Poor old Sonic. He has in some ways struggled to come to terms with a move into three-dimensions - or maybe it's the other way around? Either way, Sega have seemingly been unable to help the world's most famous hedgehog reach the same dizzying heights of success he so flawlessly achieved in his 2D adventures, no matter how many times they've tried. With Shadow the Hedgehog proving the latest duffer in Sonic's universe, many weren't holding their breath for Sonic Riders, a futuristic racer played out on hover boards - a strange choice since Sonic is supposedly the fastest thing alive. True to expectation, this latest escapade isn't the classic anyone expected it to be, though that's not to say it crashes and burns at the first hurdle.
Sonic Riders' storyline is about as shallow and predictable as they come. As usual Sonic finds himself on the hunt for a set of elusive chaos emeralds. Whilst roaming the city with Tails and a few of his other pals, he happens upon a robbery in progress. A bird-like silhouetted figure along with a group of similarly odd-looking characters snatches one of the precious gems. Sonic gives chase, but is outdone by the leader of the gang who proclaims to be the fastest thing alive. Then, without reason, Dr. Eggman appears on a nearby big screen to announce a racing challenge to Sonic and his friends in order to prove once and for all who is the quickest. Sonic shouts something predictable like 'let's get it on!' and the game begins. Admittedly though, a racer isn't really about it's storyline so perhaps we can overlook Sega's unimaginativeness in this area.
As mentioned, the racing in Sonic Riders takes place atop hover boards (or 'extreme gear') as they are referred to in-game. Your task is to prove your credentials over a series of themed racetracks. 'Themed' can only mean one thing and they're all here - the city, the greenery, the sandy etc.). The first thing to note about the main game is its speed, and credit goes to Sega here who have successfully managed to program a game that is cheek-flappingly impressive. It's the kind of experience that, in full flow, reduces your blinking rate to about three involuntary movements per race.
In an attempt to bring something fresh to the genre, Sonic Riders' most prominent gimmick is something called the air meter. It sits at the bottom of the screen and keeping it filled up is crucial to your success. Most importantly it acts as a boost meter, allowing a temporary speed boost at the push of a button - you'll find yourself having to use this skill almost constantly throughout every race if you want any chance of finishing in pole position. Keeping the air meter topped up is achievable in two ways, the first of which is performing tricks. Don't expect any crazy Tony Hawks-style button bashing combinations here, though, since the pace of races doesn't give you long to enter any complicated commands. Every trick can be performed by jumping and then pushing the analogue stick in any direction. The other method of refilling your air is by stopping at petrol pump-like terminals dotted around each track. It only takes moment to top up, but only really succeeds in spoiling the flow of the game.
Compounding the annoyance of a stop-start experience are some of Sonic Riders' other game mechanics. Controlling your zooming 'gear' is an imprecise task at the best of times, but a function that supposedly takes the hassle out of turning sharply by forcing your character into autopilot isn't a lot of help either. When you've fallen off the edge of a hairpin turn on every lap of a particular race, you won't feel like sympathizing with the game despite its attempts to assist you. Other competitor's turbulence is often left trailing behind them, which, cleverly, can be ridden on to your advantage, but even that gets in the way sometimes. However, it's an abundance of all manner of scenery, props and race furniture begging to be crashed into that is the biggest problem. All of the time you can see it's there, but by the time it registers with your fingers on the controls, it's all too late - crash, bang, wallop. Such frustration plagues what is otherwise a competent single player experience.
As far as aesthetics go, Sega have done a great job of molding both speed and looks into one neat package. As you'd expect from a Sonic game, there's a lot of bright and colourful landscapes and a fair amount of detail too. You'll be shooting by it so fast most of the time that a lot of it you won't notice without a few plays of each track, though when you do hit zero miles an hour textures can appear a little on the muddy side. Each race is accompanied by some fairly standard dance/trance tunes, while your character's progress is tracked by the most annoying commentator since Pokemon Stadium on the N64.
What Sonic Riders boils down to is a fairly predictable F-Zero-alike which is a few racing classes below. There's a competent multiplayer, squillions of unlockables and a mission mode to boot, but despite a couple of new ideas, playing Sonic Riders is more about frustration and white knuckled perseverance rather than fast-paced enjoyment. At any rate, it's not as bad as Shadow the Hedgehog (thank god) and is hopefully a step in the right direction for a character that continues to be stuck in a bit of a rut.