Being one of the first titles for a new technology can be tough. Microsoft’s motion-controlled device Kinect has launched to mostly positive reviews, and the launch lineup, while not fairly diverse, is plentiful. Sonic Free Riders is one of the more original games available and the premise is definitely very cool. You ride on various devices while using your body to control steering and attacks. What sounds like a simple premise ends up being much more complicated because of the sensitivity issues. Still if you can deal with that there is definitely plenty of fun to be had with Sonic Free Riders.
This latest entry in the Riders series is comparable to previous outings. As you can imagine the biggest difference is the control scheme, and on paper it works wonderfully. You will race on a variety of vehicles, but most of your time will be spent on a hoverboard. There are also swimming sections as well as a mine cart race. You can launch projectiles by waving your hand in the correct motion, and controlling your character is as simple as leaning back and forth to turn (you stand at a sideways angle) and jumping. All simple motions that should translate well, but something just feels off.
I have played most of the Kinect launch lineup, and I have to say I am impressed. The motion tracking in games like Kinect Sports and Dance Central are impressive. However, Sonic Free Riders feels really sluggish and unresponsive at times. Leaning back doesn’t always give you a solid turn, and the jumping can be sporadic at best. You can also stretch your arms out to grab coins and power-ups during the race, which also never seemed to work properly. Now I am not the most athletic guy, but almost every other game I played never had an issue telling when I was jumping or leaning back and forth. It feels almost like the game is set just a bit too low on sensitivity of motion tracking, and unfortunately there is no way to tweak it in the options.
This wouldn’t be such an issue of the game accounted for it. Instead when you combine all of the motions it asks you to do, and the fact that none of them seem to work properly; you end up getting frustrated quickly. Simply directing your rider can be cumbersome, but when you factor in snagging coins, jumping ramps and performing tricks as well as tossing projectiles, things become hectic. I don’t think I ever finished a race in first place based on my skill. Instead it was dumb luck every time. This is a shame because the track design and sheer amount of content here could have made this one of the launch titles to own with Kinect.
What it all boils down to is disappointment. There is so much good hidden beneath the poor controls that you can’t help but feel frustrated the controls are not better. The track design is excellent giving you multiple shortcuts and things to see. The collection system is also outstanding letting you spend your earnings on new boards and gear that gives you new abilities that again open up even more aspects of the tracks. The game design is superb, and I dare to say if you had the option to play with a standard controller it might be just as much fun as the recently released Sega and Sonic All-Stars Racing.
Free Riders does bring multi-player to the table both online and off. When you have two people in the same room things can get crazy. The controls don’t lend themselves well to one person and having two in the picture makes it worse. I do love the tag mode though, which has you pushing your hands together with another player to perform moves in tandem. When it works it is awesome, but when it doesn’t it becomes a mess. You can hop online and race against other players. From our experience lag was an issue at times, but this isn’t exactly a competition game so it was still quite a bit of fun, even if there weren’t a ton of players online.
Visually the game is much of what you would expect with bright colors and plenty of onscreen action. It can get fast at times and the frame rate does a decent job of keeping up. As I mentioned the track design is the star of the show with intricate designs and plenty of shortcuts. One nagging problem though resides in the menu system. Something as simple as getting to the options can be cumbersome as you attempt to grab the icon and move it into place. The voice work is annoying which is par for the course in most Sonic games, but I did enjoy the soundtrack quite a bit.
Sonic Free Riders is a missed opportunity in every sense of the word. Some people may try to blame the Kinect hardware for control issues, but there are other games that do it right, and are also launch titles. The track design is superb and there really is an amazing game buried underneath the problematic controls. It is a shame that most people will never be able to experience it due to frustration. Unless you are a massive Sonic fan and must own all of his titles I suggest skipping out on this one. There are far better launch titles for Kinect and plenty that showcase the hardware more appropriately.
Review copy provided by publisher.