For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and for every grand or innovative breakthrough in game design there is a proportionally terrible game that misses the point of said breakthrough. Sonic Free Riders is the poster child for everything that could go wrong with Kinect game design.
If you’re not familiar with this tertiary strain of the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise, Free Riders follows in step with the rest of its brothers in the Riders series. Players take control of Sonic or one of the many, many anthropomorphized creatures that have popped up in the Sonic universe as they race each other on very fast hoverboards.
The game intended to mix the classic speed of Sonic the Hedgehog with the cool-factor of snowboarding and dash in some fun race/combat elements from Mariokart. What we end up with is a game experience that barely pieced itself together on consoles and like an over-stuffed burrito adding one more element with Kinect motion controls has it bursting in to a gooey mess.
With any new technology there’s going to be a stumbling period for getting it to work properly, but Sonic Free Riders goes beyond stumbling and face-plants at breakneck speed. Not only does the game have a difficult time registering player motion as they wobble back and forth trying to steer their unresponsive racer, but the game requires players to endure a recalibration at almost every race. This means that any miraculously achieved equilibrium that had been reached through playing is thrown off completely as the game resets its tilt parameters with every match.
Standing frustrated in front of your television, unable to effectively control your character, it’s hard to imagine any way this game benefitted from motion controls. All things considered, Sonic Free Riders doesn’t seem like it would be a bad game to play. However because the game uses the Kinect, and uses it so poorly, the experience is utterly ruined.
There will be some appeal for kids who like the edgy-cool (but still family-safe) persona of Sonic and his friends, but their enjoyment stops there. No one gets more frustrated at bad game design than children, and with Free Riders’ lack of responsiveness it can be a tantrum inducing nightmare.
Everything about the game is difficult to use, even the menus. Presented with the weird tilted ring navigation players are instantly confused how to actually control things. It’s not until arms have sufficiently flailed that it becomes clear menu items are rotated on a circle before pulled down to the corner of the screen. It’s a confusing system that lacks the simplicity and elegance gesture-based interfaces are supposed to offer.
Looking past all the problems Sonic Team’s lack of experience with the Kinect system brought on, the game is still incredibly basic with only a few real highlights. Despite its simplistic graphics, Sonic Free Riders is one of the better looking Kinect launch titles. It won’t win any awards or blow anyone’s mind, but the environments and course obstacles are presented with a unified theme that works.
Free Riders is also one of the few Kinect games that offer full voice control for true controller-free play. It works surprisingly well if there’s not too much interference but requires a memorization of what each menu item is called as there’s no on-screen list of what to say.
Unlike most Kinect games it offers a traditional story mode, which is great for those that are really in to talking marsupials. Players do thankfully have the option to skip cutscenes by holding their arms out in protest as if they were warding off the bad voice acting like an oncoming offender.
In multiplayer the game works just as well as it does single-player, which means that up to 2 players split-screen and 8 over Xbox Live can get angry and frustrated at the same time. It suffers from the same special restrictions most multiplayer Kinect games do, but Sonic Free Riders is unique in that it offers some very hands-on co-op that requires players to literally touch each other to succeed.
Call it romantic, or call it creepy the Sega-dubbed “date mode” will have players linking hands and racing cheek-to-cheek while jumping in-sync with each other. Call them crazy if you want, but Sega’s finally made a game for all those overly-affectionate couples who make you feel awkward on the subway. There is also a relay mode that swaps out players in tandem which could be fun if you had multiple people, and all those people didn’t mind frustrating controls.
It’s not that Sonic Free Riders is a terrible game, it could have been fine. It’s that the choice to include Kinect controls, and to do so poorly at implementing them ruined all potential for the game to be enjoyable. If there’s a lesson to be learned from Free Riders it’s that Kinect games only work when they’re designed as an integral part of the game design. There’s nothing in Free Riders that couldn’t have been done simpler and better with a controller.
If you’re content-starved and absolutely need something to play on your Kinect, Sonic Free Riders could fill a void if all other options have been exhausted. There’s some charm to it for those who like the characters, but beyond that it’s not a game many will enjoy. Sonic Free Riders is best suited for those with a large amount of patience, because above all else this game is an exercise in futility.