This month, I was fortunate enough to be offered a chance to get some hands-on time with Sonic's latest entry. It took a bit to get around to, having to get over a wicked winter cold and then mustering up a great deal of willpower to drop Dead or Alive 4 for a few hours. As you can see by proof of this article, I succeeded. Getting back on topic here -- unlike previous Sonic releases, Sonic Riders represents a bold direction that moves away from the traditional platforming formula – a direction that could quite possibly be just what fans may be looking for.
The story unfolds with our heroes: Sonic, Tails and Knuckles, who've been tracking the whereabouts of a Chaos Emerald. Their search leads them to a busy metropolis area, only now, it would seem they've reached a dead end. The situation quickly becomes more complicated after a brief encounter with a mysterious trio, who Sonic and company soon discover are participants of a special racing competition hosted by Robotnik himself. Mocking our heroes as being "bored", Robotnik invites them to participate. Entry into the tournament merely requires a Chaos Emerald where winner takes all using whatever methods to achieve victory. Sonic, being well aware that anything that involves his arch nemesis can't possibly lead to any good, accepts the challenge. But what of the rogue riders he encountered -- what is their role in all this, and what exactly is Robotnik up to this time?
Anyone who's a fan of such games as Snowboard Kids or SSX should feel right at home. Sonic Riders is fast, challenging and has a relative learning curve. If you're a casual player or a newcomer to games of this sort, you'll definitely want to check out the tutorial mode first. Once you get the hang of things, Sonic Riders is tough to put down. Basically there are several keys to ensure victory. The first is to successfully master the art of drafting. This is where you'll basically draft within the wind current produced by the rival racers. Unlike an actual vehicle though, you'll need to carefully balance your boarder while riding the current using the left analog stick.
Tricks also play an integral role in the game as it will allow you to maintain or increase your air meter. When this reaches critical, your boarder is forced to use their own two feet – literally. At this point, the only way you can get a recharge is by running across a speed boost or locating a pit stop. Doing the latter however can lead to a few precious seconds that you need to stay ahead being lost – which is why you need to be pretty smart about the usage of the air meter. Adding the Sonic Team flair to the formula, players can attack their opponents by collecting power-ups which empower the characters with signature attacks. For instance, Amy breaks out her hammer and flattens the competition while Tails may break out a ball and chain or an electric plug that will temporarily daze anyone foolish enough to get too close to him. Every character is also capable of unleashing a whirlwind attack that will briefly stop any rival racers approaching from behind. Personally, I didn't find this attack all that helpful – but that's probably because I am still working on getting the hang of it.
As expressed in our previous coverage, the final version will feature over 16 characters. Initially, your selection is limited to a few like Sonic, Tails, Amy, Knuckles and the rogue boarders who are introduced in the Story Mode. As you meet certain conditions in the game, additional characters will become available. Each character starts out with a specific board (called Extreme Gear in the game), but you can unlock additional types by collecting coins during race events. There are plenty of other hidden perks too, such as a Theater Mode, allowing you to replay all the CG footage (which I have to say is just downright fantastic, the next-gen Sonic better have kickass visuals like this) from the story mode; a gallery mode which gives you a quick and easy reference to check out all the current boards you've obtained. I've yet to try out the multiplayer mode, but I can definitely say that the single player modes are keeping me abundantly satisfied.
From the stunning cinematic displays to the solid level design, Sonic Riders is easily one of the better Sonic titles to grace the consoles. I was surprised to discover the loading times were surprisingly fast, taking no more than about 5 to 6 seconds to start up a level. The added multiplayer value totally sweetens the package (still no word if Xbox edition will have online support) and I hope to go return with a small report on that aspect (and maybe a bit more on the single-player experiences) before the game ships next week. At this point, I've played enough to seal the deal -- Sonic Riders has the right groove and you'd be wise to keep tabs on this title.