When one thinks of a Sonic racing game, they likely don't imagine Sonic and friends on hoverboards. Why, you ask, would Sonic race on a hoverboard when he can run just as fast on foot? Well, the answer to this question is beyond me, but this is the case in Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity, the sequel to the original Sonic Riders. Sonic is back, as are his avian rivals the Babylon Rogues, but this time there's some convoluted plot! Oh, wait -- been there, done that. Sonic and friends are after some magical stone doohickeys in some bizarre corner of the Sonic world. The blue blur, donning his goggles on his forehead, travels the world on a hoverboard, opting to race his opponents to death rather than spin-dash them. Of course, the setting is nonsensical, and who plays racing games for their story, anyway, right? What's really new here is the way that races have been changed through the use of manipulating gravity -- hence, the new subtitle.
In Zero Gravity, Sonic and pals shift the gravity around them through the use of mysterious stone bracelets -- while racing, they can perform tricks to build up energy for these bracelets, and then unleash them in different ways. This allows for the use of two abilities: halting yourself in mid-turn to sharply shift direction and send any loose objects around you flying in said direction to destroy obstacles in your path, or charge up energy to release it in a gravity-defying flight across straight-aways. These are accompanied by a new Gear Change system. Instead of character types automatically having different traits, the vehicles they ride (be they hoverboards, machines, or rocket boots) have three different upgrades which are earned during races by collecting rings. While this is a unique idea -- upgrading your vehicle as you race -- it is nowhere near as satisfying as the City Trial mode in Kirby's Air Ride, as these upgrades are very few and minimal, not to mention that their uses are often vague and confusing. Areas of a track which are only accessible through these skills are sometimes hard to locate and don't often seem to pay off very much, either. Speed upgrades also seem minimal.
Most of these additions to the standard racing formula are interesting in concept, but when laid down on the track, they serve to simply make races more complicated than they need to be in all of the wrong ways. I'd love to see this concept built upon more in a different way, giving players more universally helpful upgrades rather than context-sensitive ones. This would serve to make the upgrades more useful, easier to access, and also trim down the convoluted track designs.
Speaking of the tracks, there's a good number of them here, but they suffer from a big consistency problem. For the most part, their ambiance and artistic design are pretty cool, and there are definitely some standout ideas as far as location, but more often than not the gameplay of these tracks ends up feeling messy and awkward, with all types of odd contextual objects littering the track, oddball turns which are hard to pull off considering the stiff controls, and sometimes, even the atmosphere of the level can make the tracks harder to play than they should be. There were a few tracks in which the camera angle would lower to the point where what was up ahead was difficult to see. Another track was so dark that many objects were too obscured to navigate through, and another featured rain on top of shadow, so many turns were nigh on impossible to identify.
While I only experienced a traditional control setup, even then, there was a huge issue with statue-like controls. I was constantly frustrated by the fact that the characters steered very slowly around turns, resulting in more bumps into the sides than one would have preferred. Furthermore, the game encourages players to shift gravity in mid air to latch onto sideways tracks in midair which serve as shortcuts. In my experience, however, there were numerous occasions when attempting to utilize this technique sent me off the course entirely, sometimes getting my character stuck into background objects. There were also a few frustrating incidents in which either this or simply bumping into a wall would flip me around backwards -- since the controls are so lax in the steering department, getting back on track and in the right direction was a practice in patience. All in all, there were plenty of times in which such instances cost me a race due to mistakes that often felt out of my own control.
The presentation is about as inconsistent as the level design, offering up some cinematic moments with the bullet-time gravity effects but an overall edgy graphics engine. There are moments when the characters pull off tricks that their polygonal points become quite noticeable. The style overall is fine, but on a more technical side, the graphics don't look much better than the last title.
Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity offers a number of extra features, such as a massive amount of unlockable racing machines which each have different stats and Gear Abilities, but they take forever to earn the Rings to unlock, since they can cost upwards of 9,000 rings, but only 100 rings max can be collected in a given race for purchases. The Sonic roster is in tow, with favorites like Sonic, Knuckles, Tails, and other, more recent mainstays such as Blaze, Silver, and Cream, not to mention a few cameos from other popular SEGA titles, such as Billy Hatcher, Amigo, and NiGHTS. There are even some online leaderboards, but no online play -- big surprise, right? There are a few throwaway extra modes that some may find some enjoyment out of, and multiplayer could be fun if you can find some pals who are interested enough to play with you. Lastly, the story mode is rife with irritating dialogue and nonsensical plot -- race the robots around a looping track and come in first place in order to get them to...stop chasing you...? What? I suppose Sonic fans such as myself should be used to such lackluster "writing." But then again, Sonic fans are also used to speed, and there's not too much of that here, either.
Final Verdict - 6/10
Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity has some good ideas, but it all ultimately falls flat in its execution. The controls are stiff and unresponsive, the track concepts are great, but lack quality design, and the context-sensitive shortcuts feel like a waste of time that do nothing but over complicate things, littering the tracks with garbage. The Gear Change system needs work in order to come off as something truly worthwhile and interesting. Instead, all of these elements just weigh down the experience. Let's not overlook the fact that the sense of speed here gives one the sensation of racing in a low-cc Mario Kart race rather than the hyperspeed we'd like to expect from the blue blur. Is it really that difficult to create a slick, clean racing experience with lots of speed? More casual racing fans will find it too confusing, and more hardcore fans will likely find its flaws too frustrating. Throw this one on the pile where Donkey Kong: Barrel Blast sits: a stack of mediocre license racing titles that weighs themselves down with too much franchise mimicry. The racing potential is crushed by that weight, and the key ingredient that Sonic Riders should be trying to emulate from its intellectual property -- a sense of speed -- is abhorrently absent. It may be a bit better than DK's recent racing efforts, but not by much.