Thus far in the big Kinect experiment I have played a variety of mini games compilations that do a great job of showing off the capabilities of the hardware but the nature of these games means that they don’t provide a traditional gaming experience. Sega saw that there was a hole that needed to be filled in the Kinect launch line-up and they stepped up providing Sonic Free Riders, an arcade style mascot hoverboard racing game that borrows heavily from the cart racing genre. Sega should be commended for attempting something so bold with their launch title, unfortunately they should not be commended on the execution of the title.
Like all of the Kinect launch titles, Sonic Free Riders is a very active title. It has you up on your feet controlling a virtual hoverboard, called a gear, as you traverse dangerous courses filled with perilous obstacles. Sadly it will also have you flailing around like a spastic monkey as your frustratingly try to get the game to register your movements properly.
Controlling your gear is simple enough, stand perpendicular to the television and mimic how you would ride a snowboard, leaning backward and forward to maneuver your on screen avatar in the direction you want to go. While it generally works if you are moving in a straight line or on a gradual curve, anything more complicated than that, such as cornering sharp turns, can prove to be difficult and the Kinect itself is not entirely to blame.
Developer Sonic Team built an arcade racer and included many of the standard genre conventions. There is a variety of different boards and attachments to unlock and purchase and while that may work in a game with conventional controls, by doing so here the gear that users start off with with effectively works against the player. All it’s inclusion does with the Kinect is create a game that is frustrating and not fun, especially at the beginning. Compounding issues is the fact that Sonic Free Riders has some of the worst input lag out of any of the Kinect launch titles.
Like arcade and cart racers before it, the game has a trick system and a traditional power-up system. The trick system requires players to physically jump and spin to perform different moves off of ramps. If performed successfully it will fill up a special meter that allows the gear to perform special kick dashes giving a momentary speed boost to the racer. To perform these tricks successfully though jumps need to be performed well in advance of the actual ramp or else the game just doesn’t register you as having attempted it.
Jumping around like a fool is actually quite fun and not being able to perform tricks properly is a major downer for the game but the lag and improper reading of motions leads to a slightly more frustrating issue and that is not being able to use power-ups properly. There is nothing more frustrating than getting a power up like the bowling ball or a tracking rocket, perform the action that should deploy it offensively but instead the weapon stays in your avatar’s hand and it happens more often than not with the power-up deployments in Sonic free Riders. With the Kinect being founded upon having intuitive controls, the lag in Sonic Free Riders makes the game feel, well, broken.
One of the great things about the Kinect is that it has gotten my family involved in playing games with me and I was hoping that Sonic Free Riders would, despite it’s control faults, at least be fun as a multiplayer experience so I had my wife give the game a little go with me. That little go did not go so well.
Sonic Free Riders has a plethora of menus that have to be traversed before one is able to jump into a simple race. Imagine doing this with an impatient wife, or worse yet young children, they don’t care about gear or attachments, they just want to race as Sonic or Tails and as quickly as possible and the longer the wait the more fidgeting the do and the more fidgeting they do the less Sonic Free Riders wants to register the commands of the person trying to get the game going. Needless to say my wife was soured on the game before we even got to a race and her demeanor did not improve after the actual race.
One of the issues that other Kinect titles have experienced at this point is the fact that the hardware can only track so many points of articulation on a single person and when two people are playing side by side those points of articulation drop by half. As you can probably deduce the control got worse for both of us and the input lag actually seemed to be worse.
The control issues are a huge shame because if you dig past the lousy controls, there actually is a game buried beneath it all, it just does not work as intended. The game has a variety of different game modes, including a Gran Prix mode that is story based focusing on the different characters in the Sonic universe. There are four of these story based Grand Prix’s, all of which have ten different stages in them that require players to race or perform different objectives. The forty missions have a good variety to them and the courses look absolutely phenomenal.
In addition to the single player story mode, there are time trials, relay races, tag races and regular races you can your act online, where the competitive multiplayer racing works best (if you are fortunate enough to find a match). From a technical standpoint the game looks very good. The courses are well realized with shortcuts and grind cords to hit. Everything is bright and beautiful as one would imagine race tracks in Sonic’s world would look like. I did find it somewhat odd that despite how good the game looks while playing it the single player story portions were all told from a static perspective. From the sound side of things, the game is a a mix of good and bad.. The music and sound effects are quite fitting but the voice acting is terribly annoying.
In effect, Sonic Free Riders has everything you would expect from a modern day arcade racer but it is just functionally deficient. The game had tons of potential and failed to reach most of it. It is certainly a genre I would like to see developers return to with the Kinect but I would avoid Sonic Free Riders. If you want a good Sonic themed racer to play with your family, go get Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing, even though it only uses a standard control scheme it is a better game in every way possible.
2 out of 5.