It's deceptive in more ways than one, and that's a good thing. (Oh, and it does have more than five tracks.)
Viewing a few trailers made me curious, but I was wondering about "Shadow the Hedgehog" also, and we all know how great that game was. (Sarcasm doesn't always translate well to text, so I'd like to say for the record that not only do I not own "Shadow the Hedgehog," but I never will. Except, perhaps, if I take up skeet shooting. Then I may buy it.) It wasn't till I received a demo and played "Sonic Riders" on my own that I decided I'd purchase it.
It hasn't disappointed me yet. "Sonic Riders" came out today, and I've given it a somewhat thorough playing, although there's too many unlockables for me to consider it complete. At first, I was concerned that the difficulty level would be far too low, and that I'd never care enough to unlock everything; I started in "Story Mode" and breezed through the first two races. Upon reaching the third, I felt a little challenged, and from then on the game ramped up the difficulty level at a respectable pace. It was a welcome surprise, and the storyline wasn't so bad, either.
Since the days of "Astal" and "Grandia," dubbed voice acting has come a long way. Granted, there are many titles which suffer from an atrocious cast to this day, but "Sonic Riders" is a marked improvement over the "Sonic Adventure" games. Many Sonic fans lament how SEGA essentially shafted Ryan Drummond, the former Sonic the Hedgehog voice actor, but he was not the best man for the job. His replacement is clearly superior, and that goes for the rest of the characters, too. They are now at least on par with your average Saturday morning cartoon, which means they're tolerable at worst, and perfectly acceptable at best. They don't manage to sell the storyline's most dramatic moments convincingly, but they'll deliver them well enough to satiate the fans of the dubbed "Sonic X" series. (As for the purists who can't stand anything other than the original Japanese voices, the cutscenes can always be skipped.)
This makes the aforementioned "Story Mode" much more enjoyable. The cutscenes don't grate on you, and for a Sonic game (platformer or no), it's a fine yarn. It can't hope to compare to, say, RPGs, but as far as racing games go, it's decent. Everything fits into the Sonic universe perfectly, and the Babylonians add a somewhat intriguing dimension to Sonic's world (through the introduction of another culture to complement the Echidnas'). Graphically, the rendered cutscenes themselves are gorgeous, going so far as to detail the stitches in Sonic's gloves. If this is a hint of what we're going to see in "Phantasy Star Universe" and the upcoming rebirth of the Sonic platforming series on the PS3 and XB360, sign me back up to the SonicTeam fandom.
Now, to one of the most important parts: The gameplay. "Sonic Riders" is fast. At times, it's so fast that you'll feel you've completely lost control of yourself, and this is where it reaches love-it-or-hate-it status. Do you think that Sonic games should be recklessly speedy, where you feel like you can barely hold on and steer as you rocket along at inhuman speeds? If so, you'll love this game. Are you more into racing titles where you can control yourself so tightly that you could practically pull off a 360 turn around a dime? You won't like "Sonic Riders" if that's the case, but you probably haven't enjoyed any Sonic platformers either.
"Sonic Riders" does not control like a vehicular racing title and it isn't supposed to. It doesn't feel like you're driving Mack Trucks on legs, either (a la "Sonic R"). It took several hours of gaming for me to get into it, and it does in fact remind me of why I fell in love with Sonic platformers originally: It's all about the speed. Over time, you'll unlock more boards and greatly increase your options (in terms of cornering precision, boost power, et cetera), but you won't be gimped till then. You will learn how to play the game on average boards and once you've done that, you'll master it with the fruits of your labor (namely, the new Gears you buy).
This will all be done to one of the finest techno soundtracks a Sonic title has ever been played to. Gone are the ridiculous and embarrassing lyrical pieces in "Sonic Heroes" and "Sonic R" (granted, some were tolerable, but none were remarkable). They've been replaced with techno that, while it isn't the best I've ever heard, it fits in with the game's style perfectly. The tracks are a little repetitive but it's not too bad, and some of them are so listenable that I wouldn't mind owning the soundtrack myself. If I had to criticize any part of the audio package, I'd say that the announcer could go, but she's not the most annoying one I've ever dealt with ("Dance Dance Revolution" trumps it). The racers' quips don't come out every single time they do something special, and not only do I appreciate that, but I wish other game designers would take it as a smart piece of advice.
The multiplayer modes boast some interesting concepts, such as sharing an Air Tank (the fuel equivalent featured in "Sonic Riders") and a form of "Capture the Flag" (where you steal a Chaos Emerald from other racers and try to make it to the end of the race with it). They're entertaining, and feature the same fast-paced gameplay that the main mode does. This game may not be able to dethrone "Mario Kart: Double Dash!!", but it's nonetheless a title worthy of some multiplayer attention.
"Sonic Riders" is a game that should definitely be given a chance. If you're a Sonic fan, I would be incredibly surprised if you did not enjoy it. It features cutscenes that are at least on par with the "Sonic Adventure" titles and everyone's in character, outside of how the gameplay itself is. If you're a fan of other, similar games like SSX, "F-Zero," "Wipeout," and so on, so forth, you're due to at least check it out.
Rent this first if you must, but like most Sonic titles, it's probably going to be a challenge to find it anywhere. Seek it out if you're even remotely curious. You may be pleasantly surprised.