Replay Value: 5
You have to hand it to Sega for coming up with a cool concept. Sonic and his friends are put onto speedy hoverboards and sent sailing down lengthy, twisty courses filled with jump ramps, rails, and power-up items. The goal, as it is in every racing game, is to take first place. Turbo boosts can increase your speed, attacks can trip up your opponents, and tricks will re-fill your air tank so that you can perform those boosts and attacks. There's even a fair bit of strategy involved too, what with all of the pit stops, shortcuts, and boost pads scattered around each track; not to mention the ability to ride behind your opponent and grab some speed off his wake. It'd be fun, if only the game weren't so broken.
Like F-Zero GX, Sonic Riders offers a thrilling sense of speed. Like SSX, Sonic Riders provides plenty of opportunities to perform multi-flip tricks and to fire up the afterburners. Unlike those games, however, Sonic Riders doesn't have the clever course designs, balanced gameplay, or precise controls necessary to accomplish what it's trying to do. The levels are unremarkable and shortcuts and boost pads seem to have been placed without much forethought. What's most annoying about the level designs is that within every course, there's at least one spot where control is taken out of your hands for seconds at-a-time while you helplessly watch your character slide down a zip line or ride atop a monster's back. The outcome of each race doesn't seem very dependent on skill either. Rubber-band A.I. ensures that opponents are always close behind you. Furthermore, despite all of the many power-up items, boosts, and traps on the course, it's usually luck that determines whether you'll get the power-up you need or end up shoved into a trap by an enemy at the last-second.
Never in all my 20-plus-years of playing video games have I played a racing game where it was possible to drop from first to fourth in the blink of an eye... with the finish line in sight!
What really drove me insane, personally, were the controls, which are precise one moment and hypersensitive the next. I found myself actually thinking, "Am I going to slam into the wall when I pull right on the stick, or am I going to gently lean into this curve?" Sadly, the answer was never consistent. On one lap, I'd pull lightly on the stick and smash into the wall. On another, I'd yank the stick and watch my character nail a perfect lean through the curve. For every race I was able to take the corners clean, I'd spend another bumping into walls (even though I was doing the same things!). Frustrating.
It's a shame that the game is such a bear to play, because all of its non-gameplay aspects are rather solid.
The graphics are nice. Few games on the PlayStation 2 have been able to match the kind of colorful, high-resolution graphics that similar games on other systems have been able to show off, most notably Nintendo's F-Zero GX for the GameCube. Despite a few frame-rate hiccups and some disappearing objects here and there, Sonic Riders matches F-Zero GX gimmick-for-gimmick.
In-game audio, while not as sublime, does at least back up the visuals. The Sonic-esque tunes are catchy and the female voice that calls out laps and makes snide comments is charming in her own way.
There are plenty of modes and unlockables too. We're talking single race, time attack, story mode, mission mode, and tag mode--all of which, aside from the story mode, allow split-screen play for as many as four players. We're also talking nearly two-dozen courses, 20 playable characters, and roughly 30 different boards--which are unlocked by winning races and collecting the rings that are littered throughout each course.
But, in the end, it's the gameplay that matters most. That's where Sonic Riders fails. Racing games are supposed to be games of skill, not chance. Sonic Riders, despite all of its shortcuts and power-up items, feels like a game of chance. What's more, it's also a real pain in the ass to play.