, but the majority of the controls are flawed to the point that the whole game becomes an exercise in frustration.
Sonic Free Riders should have been an excellent game. Being one of only a couple of launch titles that offered a proper gaming experience on Kinect, it would have, and likely still will, sell well. But the inability to perform the majority of the games controls with any accuracy leads to frustration and annoyance. If you are looking for a Sonic experience, consider the rather good Sonic Colors on Wii. Sonic Free Riders will cause hair loss in all but the most patient gamers.