European fans of Sonic have been waiting patiently for the latest racing spinoff to hit their PlayStation 2’s, XBOXes or Gamecubes since being told that we would again suffer a significant delay for a video game release after Japan and the US. It seems almost absurd in this day and age doesn’t it?
But enough about our own rantings, Sonic Riders – from what we’ve played so far – does seem to be very much worth the wait. Like a blue, frothy pint of Guinness. For those who’ve just joined us, Sonic Riders sees the hedgehog take to the circuits on a hoverboard – insert your own Back to the Future II reference here – against a gang of rivals called the Babylon Rogues.
This is no ordinary racing game though. In a similar vein to Kirby’s Air Ride on Gamecube, you have no acceleration button. Your fuel is “air”, and you can earn more of this fuel by landing tricks, obtaining it from item boxes or hitting Pit Stops. The latter will slow you down as your Air Gauge refills, and abilities such as cornering and boosting will use a lot of air – so it becomes a balancing act of when to speed ahead, when to trick and when best to race for the lead.
Riders takes a leaf out of Sonic Heroes’ book with the character abilities, with each racer being a Speed, Fly or Power type. Depending on who you choose, you can take various shortcuts throughout each course. Speed types can grind on rails, Fly types can cross gaps and speed through large rings and Power types can smash obstacles like cars and robots with ease. The more of these rails, rings or obstacles you connect, the more air you earn as well, so it becomes both a shortcut and a quick boost for fuel.
Sonic Riders gets really interesting when it comes to chasing your opponents ahead of you. Whenever you reach 180km/h, you leave a ‘turbulence’ trail behind you, which can be used by other racers to catch up. Those running out of air can ride this half-pipe like turbulence and not use up any air – even tricking off of it will earn you back air and give you a speed boost. It adds a great level of challenge for those always taking the lead, and it allows those less skilled to catch up to better players.
We decided to test run a few levels, these being Metal City and Splash Garden. The former is a bustling high-tech metropolis, with half pipes to trick from and plenty of cars to smash. It’s the standard, safe intro level, with no real dangers unless you’re incredibly silly.
Of substantial note, while we’re on the subject of skill, is that Sonic Riders has a rather steep learning curve for a Sonic game. It’s nothing too hassling to get into, but for a Sonic branded game the difficulty is definitely a step out of the ordinary. Because of the unique way it plays it requires a bit of getting used to. The most troubling parts for us were getting used to the jump and using R1 to corner – we found ourselves falling off the corners into bottomless pits in later levels because we weren’t aware that the shoulder button was pressure-sensitive. Holding the button down longer will make you turn sharper than if you pressed it for a second or two.
Cornering and shortcuts came more apparent as a necessity in Splash Canyon, which is your classic ‘green’ level with a huge waterfall in the middle of the course. A sharp bend about three quarters through the level requires an understanding of the drifting system otherwise you end up smacking the wall with your face.
In playing the Story mode, you get to reveal just why Sonic takes part in the tournament, what Dr. Eggman is up to this time (it just happens to be his Grand Prix you’re entering), and the history behind Sonic’s green Hawky opponent, Jet. Upon booting the game, there are a lot more options than originally meet the eye, including Free Races, Grand Prix challenges and a huge Mission Mode.
And that’s not forgetting the multiplayer options, which are just about the most accessible we’ve ever seen in a Sonic game. On our PS2 copy, playing 2 Player saw a drop in frame-rate, but it was still very playable after a while. All-in-all, Sonic Riders looks like another enjoyable spin-off from the house of SEGA. You have to wonder what’s going on, when they keep making spin-offs as good as these (Shadow excluded) and the canon games like Heroes slightly disappointing. Keep an eye on TSS as we cover the game all throughout next week, up until launch day, when you will see the Official Fan Judgement on what looks certain to be Kirby’s Air Ride on acid.