Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity Review
Some franchises should never die, but when they start developing spin-off after spin-off, moving away from the tried-and-true formula that made the series great to begin with, we have issues. The original Sonic Riders on the GameCube failed to deliver the super-fast, colorful entertainment we would've expected from the likes of Sonic and Co., but we still had high hopes for the sequel, Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity. After all, Sega is implementing some new concepts in this one, and with the better PS2 controller, we figured we'd get an easier and more accessible control scheme. However, while Zero Gravity is indeed an improvement, it's only a small upgrade, and not enough to make us happy. Of course, one could argue that we're just tough to please - after all, this game will only cost you $30 - but we figured Sega could've worked out the kinks of the original and polished things up. Unfortunately, many of the same problems are still evident, and while the additions are pretty sweet, they're also flawed.
The graphics are about what you might expect: lots of color, some great design in the race courses, some basic yet acceptable character detail and less-than-impressive cut-scenes. The racetracks certainly represent the highlight of the title, as they're both flashy and diverse. You'll be racing through everything from futuristic factories to lush forests, and each course presents its own set of unique challenges, which forces the player to continually adapt to their surroundings. However, everything else is only slightly better than average; the visuals aren't anything but generic when it comes to menu presentation, and the character detail and cut-scenes are mostly "meh." Thankfully, you spend the vast majority of your time racing, and as we said, that's where you'll find all the graphical high points in Zero Riders. Beyond that, there isn't anything to write home about. There is some graininess and blurriness in certain tracks, but while it's easily noticeable, the issue isn't rampant. So we won't nitpick. Let's just say that if you're at all familiar with any Sonic game of the last generation, you won't be surprised by the visual palette, here.
The sound consists of a frustrating blend. We are treated to decent sound effects and an invigorating set of rock music tracks, but at the same time, we have to deal with ultra-lame voice acting and way too much repetitiveness in both the tracks and effects. Why they even bothered with voice acting is beyond us; even though it's a common practice lately, this is just a racing game, after all. The characters never really have anything important to say, anyway. We immediately liked the soundtrack because it seemed to fit the atmosphere very well, but it grew tiresome within the hour. The sound effects while racing are good, but again, we hear them far too often because we execute the same set of abilities over and over. Still, as we just said, this is a racing game, so how much variety can there really be? We hear a lot of engine sounds in car racing games...what else should we expect? If they had managed to add a few more music tracks and simply opted to exclude the voice acting, the sound would've been the best part of Zero Gravity. As is, it's better than average but not anywhere near as refined as it could've been.
The idea of racing with the fastest creature on earth isn't bad at all, but there's something that instantly bothered us about Sonic Riders. Why in God's name wouldn't Sonic and his pals just run? What do they need the hoverboards for? The concept is confusing, but at the very least, it should still be both promising and above all else, crazy fast. Thanks to some solid track design and the new addition of the Zero Gravity style (which includes cool ideas like Meteor Burst), we do get the appropriate foundation for a game that should, by all rights, blow our minds with blistering speed. But for some reason, it doesn't. In fact, the game moves surprisingly slowly for a racing game, and it's even slower when you consider who the contestants are. On top of this, we get some wonky controls - why the hell should a sci-fi futuristic vehicle maneuver like an old Lincoln? - that really go against the spirit of Zero Gravity. The story is only tacked on for the sake of a Story Mode and the online play is only limited to leaderboards, so all we have to cling to is the fun tracks, new features, and the Gear upgrade system for our hoverboards and bikes. It's not quite enough, though.
Let's go over the new stuff first. The game is aptly named because "Zero Gravity" is exactly what you're going to take advantage of during your races. However, it's less about gravity and more about time, as you can actually slow down time in order to make super sharp turns and speed forward by executing the Meteor Burst. You turn normally with the analog, jump and perform tricks with the X button (it's all about timing), and change Gear settings with the Triangle button. But by pressing and holding either the R1 and L1 buttons you can dash forward at lightning speed, and during that time, you're actually flying through the air. You move up and down and you'll actually attempt to hit floating objects in order to gain even more speed; the concept sounds bizarre but it's kinda like pinball. You can alter gravity - or time, whatever - by pressing the Square button, but this doesn't really do anything on its own. When going into a sharp turn, you can press and hold the Square button, angle the character in the correct direction when he/she is slowed, release the Square button and zip off down the straightaway. It reminds us of the grapple function in Jet Moto, actually.
All of this sounds great, I know, but there are some problems. First of all, using that latter feature works pretty well, but for some reason, it never seems to be effective. Even with perfectly executed anti-Gravity turns we would only gain minimal ground, and unless it was done flawlessly, it would probably backfire completely. The dash works fine - flying through the air at top speed is fun as hell - but there are only one or two sections one each track where it can be performed safely. Thing is, you have very little control when zooming forward with one of the shoulder buttons held down, which means you could easily fly right over an edge. Lastly, as we mentioned before, the overall speed is just far too slow. The speed you're traveling at the start of the game basically never changes, despite the upgrades you can perform to your vehicles, which makes for a very repetitive and bland experience. Yes, there are over 60 different racing vehicles in the game, but none of the different Gear upgrades seem to do much of anything. Yeah, there's a Max Speed boost, Rail Grinding and things like that, but it never amounts to much. The simple bottom line is that these new features just don't have much of an impact on the gameplay.
You do get the chance to appreciate some variety, though. There are 19 total playable characters, and that includes both Sonic's good buddies (Miles "Tails" Power, Knuckles the Echidna and Amy Rose) and the bad guys (Jet the Hawk, Storm the Albatross and Wave the Swallow), but you can't select your racer in the Story Mode. You get to play as several different characters, but that's a pre-set part of the single-player campaign. The problem really centers on the lack of effectiveness of those added features, the ridiculously lame story, and the boat-y controls and repetitive nature of both the soundtrack and gameplay. We'd like to add, however, that the game is fairly entertaining for at least a little while, and it could be worth the price of admission if you know a hardcore Sonic fan. You two can have some head-to-head fun for a few hours, and you probably won't regret it. But the sensation of speed just isn't there, and while the overall quality and accessibility isn't bad at all, there are much better options in stores today. It would cost you $10 less to pick up any one of the fantastic Greatest Hits that currently grace the PS2's library.
Sonic will never die, it's true. But Sega hasn't managed to deliver a truly solid title featuring the fleet-footed blue streak in quite some time, and they don't break that unfortunate streak with Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity. C'mon guys, let's ramp up the effort for a video game icon!
1/15/2008 Ben Dutka