Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity Hands-On

We get our hands on Sega's Wii and PS2 hoverboard racer starring Sonic the Hedgehog.

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Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity is the upcoming sequel to Sonic Riders and casts Sega's venerable hedgehog in a hoverboard racer with a selection of familiar faces. Yes, we know that Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and many other characters from the Sonic universe are a speedy lot and can even fly, but hey, it's the future and they need hoverboards now; roll with it. The original game was a multiplatform release for the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox, and likewise Zero Gravity is hitting the PS2 and Wii. We got our hands on work-in-progress versions of the game on both platforms to see what Sega is cooking up in the aftermath of the promising but uneven original.

After years of annoying appearances Amy finally gets smacked (okay not really).
After years of annoying appearances Amy finally gets smacked (okay not really).

If you missed the first game, Sonic Riders transplanted Sonic and company to a tech-heavy future and pitted them against Dr. Eggman, as well as a new set of avian foes dubbed the Babylon Rogues. The focus of the original game revolved around--surprise--retrieving chaos emeralds from the Rogues and Eggman. This time the action is a bit more mysterious, given that you find yourself teaming up with Eggman and the Rogues to discover what's up with meteorite fragments and robots rampaging in the city. As luck would have it, your investigation of the aforementioned mysteries involves much competitive hoverboard racing, as these kinds of investigations apparently do.

The game features a broad selection of modes, some of which are unlocked the more you play. The core of the single-player game is the story mode. When you first start the game, your only option is to play with Team Sonic through the heroes' storyline (no, not the acclaimed NBC sci-fi show). Once you work through it, you'll unlock the Rogues' storyline, which is called Babylon. Each story takes you through a series of races in which you'll need to place first to progress. Although you'll go through the same generally themed locales, there are some radically different tracks on each side that offer some variety. In addition to the story mode, you'll also have a normal race option that lets you choose free race, time attack, or world grand-prix races that support different configurations of players that run the gamut from two to four. The survival mode offers three race types--relay, ball, and battle--for one to four players. A world rankings option lets you see your standing against players around the world via the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, and also lets you download ghost data. (The PS2 game is obviously lacking the online support found in the Wii version.) An in-game shop offers a walk on the wild side to visit a Chao-run black market that lets you spend rings you earn during races on performance-enhancing gear for your assorted racers. (The game now features a roster of more than a dozen unlockable racers.) Finally, you'll find a comprehensive tutorial mode to familiarize yourself with the game.

You can upgrade your hoverboard over the course of race.
You can upgrade your hoverboard over the course of race.

The racing mechanics in Zero Gravity have been tweaked some since the original game, although they still hinge on gravity and air manipulation. The game's core mechanics still focus on you guiding a racer on a hoverboard through insanely designed courses. However, the new wrinkle to the action is the additional abilities made possible by the meteorite. You'll be able to perform special tricks at key points on the track, all of which help fill the GP meter you'll need to trigger special abilities. You'll also want to collect rings in order to power up your hoverboard's speed and abilities. The upgrades are permanent for the race you use them in and let you increase your speed, configure your board (to morph it into a vehicle), and refill your GP meter. Your big guns in a race will be the different gravity powers you'll be able to use to perform tight turns, earn massive speed boosts, and race along walls to discover shortcuts.

We found the controls for our riders to be decent enough if we stuck to the conventional options offered by the game. The PS2 game handled fine, with an intuitive button layout that made zipping around easy. The Wii was a bit more of a challenge because two of its control-scheme options revolve around using the remote. The first option has you hold the remote sideways, and you tilt and twist it to steer your racer and activate some of his or her abilities. The second option has you hold the remote normally, pointed directly at the screen, and lets you steer by twisting the remote left or right. Although both options are commendable for making use of the remote, they didn't quite offer the precision we were looking for as we tried to smoke the competition. Thankfully, the game's third control option lets you use a GameCube controller, which helped us considerably.

The game's presentation is shaping up well, with a good mix of sights and sounds that create the unique world you're racing in. The visuals in the game are solid on both platforms, with the Wii benefitting from more polish than the PS2 game. Sonic and company look good and sport a simplified, refined look as compared to their typical 3D platforming appearances. The Rogues are equally well done, although neither group of racers will blow you away. The tracks fare quite a bit better thanks to a fanciful design and a good amount of variety. There are some issues with the game's camera that make things annoying but don't really break anything crucial. The game runs fine on both platforms, but as you'd expect, the Wii game looks better. Finally, the game's audio provides a solid accompaniment to the visuals and serves up peppy voice acting and breezy, fast-paced tunes.

The various tracks in the game offer a good mix of environments.
The various tracks in the game offer a good mix of environments.

Based on what we played, Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity is shaping up to be a solid follow-up to the original game. There are some gameplay refinements that improve the experience over the original but, overall, Zero Gravity doesn't appear to be reinventing last year's wheel. If you liked the original game, you should be good with what Zero Gravity is bringing to the party. Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity is slated to ship early next year for the PS2 and Wii.

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