Sonic Rivals Hands-On

Sonic and company burn some rubber on the PSP in the hedgehog's first appearance on Sony's portable system.

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Sonic Rivals is the latest in Sega's long line of games featuring the ring-collecting blue hedgehog. However, like Sonic's more recent adventures, Sonic Rivals takes the hedgehog on an adventure that's a change of pace from his traditional platforming roots. The game is being developed in the Canadian wilds by Backbone Entertainment's Vancouver branch and serves up a mix of racing and action. We had the chance to look at a near final version of the game, which is shaping up well.

The game begins with Sonic chasing after the villainous Dr. Eggman, who's on another run of evildoing. This time, the surly one is capturing Sonic's friends in cards, using a new camera he has made. While it's not the worst thing Eggman's done, it still bears some action on Sonic's part, so the heroic hedgehog sets out to stop him. But this is only part of the story because each of the game's playable characters, Shadow, Knuckles, and newcomer Silver, will have a beef to settle with Eggman. Though everyone's motivations are different, their solutions all revolve around racing--go figure.

You'll find two game modes, single-player and multiplayer, as well as a viewing option in Sonic Rivals. The single-player mode offers three game types: story, challenge, and cup circuit. The story mode will let you play as Sonic, Knuckles, Shadow, or Silver and send you racing against a rival through six themed zones that are broken up into three acts, which include a boss fight. The challenge mode has you choose a character, a rival, a stage, and a difficulty level and then try to complete specific challenges. If you manage to complete a challenge, which will vary according to the difficulty you've chosen, you'll unlock rewards. Finally, cup circuit mode is a best-two-out-of-three series of races.

Come rain, sleet, snow or gloom of night, Sonic will still collect gold rings.
Come rain, sleet, snow or gloom of night, Sonic will still collect gold rings.

The multiplayer game offers a simple versus match via the PSP's ad hoc mode, which you can choose to host or join. The basic versus action is enhanced by the ability to wager the collectible cards you'll earn as you play the single-player games. If gambling your hard-earned cards away in a versus match isn't your thing, you can choose to trade them via ad hoc as well. Sonic Rivals' gameplay incorporates the cards pretty seamlessly, so the 150 cards you can earn come in handy.

At its core, Sonic Rivals is a side-scrolling racer that has you racing to the finish on a course that features hazards, jumps, and shortcuts. While you and your opponent are basically evenly matched, the differentiator during a race comes in the form of the power-ups you can collect and use to slow your opponent down or speed yourself up. You'll be able to use and collect one of seven power-ups: fire, ice, mine, illusion, wind, ring magnet, and star. All but the star power-up have offensive and defensive uses, depending on when you use them. For example, the fire power-up fires a bolt at your opponent if he is in front of you or creates a shield around you if he is behind you. The star power-up is your character's signature move and can be used in a variety of ways, depending on your character. For example, Sonic has a sonic boom that offers a mighty speed burst and takes out anything in front of him.

Your reflexes are another big factor because you'll be able to attack your opponent through careful timing and get short speed bursts when you come across certain points on the track that prompt you to make an X or circle to get over obstacles with a mighty leap or a speedy dash. The cards you collect will let you equip different outfits and accessories on your racers, marking the first time it's possible for Sonic and the gang to not run in the nude. The action all works pretty well, although battling with an opponent in close quarters can be a little odd because of finicky collisions in the version we played. Hopefully it can be ironed out.

The visuals are a bright and modestly detailed mix of 3D graphics on a 2D plane that move along at zippy pace. Sonic and company look good and animate on par with their console incarnations. The six zones follow the archetypal Sonic themes you might expect. Forest Falls is green and grassy; Coliseum Highway has a ruins feel to it; Sky Park follows an amusement park theme; Crystal Mountains is an ice stage; Death Yard is an industrial junkyard; and finally, Meteor Base lets you roll through a space station. Each zone features courses that incorporate all the expected Sonic bases, such as crazy loops, jumps, and blinding speed. The game's camera handles the action pretty well, although it hits a few odd angles at certain points. The frame rate is about as good, with the action moving smoothly most of the time but hitching up occasionally.

A total of seven power-ups will help Sonic through his high-speed adventures.
A total of seven power-ups will help Sonic through his high-speed adventures.

The audio is in line with modern Sonic games. You'll get some sound samples from the gang as they mouth off to each other and to Eggman in the story sequences between runs and during the races. The game will also feature a helping of sound effects that include the familiar effects for rings and power-ups you'll collect, as well as new effects. The music we've heard so far covers the familiar Sonic butt-rock territory that's been central to his adventures lately. There are also some funky Sonic Rush-inspired tunes tossed into the mix that are pretty catchy.

Based on what we played, Sonic Rivals is shaping up to be a breezy racer that offers some simple fun on the PSP. The card-collecting feature gives the game some legs because it will take you a good chunk of time to collect them all. The gameplay is pretty solid, although, as we noted, a bit quirky in places. Our only big gripe is that the game's roster is pretty thin, even if you count the unlockable racer. If you're a Sonic fan or just hankering for a pick-up-and-play racer, you'll want to keep an eye out for Sonic Rivals when the game hits next month.

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