Sonic Free Riders is the third entry in the hoverboarding offshoot of the hedgehog franchise, following on last generation’s Sonic Riders and follow-up Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity for Wii, both of which were poorly received by the gaming press and public alike. This latest iteration is revolutionary in that it ditches the controller completely, but can Kinect really bring air boarding to life?
Controlling your character is initially very simple: you stand side-on to the TV and bend forward or backward at the waist to turn in that direction. You can crouch to build speed for a ramp, jump into the air to execute tricks and even switch your stance from goofy to regular and back just by changing which foot faces the TV. There’s a full tutorial that introduces the basic mechanics before you do any racing, although you’re still likely to spend your first few races bashing into barriers and weaving in and out of the paths of rivals who carve up the track effortlessly.
The controls aren’t particularly lag-laden, but they struggle to offer tight turning circles and delicate changes needed to navigate many of the courses quickly and effectively. When the game goes well you feel on top of the world, slipstreaming opponents and pulling off tricks with minimal effort, but then you’ll find yourself bent double trying to negotiate a turn and seeing your hard work wasted as your chosen character bumps into the side walls again.
It’s not a lack of calibration that makes the controls poor – Sonic Free Riders has easily the most in-depth calibration mode of any Kinect game we’ve played so far. Before every single race or mission you have to stand still in front of Kinect then assume the racing position and weave between cones for no apparent reason: it never made any difference to the sensitivity of the controls nor acted as particularly effective practice, just serving as an irritating distraction between races.
If you’re playing solo, the Grand Prix mode is Free Riders’ take on a story mode, with different scenarios available depending on your choice of team. In between missions, races and calibration there’s endless amounts of static cut-scenes that are essentially all the same: a new team turns up, challenges you to a race, you accept. Thankfully you can skip these scenes - and the beginning intro - by holding up your hand to Kinect as if to say 'stop right there, buddy'.
We mentioned missions, and as it turns out you’ll be doing more of these than actual races. As your team consists of three characters, each with unique skills, you must learn to apply these skills by performing specific tasks in missions. Team Sonic’s story teaches you Sonic’s grinding skill, Knuckles’ punching ability and Tails’ flying power, as well as basic transferable skills like grabbing rings and taking your hoverboard off some sweet jumps. While these missions are useful for learning the ropes, the objectives themselves soon become repetitive and we would have preferred a regular championship mode composed entirely of races.
When you do get into an actual race, it isn’t all that bad. Collecting rings improves the ability of your Extreme Gear equipment, letting you reach higher speeds, gain better air on jumps and more. The kick dash motion to gain a burst of speed is enjoyably physical and reliably detected, and the same can be said for many of the weapons: rolling a bowling ball, hitting a tee shot and shaking a fizzy pop can are all pleasingly active ways to attack opponents, but when the tables are turned things go pear-shaped.
Your opponents have access to the same weapons as yourself, and should one hit you all your rings are lost, decreasing your gear to the lowest level. With many of the weapons locking-on - and plenty of others entirely unavoidable - getting hit just once can often ruin your race completely as you revert back to basic statistics. It’s a frustrating design decision as there’s often nothing you can do to avoid impact, and if you want to play this online expect plenty of rage-quitting on either end of the connection.
Should you have more patience than most, you can use the rings you collect in all game modes to unlock extra boards and abilities to equip them with, one of the game’s few true highlights. When playing in Free Race mode you can choose to equip two skills to give you an edge over the competition, with each assigned to one of your feet, meaning you’ll need to switch stance sharply to use the right skill at the right time. Sadly these extra abilities aren’t available in the Grand Prix mode, where they would have brought a much-needed element of strategy to proceedings.
Bringing a friend in on the action does make the game more enjoyable, with the Tag Mode letting you both play side-by-side and even team up at certain points by turning toward each other and touching hands. Not only can this produce moments of hilarity, it also makes negotiating turns easier, and only serves to make you wonder why this turning sensitivity couldn’t have been standard. Relay Mode is decent on the surface, but the need to keep swapping players and waiting for them to be recognised before continuing the race does slow down proceedings.
Bizarrely, the biggest control problem facing Sonic Free Riders is the menu system, which sounds good on paper but varies from irritating to downright arduous over the course of a play session. Options are presented on a ring, with only the furthermost forward icon – say, “Retry Race” – able to be selected, by either dragging it over to a blue arrow or saying “Select”. If you want to scroll through the other options you can either say the name of the option you want or hover over the front icon before moving your hand quickly as if spinning a wheel. The problems here are manifold: the voice detection is inconsistent at best, you can’t see the name of the icon you’re supposed to be saying and the hand motions are unreliable. Both hands are also detected at once, making it doubly difficult to select the correct option with any degree of reliability.
The game also has an odd habit of pausing mid-game just as you’re negotiating a particularly tight turn, breaking you out of your flow as you say “Continue”, “Select” repeatedly to get back into the race.
There’s also something left to be desired in the game’s graphical stylings: simply put, this does not look like an Xbox 360 game. Compared to 2008’s luscious Sonic Unleashed, Sonic Free Riders’ environments are drab and uninspired, and although the frame rate is consistently smooth it's no surprise, as there’s not really a lot here to tax the hardware.
Previous entries in the Sonic Riders series weren’t great on control pads and, sadly, this latest outing fails to deliver too. Menu navigation is a chore, the presentation is disappointing and manoeuvring your hoverboard isn’t as responsive as it should be. There’s some fun to be had from drifting your board around with a friend, and gamers who choose to learn the game’s foibles can mine the Time Attack and Free Race modes for scores and Achievements, but for most players this is one best avoided.