We’ve got three Sonic games coming out at the end of the year, and between the three, the one SEGA’s kept closest to its chest has been Sonic Free Riders. Unplayable at E3, the game was only made available to the press about a month ago and made its first public appearance at Gamescom a few weeks ago.
The Penny Arcade Expo marks Free Riders’ first public appearance in America… sort of. Despite SEGA’s intention of bringing it to the show floor, those plans were cancelled at the last minute. So, how am I writing this preview? During the last 45 minutes of the Sunday show, some of the good people over at SEGA closed the Sonic 4 booth and set up a Sonic Free Riders demo. Only a few people, aside from myself, were able to play it and I’ve compiled their opinions for the second part of this preview.
So, how does it play? Well, allow me to start by saying that despite this game being on a “casual gamer focused” peripheral, it’s probably the least user-friendly game I’ve played for the peripheral so far. There is a certain way you need to stand, a certain way you need to move to activate certain attacks, and if you don’t do it right, the game won’t control properly.
When you do, though, Free Riders is probably one the best titles on Kinect’s holiday line up, but that’s not really saying much. It’s also looking like being the best game in the Riders series, though again this isn’t really saying much. In order to play the game properly, you need to stand as if you where on a skateboard. If you stand with your body facing the screen, you will have absolutely no control over your character. You also need to throw the different weapons in different ways, with a certain amount of exaggeration in your movements.
So with this game, much like Sonic Riders and Zero Gravity, there may be a lot of early frustration depending on the user. While I was watching others play, I noticed some of them picked it immediately, while others needed some time to get used to how the game played. Once you do get it though, Sonic Free Riders can actually be rather exhilarating. For the users who do get it right away, they’re in for a pretty neat motion game. It cuts out a lot of the fat that held down its predecessors; you no longer need to refill your air, turning is a lot easier to pull off then it was in past titles – at least once you figure out how to stand – and the difficulty is more forgiving.
However, with the removal of many of these elements, the game itself has become simpler, which may have its drawbacks in the long run. Even compared to arcade racers likes like Sonic and SEGA All Stars Racing and Outrun 2, the game feels a little shallow. The handful of weapons that were shown in the demo – the rocket and the bowling ball – aren’t anything we haven’t seen before.
Of course, this is all based on a single race; about 3 minutes of playtime, and at the end of the day the experience was definitely a positive one. Sonic Free Riders is fast and it stands as a testament to just how immersive the Kinect peripheral can be when it’s applied to the right game. While you play the game, you physically throw the weapons, scoot your back foot across the ground to activate the boost (as you would on a real skateboard), jump in the air to jump, swim with your arms to move through water segments, and twist your body left and right to make the turns. All of this makes for a great – although somewhat exhausting – racing experience.
So, will Sonic Free Riders turn out to be a great game? I’ve played too little to say. As I said earlier, the game is a little shallow and there is no telling whether the final product will offer enough to keep you playing for a long time. It is most certainly not a bad game, though.
While I am personally expecting more from Sonic Free Riders when it’s released than I was before, it still didn’t excite me enough to actually buy the Kinect. If you’re planning on buying Kinect for this game alone, I’d advise you to try before you buy, if you can. While it was fun, I’m not sure it’s worth Kinect’s $150 price tag.
We’ll bring you our thoughts on the full game once it comes out this holiday season. Stay tuned for part 2 of this preview, which is a video compilation of what other players thought of the game.