An uninspired skateboarding game that may have appeal to avid Sonic or boarding fans.
Sonic Free Riders, along with Adrenaline Misfits, is an early foray into skateboarding using the Kinect. While not a bad early effort, the game falls short in its extremely lengthy learning curve that most will not have the patience to master. Once you do master it, however, Sonic fans will appreciate the ability to see the world from Sonic’s point of view.
There have been a number of skateboarding and snowboarding games out before for the Xbox, the PS3, and the Wii, such as the gazillion Shawn White and Tony Hawk titles. But most of those have fallen short. After all there’s just something that doesn’t feel right about playing such a physical sport using your thumbs. And even in cases where they included their own controller (such as Xbox 360 Tony Hawk: Ride Skateboard Bundle, the controls have tended to fall short. The best video game skateboarding to date has been on the Wii, with games that use the Balance Board. But the Wii definitely had its limitations. For one thing, you can’t jump, you can only bend your knees.
And so I was interested to see how good a game Sonic Free Riders is, as the Kinect seemed the perfect platform for a skateboarding game.
The game starts out with a series of tutorials. I’ll start off by saying that the tutorials are very, very tedious to get through. The robot “Omochao” takes you through the lessons, but it was a very annoying high pitched voice that’s like fingers on a chalkboard. Worse the lessons really drag out. I get it that they want to teach you the basics, but when a game (especially a Kinect game) isn’t simple enough for you to start playing right away using your intuition, there’s something very wrong.
The tutorials have Omochao leading you through the controls, starting with the basics. Some of the controls are pretty intuitive (stand to your side like you’re on a skateboard, lean forward to turn to the right, lean back to turn to the left). Some of them are not (turn your body all the way to the forward to brake). As the tutorials progress, you learn how to reach up and grab rings. The “blinging” sound of the rings brings back a lot of great memories if you’re an old Sonic fan, and there’s something cool about watching the action from Sonic’s viewpoint rather than to the side (although one problem I noticed right away is that Sonic’s hands don’t move one-on-one with yours).
It took me a while to get basic jumping down, because the Kinect seemed to be a bit sluggish. You do “air tricks” by jumping while on a “kicker” ramp. There’s one “air trick” where you have to turn your body in a circle while jumping. By the eighth and ninth tutorial, the tutorials start to truly get tedious. Tutorial 8 gives an awful explanation on how to do hairpin turns (“do air tricks off of the quarter pipe to get through tight hairpin turns. use that quarter pipe for practice”). Ironically, I must have tried 10 times to follow the nonsensical instructions, and I finally got past the level when I sat down, gave up, and did nothing (“that was awesome!”, said Sonic).As tutorials progress, you learn how to do a “kick dash” (by raising your right leg and kicking back) and collecting items like a soda can you can shake to give you a boost.
Tutorial 13 is where the tutorial mercifully ended. You race against computer players and put all you’ve learned into practice. As annoying as the earlier tutorials were, the actual racing was actually kind of fun, and showed the promise of the game. It took me a few times, but I finally finished in the top four and completed the tutorials.
The main menu allows you to select various races, the menu option of which for some strange reason is called “Offline Mode”. You can choose World Grand Prix (challenging yourself through a “story mode” with a variety of missions), Time Attack (race for the best time), Relay Race (select from 2 Player Team, 3 Player Team, 4 Player Team, or two 2 Player Teams), Tag Mode (two players sign into their Xbox profiles and race next to each other), and Free Race (free race, collecting rings, or damage survival in one player or two player mode). You can also go to Xbox Live to compete against people online.
Whenever you start an activity, you “calibrate” the system by following Omochao through a slalom, which I suppose tells the Kinect what the limits of your turning space are.
World Grand Prix is basically an “adventure” mode where you’re brought through a storyline of Sonic and his friends competing against a villainous group of competitors. There’s an inane story behind it (you can skip the cutscenes by sticking your hand out in a “stop” position), but I must say the race and the challenges themselves are pretty entertaining once you get the hang of steering by moving back and forth. The action and the music are much, much faster and frentic than they should be, but then again, that’s something that’s inherent in all Sonic games.
“Free Race” is a fun mini-game that’s included, but the thing I noticed immediately is that it’s an almost-exact ripoff of “Super Mario Kart”, right down to the items you could use to boost yourself such as a “missile”, the obstacles such as a “ink splatter”, and the even layout of the race courses. Of course, the graphics of the Xbox were better, but I have to say that gameplay on the Wii is still smoother and more controlled than here. Then again, you don’t get nearly the same exercise with Mario than with Sonic.
I have to say that I did work up a pretty good sweat playing this a few times. That said, I wouldn’t exactly call it a lot of fun that I wanted to return to have and over again. The way your body is used to control the action is okay, but it takes a LOT of practice to master it. I doubt that most young kids would have the patience to put up with it (especially if they’re used to using the Wii remote to steer the action). On the other hand, if you’re a teenager or above who enjoys yourself on a skateboard or snowboard, the controls will be more intuitive for you, and I think you’ll enjoy it.
Another strike against this game is that the user interface was among the most unintuitive I’ve seen yet on a Kinect game. Rather than selecting items from a menu, you move through menu options by selecting the current selection from a circular menu and then “swiping your hand, and to make a selection, you “move” the selected item onto a “next” button. If this sounds overly complicated, it’s because it is. It’s another example of yet another game company saying “hey, we can make our menu selection cooler than anyone else’s” not realizing that simplicity is always the best.
Overall, I’ll give the game 3 out of 5 stars, although again, if you’re an avid skateboarder and/or Sonic fan, you’ll probably give it a 4. Between this and Adrenaline Misfits (which I’ll be reviewing next), I think these early Kinect games do a good job of mimicking skateboarding.