The Sonic franchise chugs on unabated by recent below par Hedgehog releases that have under performed in terms of the usual excellence produced by SEGA and the Sonic Team (Shadow the Hedgehog being the most notable hiccup). And here with Sonic Riders, which is essentially a SEGA mascot racer in a similar vein to Sonyâ€™s Crash Tag Team Racing and Nintendoâ€™s Mario Kart, players are given the chance to race on swift hover-boards against famous characters from the vast Sonic universe.
In Sonic Riders, everyoneâ€™s favorite hedgehog discovers a new Chaos Emerald, but before he can secure it, a trio of mysterious hover-boarders sweep in and snatch it away. Sonic immediately gives chase, only to learn that the nefarious Dr. Eggman is ultimately responsible for the jewel thievery. Eggman then (rather sportingly) offers Sonic a way of winning back the lost Chaos Emerald via the EX World Grand Prix, a series of hover-board (or Extreme Gear) races to see whoâ€™s the cream of the crop. Sonicâ€™s initial skepticism is suddenly replaced when he sees that Eggmanâ€™s three mystery thieves are placed as top-ranked entrants for the tournament. Sonic, of course, signs up immediately! This then prompts a central Story mode with cut-scene inserts where the player races progressively for the Emerald while also unlocking new tracks and race characters along the way. Nothing especially involving, but then again, the game is really centered on racing, not compelling narrative.
Sonic fans have access to considerable franchise attractions in Sonic Riders, and thereâ€™s no shortage of races to win, and people and places to see. Indeed, Sonic Team has included a whole host of familiar â€˜good guyâ€™ characters such as Knuckles, Tails, Amy Rose, Storm the Albatross, Wave the Swallow, and Jet the Hawk. Not to be outdone, thereâ€™s also a decent â€˜bad guyâ€™ contingent too, including Dr. Eggman, Shadow the Hedgehog, Robo 1 and Robo 2, Cream the Rabbit, and Rogue the Bat. The varied array of racing characters are also accompanied by a decent selection of Sonic locations including Dr. Eggmanâ€™s Factory, Metal City, and Splash Canyon. Content wise, Sonic Riders is very faithful to the franchise, but beyond the aesthetic draw of Sonic Riders, the actual gamplay is concerned with speeding frantically along on slickly designed hover-boards while executing power-boosting tricks and utilizing the specific talents of the chosen character (Speed, Flight & Power). Interestingly, from a racing innovation point of view, the game also offers up a clever Turbulence Air-System that actually allows racers to hitch a quick ride on the whipping vapor trails of their opponentsâ€™ Extreme Gear.
Where presentation is concerned, Sonic Riders performs fairly well. However, its graphics, though slickly produced donâ€™t ever truly push the PS2â€™s abilities, but, that said, the opening explanatory FMV sequence is typically well animated and directed while shrewdly hinting at what lies within the actual gameplay. Game characters, environments and peripheral details are also thoroughly satisfactory without ever threatening to knock players to the floor in awe-inspired shock. In-game hover-board/character animation is perhaps a little underplayed but generally everything and everyone appears solid and believable at all timesâ€”which is more important. Specific race circuits and level environments offer a fair amount of initial variety to the discerning gamer, but the largely linear racing component of the actual gameplay means the resulting reduction in alternate routes and crafty shortcuts quickly renders the action a tad too predictable. Of course, pulling tricks, using turbo boosts, and riding opposition turbulence creates a degree of obvious enjoyment, but the circuits themselves err on the side of slight disappointment.
One notable bump on Sonic Ridersâ€™ racing line is its rather loose and occasionally disconnected control system. There are odd moments when directional command of your Extreme Gear feels somewhat predetermined and you are in fact struggling to alter it from a set path. Though not a massive control complaint (perhaps itâ€™s an irregular gameplay glitch) it certainly intrudes intermittently on the racing action. However, the overall sense of speed captured during races is still thrilling enough to forgive the odd grumble here or there, and this is certainly the case when grabbing massive slabs of air and executing groovy tricks while the game plummets across leveled environments.
Game sound is another area of Sonic Riders that could have benefited from a touch more care and attention. While sound effects and atmospherics are all crisp and clean, the voiceover performances are some way beyond cheesyâ€”with Sonic himself uttering some of the worst lines in the entire game. Whether itâ€™s simply poor translation or an awkward attempt to appear â€˜street wiseâ€™, Sonic Ridersâ€™ dialogue can be occasionally grating. To further compound the need to appeal to the â€˜groovyâ€™ kids, the gameâ€™s theme tune â€˜Sonic Speed Ridersâ€™, a screeching pop-laced rock number, is equally as upsetting and ill fitting beside the gameâ€™s general futuristic portrayal of cute cartoon animals racing on bullet-fast hover-boards.
Beyond the single-player aspect of Sonic Riders, those looking for multiplayer thrills may feel a little short changed, especially considering that multiplayer is generally where these types of games secure their longevity. Sadly, neither the PS2 or Xbox versions of Sonic Riders offer network or online play of any kind. The most players can look forward to is four-player split-screen action, which can still be fun, if not somewhat limited in terms of depth.
Ultimately, thereâ€™s nothing overtly wrong with Sonic Riders, itâ€™s full of SEGA and Sonic Teamâ€™s trademark franchise qualities, it plays well for the most part, it offers up some innovation through the Turbulence Air-System and fun through the racing tricks, and above all, itâ€™s a dependable addition to the ever-expanding Sonic universe. However, far too many Sonic titles are finding themselves occupying a disappointingly mediocre niche in the industry, and Sonic Racers never really advances beyond being acceptable in every department. But, with such a grand history woven throughout the Sonic product, and a wealth of experience in both publisher and developer, faithful fans really should be getting something a little more rewarding, and those new to the scene should be getting something a little more enticing.