Review: Sonic Free Riders Shows How Bad Kinect Controls Can Be

Sonic Free Riders is a cautionary tale about the importance of controls in gaming. Make a game interesting, give it solid graphics and some unique hooks, but don't lock down the controls and you're going to have a disaster on your hands.

Kinect-enabled Sonic Free Riders is the third in the Sonic Riders series which has you hoverboarding your way through courses against a clock or other popular Sonic the Hedgehog characters. You lean forward and backward to steer, as if standing on a snowboard, and mimic kicking off on a skateboard to speed up. You can also grab items with your hands and use them against your opponents.

Ideal Player

Sonic the Hedgehog fans who continue to be OK with the concept of Sega's mascot riding something, rather than running on his fast little feet. Players tolerant of frustrating controls and user interface... and Sonic's friends.

Why You Should Care

This is our first look at Sega's attempts at making use of Microsoft's controller-free Kinect. It also delivers one of the few racing games to the casual-heavy Kinect launch line-up.

Does Kinect make the Sonic Riders games any more fun to play? Not really, the series' long-standing issues with loose controls are only exacerbated by the Kinect's inability to keep track of what you're doing and translate that into a semblance of control on the screen. I spent a healthy chunk of nearly every race with my hoverboard nose-first in a course's retaining wall. My weak control of Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and crew also often led to them randomly switching stances and ignoring jumps.

How are you supposed to control the game? The idea is that you stand in front of your television at a slight angle, with one shoulder facing the TV and the other the wall behind you. You bend forward and backward to turn, jump to jump, and swipe your foot at the ground to perform a kick dash. You can also hold out your hands to grab things, face forward to break and switch stances by facing in the opposite direction. The game includes items that you can pick up and use during a race as well, like tossable tornadoes and giant bowling balls. The core concept for the moves are solid, but the game has a pretty high rate of completely missing what you're doing.

Maybe it needs better calibration? Perhaps, but Sonic Free Riders has you doing more calibration than any other Kinect game I've played. Before every single race you need to go through a quick set-up that has you slowly weaving your board between a set of cones. It never seems to help.

OK, so there are control issues, but what about when the game works? Sonic Free Riders offers an impressive collection of modes and ways to play the game. The World Grand Prix, the game's mainstay, has you controlling one of four teams as they race to unlock tracks and modes. But there's also the ability to do tag-team races with a friend, relay races and play online. And the races aren't all on hoverboards, you also get a chance to do some races on a bike, which controls much better than the hoverboard. If the controls worked, this could be a great game.

Right: The game's light story is presented in a series of still images with spoken dialogue.

How does Sonic Free Riders compare to the Kinect's other racer, Kinect Joy Ride? Sonic Free Riders has a lot more substance and the graphics and presentation are better than Kinect Joy Ride, but Joy Ride works.

Is it really that bad? Yes, even the menu system is a mess. I can't think of the last game I played that almost stopped me cold because I wasn't able to select the option to start playing.

Does Sonic Riders have anything going for it? If Sega can patch the game to fix the major issue with controls, this could easily be the sort of game players could sink a lot of time into. There are a lot of neat touches found in the races, like multiple routes, the ability to go over and around the main course. I love that the game lets you reach out and interact with the course as it zips by and performing tricks when you're in the air can be a lot of fun. But it all comes crashing down every time the game fails to recognise a turn, ignores a jump or refuses to let you use an item.

Sonic Free Riders In Action

The Bottom Line

Sonic Free Riders is the most broken of the Kinect games I've played and that includes a half-dozen titles. It's unfortunate, because another strong action racing game would be a nice addition to Kinect's game library. If Sega can somehow fix the control issues I'd be the first to recommend picking up this game. Until then don't waste your time or money.

Sonic Free Riders was developed by Sonic Team and published by Sega for the Xbox 360 Kinect, released on November 4. Retails for $89.95. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through more than a dozen races and modes. Tried single and multiplayer races. Struggled mightily with the menu. Attempted several recalibrations to improve the control issues.


    The first real review of what I can only assume will be a long list of bad Kinect games, for now I assume everyone will simply blame the developer not the entire concept of Zero-controller?

      To be fare the CONCEPT of zero-controller gaming is a good one. The technology in motion recognition and body tracing just hasn't matured enough yet.

      So both the developers of the game and the designers of Kinect should take equal blame. but its a good first try...

      Considering reviews of other Kinect games have said the controls work well (I've seen this from a few different places for a few different games) it's completely ridiculous to imply the concept is broken because a SINGLE GAME doesn't control well.

      I've played plenty of games with bad controller-based controls before. By YOUR LOGIC this means controller-based control is inherently broken and the concept can never work, which quite obviously is untrue.

      Just because YOU aren't interested in Kincet (well that seems to be your stance judging from your small post) doesn't mean other people aren't. If you aren't interested in it don't play it and don't waste your time whinging, cause there are people out there who wanna play around with motion control.

      Anyway this makes me think back to the PS2 Eye-toy and their hoverboarding game which had quite similar controls it seems. Unfortunately that game didn't detect properly either. Good concept but executed badly I guess, from a written description it seems like the control style would work.

        While I have no intention of buying a Kinect, I'm thinking more along the lines of it being a quick dumping ground of poor games.
        Basically they will sell (and probably sell well) purely due to having a novel control scheme and actually be complete rubbish.

        Much like 3D, it will get there in the end, but we'll look back at these "early" days and wonder why we ever wasted the big bucks.
        These won't become quaint Space Invader and Pacman type games when we look back in 20 years!

    I thought all this Kinnect stuff was supposed to make it more user friendly for anyone to be able to jump into a game. But by the sounds of it, even if the controls did actually work, there could be a pretty steep learning curve to actually achieve proper gameplay. Oh well, it doesn't bother me, since I have zero intention of getting Kinnect, I already have a Wii gathering dust in the corner of my entertainment unit :)

    Given that the whole point of controller free gaming is supposed to bring gaming to the masses who can't seem to understand "traditional" controllers, are racing games really the way to go? I mean a racing game generally has accelerate, brake and steer - not the most convoluted control scheme going around.

    I can understand games with more complex control schemes like shooters, fighting games, etc being tricky for the uninitiated to get to grips with, but racing games are a bit of a no brainer even with a controller.

    Funny, in the IGN review, they essentially said "once we got used to the weird controls, it was good fun". Looks like this reviewer never got used to the controls...

    wii one (ssx blur, shaun white), xbox nil.
    the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    I don't have any problem with the controls of sonic. I've found it helps to swing your arms in the turns for a tighter turning radius. I did notice it was really touchy and the selection screen kinda moves around as people are drinking their beers on the couch if nobody is standing in front of the game.

    I honestly think this game rocks. I had a buddy over this weekend and we tore it up. 2 players simultaneous works suprisingly well.

    One thing I really thought was cool, during the rider and board selection, the Kinect worked kinda like a multitouch screen. We were both able to move our hands at the same time and select our boards simultaneously.

    The Kinect rocks... I look forward to better games, but I really enjoy the game play that combines cardio. I work full time and go to school full time, so I really value the ability to play a game for entertainment and get a fitness bonus.

    True, I am one of the target audience; I don't have time to play games like a hardcore gamer, but honestly I think this thing is awesome. My girlfriend and I both dig the kinect, but she wasn't too into Sonic. My buddy, who I would consider a hardcore gamer, loved it (the Kinect and Sonic) though.


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