IGN Review of Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity
When Sonic Riders released at the tail end of the GameCube lifespan, it wasn't exactly met with the highest of regards from fans or critics alike. The gameplay was simple, the design was a bit flawed in the control department, and the end result was a racer that, while certainly a fresh take on the Sonic brand, wasn't a vital piece of software. With the now-amazing success of the Wii, as well as the continuing strong sales of PS2, SEGA is back with another dose of racing with Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity. The end result, however, is more of the same, mixed with a few gameplay concepts that don't quite come through in the end. Only the most die-hard of Sonic fans need apply.
Just like its predecessor, Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity is essentially a racing game built in the world of Sonic the Hedgehog. Since the design ends up having little to do with anything Sonic-related at all (speed aside, of course) the game ends up feeling a lot like Mario Kart or Crash Team Racing, as you're basically getting a new experience teamed with classic characters. As for the story, it's pretty basic, centering around a new gravity-manipulating bracelet that the Blue Blur finds. With an evil entity out to capture it, it's up to the Sonic Team to do what they do best: Embrace speed, and raise hell.
Putting all story aspects aside, Zero Gravity is basically the same design as the original Sonic Riders experience. You'll sprint through courses, grab rings, power up your air board – why the fastest animal alive doesn't just run is beyond us…- and attempt to take first place in some of the craziest track design since Extreme G on the N64. Where the original fell short, however, Zero Gravity again fails, as the air board mechanic is a bit too slow for our liking (nowhere near the intensity of something like F-Zero GX), and the control is very clunky, using Wii tilt or PS2 analog stick to control a very slippery, floaty character at high speeds. For whatever reason, the steering isn't tight enough overall, so characters like Knuckles will often run into walls simply because they can't turn fast enough, and Wii tilt users will find that movement with the remote needs to be far more exaggerated than most games, yielding less turnout as well for their efforts. Even Sonic and the Secret Rings had tighter controls than Zero Gravity's end design.
In addition to the new story and tilt control on Wii, Zero Gravity also makes use of some new gameplay mechanics, specifically those dealing with the "Gravity" part of the game's title. Sonic's new gravity-changing bracelet allows him and his team the ability to stop time, launching into a bullet time effect that lets you reposition yourself for a quick turn, or latch onto a wall track for alternate routes. Replacing the classic turbo boost from the first game, players can now rocket at full speed into a huge turn, flip into Zero Gravity mode, reposition themselves, and then boost out of free space again in a new direction. The idea works, but without an overall boost ability the entire experience feels a bit slower now, as you won't be cashing in trick points for turbo, but instead use it to actually slow the game down as you make more precise movements.
There is a new boost maneuver as well, but it's treated more as a state-change than an actual turbo meter. When engaged your racer will actually fly through the air, making use of tilt control or analog (PS2) movements to fly through the level, gaining additional boost off of floating world objects that become unhinged from the world when you enter flight mode. Since movement is amazingly limited when in this state, however, you'll only want to use it in key areas on each map (sections that are actually marked with a boost icon, actually), so for general racing you're still left without any turbo boost, instead using a once-per-lap technique in its place. The end result is a slower, less free-form experience, and one we'd certainly put below the first Riders effort.
Zero Gravity also incorporates a new "gear upgrade" system, which cashes in rings for on-the-fly upgrades to your racer. This is an awesome idea in general, but we'd like to see the execution done in a different manor, as it is way too simple. Each rider has three abilities to power-up, which are predetermined by the computer, and the payout isn't drastic enough overall. Speed boosts don't do a ton for the riders, and techniques such as rail-grinding now need a specific number of rings to be unlocked, usually making shortcut areas unavailable until later laps. Also included are character vehicles, such as an upgraded air board for Tails or hover-cycle for Knuckles, and while the vehicles again allow for alternate paths, they actually control stiffer and feel slower overall, adding even more weight onto our "not tight enough, not fast enough" stance on the game. Gear upgrades are a great idea, but they're too simple and uneventful for our tastes.
On the visual front, not much has changed either, as you'll still get a mix of decent level design, some impressive CG work (Sonic Team is always known for that), but some overly generic designs as well, with the new enemy characters from Zero Gravity looking extremely simple. Also, since you're constantly "fighting" against an army of drones rather than a group of classic Sonic characters, the race loses some of its "Sonic" feel. That being said, the framerate holds up, the visuals keep a vibrant, stylistic feel throughout, and it's one of the slicker looking SEGA titles thus far on Wii and PS2. If only it had the speed and control to team with its looks.
As far as online goes, Zero Gravity offers worldwide leaderboards, but no actual online competition. This should have been a no-brainer for both Wii and PS2, as Nintendo has opened up online for developers months ago, and PS2 has allowed it for years. There's still local play and over 15 racers to choose from (each with their own boards and vehicles), but in the end the game comes up short to say the least.
©2008-01-14, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved