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For whatever reason, I've just never been much of a Sonic fan. I tried recommended Sonic games (for example, Sonic Rush) and just found it boring. Same with some of the 3D titles, such as Sonic Adventure 2 Battle for the GameCube. With that in mind, then, it may be best to take this review with a grain of salt; perhaps it's just my personal gaming preferences, but I really did not care much at all for Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity.
To begin with, it didn't feel much like a racing game. It just felt like a regular old Sonic game...except with other characters along for the ride. The entire premise of the game is just to go fast...really, really fast. But there just doesn't seem to really be anything present in Zero Gravity to separate it from any other 2D Sonic Game -- it just doesn't feel like a racing game.
Classic racing games like Mario Kart have a leg-up over other titles thanks to the items in the game. Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity attempts to do something like that, but instead implementing abilities instead of items. Throughout every level are scattered rings, a staple of all Sonic games. Collecting these rings is a necessity, because each ability that you can pick up has a cost in rings. These abilities are picked up from little box-like item a la Mario Kart found throughout the course. These rings can then be used to grind, get speed bursts, and a plethora of other little abilities that can help give you an edge in a race.
The controls, however, are when the game runs into an even bigger rut. There are three different control schemes: Horizontal Wii Remote, Vertical Wii Remote, and GameCube controller. The latter probably works the best but is unexciting, and really makes this game just feel like a bit of a remake of the original Sonic Riders. Vertical works fine, I suppose, and has you holding the Remote upright and tilting to the left and right to turn. Horizontal is probably the worst (and for some reason, the default) control scheme. So what's the problem? Well, with both Wii control schemes, the responsiveness is terrible (although the Vertical scheme is a little better). There are a few special moves to pull off -- for example, to make it around a sharp turn, you've got to hit 1 and tilt the remote the direction you want to blast off. You'll stand still for a few seconds, and then get a huge burst of speed to make up for lost time. However, this maneuver is terribly done and many times doesn't work at all -- often resulting with you blasting into a wall and losing your position in the race.
Of course, stuff like this wouldn't be quite such a big deal but for the fact that Zero Gravity is a very tough game. The AI is pretty brutal -- everybody else will pull ahead of the pack automatically and race flawlessly, making it very difficult to get in first place. Plus, once you do, it's going to be even tougher to maintain your lead for 3 laps. The high difficulty level requires you to play a lot just to get good at this game, and the terrible controls will probably ensure that you won't want to spend much time with this title.
Like Mario Kart, there are several different characters to choose from; some are classic Sonic characters, and others are new inclusions from the original Sonic Riders. Only about a third of them are available from the get-go, so you've got a lot of unlocking to do if you want them all. Still, though, there's no big difference between each of the characters. While they all have a different number of points in various racing abilities (for example, speed or turning ability), they don't play all that differently, which is a shame. The fact that there's no real discernable difference between the many riders pretty much detracts any fun or value that could have come out of such an implementation as having different characters. What's the point, honestly?
Aside from the broken/unimaginative controls, one of the game's biggest problems is that it just doesn't feel as fast as it should. This is supposed to be a high-speed racing game, right? Then why doesn't it feel like, say, F-Zero GX on the GameCube? There are a few little environmental maneuvers, like flips and corkscrews, but the game automatically takes care of these for you -- the camera takes a step back and you don't even have control of your racer for about a second. Sure, there are plenty of veers to decide upon and a plethora or sharp turns and dives, but the sense of speed feels conspicuously absent.
Another significant problem that I have with Zero gravity is that there are very few courses -- when you've got a genre whose game value relies on having reason to race over and over again, you're going to want way more than a dozen courses on which to race. Sadly, such a fact didn't really get through to the developers, so the course offering is pretty pathetic. Admittedly, most of them are pretty well designed (although some of the "stories" behind each course make absolutely no sense), but that fact is all too easily overlooked thanks to the dearth of courses.
Two of Zero Gravity's highest points are, disappointingly, the graphics and sound. The game looks quite nice on the Wii, and maintains a steady framerate even with lots of action going on on-screen, and even with up to four players duking it out on the same screen. The music, additionally, is very well-done, and the visual feel of the game meshes seamlessly with the music to create some really great atmosphere. The courses all look -- and sound -- great, and it's just too bad that the attention to detail with the graphics and audio couldn't have been applied to the rest of the game.
The addition of a multiplayer mode was a good move, but multiplayer is only as good as the game's core game play mechanic. Seeing as Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity is fundamentally flawed, the multiplayer just isn't that great. It's really too bad, because if this game hadn't missed the mark, it's obvious that the potential for a great, intense four-player multiplayer mode would have been great. In addition, there's an online component, but it's disappointing -- you can't actually race others online. Instead, though, there's a leader board and the ability to download other players' ghost data for different courses throughout the game -- admittedly, quite underwhelming.
There's a story mode to tie everything together and to cater to the single player, and its actually surprisingly well-done. The story is pretty pathetic, which is something that can be forgiven when you take into account that this is a racing game. There's also some half-decent voice acting that, objectively, is rather poor, but it (surprisingly) fits pretty well with the rest of the game. Again, you're really just going to be racing here (although with a lot of robots rather than other, uh...hedgehogs and small mammals), but the story is a nice little diversion.
For those of you that can get into Zero Gravity, there's actually a lot here for you in this package. While the number of courses is disappointing, there's a shop in the game which allows you to purchase gear for all your characters. Plus, don't forget that you've got plenty of classic Sonic characters to unlock via the story mode. Unlocking items is a fairly straightforward process, and actually encourages you to play the game quite a bit. You pay for unlockable items with coins that you collect in the game's stages, and coins garnered anywhere -- story mode, multiplayer, and the like -- all go toward your total. So, you can pretty much play however you want to play and still reap the rewards, so to speak.
All told, Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity is a fairly underwhelming package. The controls are flawed and tough to get used to, which emphasizes even more the game's unforgiving difficulty level. That said, it's not a terrible game -- if you're willing to give the game time, you'll get used to the control scheme and probably start to have fun with the game. But if you're looking for a fun, easy game that you can pick up and play, you're going to be severely disappointed. But if you give it a chance, you may find a surprisingly fun racing game. Still, it's inexcusable that you should have to spend this much time and go through this much frustration just to have fun with a game. Hardcore Sonic fans should probably pick this up -- otherwise, if you're even remotely interested, I'd highly recommend that you rent this game first, spend a week with it, and decide if it's really for you.
Typical price: £14.99 from GAME
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