Caught in a speed trap.
Eventually, every gaming icon grows tired of saving the world/girl/humanity from harm. Over the years, Mario, Crash, Jak, and Mega Man have felt the need to develop some kind of new, interesting method to combat evil. Unfortunately, the bone they usually get tossed is shaped like a go-kart, and now one more is added to the list with Sonic Riders
, where the world's fastest mammal tries to go faster, with mixed results.
And a horrifying plot. Strolling around town in search of yet another chaos emerald, Sonic and crew run into the Babylon Rogues, a conveniently placed trio with powers that rival the Sonic team. Not to be outdone, Sonic swipes one of their Extreme Gears (read: hoverboard) and gets racing to protect his rep. And somehow, Eggman is behind it all. Didn't we used to call him Robotnik?
Alas, while the plot is woefully up on blocks, the tracks are pretty fast. There are three character classes: Speed, Fly, and Power (or Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles, respectively.) Every track has shortcuts specific to each type of character as well as a bunch of alternate paths anyone can take. Creatively designed, they work well enough to keep you guessing and engaged, and the races haul very much ass.
However, the racing itself gets buried under scads of mechanics. Your success is primarily tied to an Air meter, which allows you to boost, drift, attack, and defend from enemies. You can refill this by busting tricks that also net you a speed boost if landed well, essentially SSX Lite. Much of Sonic Riders requires very precise control at high speeds, but the trick portion is as easy as punching a face button and holding a direction. The simple trick system feels like a cheap addition since it's so easy to bust moves.
Complicating matters is the Turbulence system, which can quickly save or end your day at the track. When another rider is ahead of you, a crazy half-pipe of air trails them, and if you enter the slipstream you stick to it like a rail, pulling tricks and hauling tail. Magnetized to the draft, you fly right around hairpin turns; as long as you can keep catching streams, you can pretty much set the controller down and watch.
Even so, there's no way to exit a stream until it ends, and one will quite often do so unexpectedly, hopelessly throwing you off a corner or into a wall at breakneck speeds. It can be enormously irritating. Combine that with the trick system, multiple shortcuts, and fighting, and you start to run out of time for the actual racing.
So the action is spotty, but there's a bunch of it. In addition to the fairly short Story modes (one for each team, 6 races each), you can also scoot your hoverboard over to Grand Prix, Time Attack, Tag, Mission and Survival modes. Spanning15 total tracks, that adds up to a good amount of karting, er, boarding.
Mission mode is definitely the most engrossing. Unlocked after beating the first half of Story mode, this gives you a set of five missions per track dealing with one of the Babylon Rogues. While the missions vary little from track to track, there are about 100 altogether and each one focuses on a different component of the many-faceted system, allowing you to actually accomplish one thing, like bust tricks or collect rings, instead of juggle five. Since you can complete missions in any order you like, it never becomes stale.
Once you start clearing modes, you'll play as an assortment of Sonic's friends including Shadow (evil Sonic), Jet (bird Sonic), Amy Rose (girl Sonic), Rouge (bat Sonic) and Wave (bird Sonic+girl Sonic). You'll also be able to shop for new rides with rings collected from any mode, including skate and bike types. Small gameplay alterations correspond to each type, like using less air, more boosts, etc., but everything plays pretty much the same way. Yes, it's extra content, but no, it's not particularly compelling.
The multiplayer provides a few more ways to play, the best being the interesting Tag mode. The trick here is that you share one air meter with your teammate and must stay relatively close to one another to progress. There's also a Battle mode, but it's totally unsuited for the game's mechanics, leaving you to spin in a circle trying to catch someone else spinning in a circle to catch you. You can alternately have up to four players compete in the classic Grand Prix and Single Race styles as well, but since it's all offline, you'll have to contend with split-screens and slightly chuggier framerates.
But overall, the graphics ain't half bad. Things can look a little wonky up close, but for the most part, it hauls as well as shines. Everything looks fine and suffers no stutter, even if the tracks are packed full of bling and pow. The story cut scenes look nice, but take into account this game aims for a younger audience, so expect some juvenile banter.
Also expect a boatload of watered down techno. The sound effects are consistently fine and not too hokey (we expected somebody to shout 'Turbo!' every 8 seconds), but nothing to write home about.
Neither is Sonic Riders. It offers interesting gameplay mechanics and a ton of modes, but the pieces don't fit together well, making this mascot racer better suited for a weekend drag race than a 500 lap cruise.