When I was learning to snowboard, I couldn't turn left. In my quest for frugality, I refused to pay for lessons the first time I took to the mountain. I quickly learnt that using the front edge of my board was not as easy as I thought it would be, and every time I tried to turn left I took a trip to the ground. Like Derek Zoolander, I was forced to continually turn right in order to face the direction in which I wanted to go, and this was the cause of much Mickey-taking amongst my friends. The three days it took me to learn how to use my front edge were incredibly frustrating and painful; an experience I was reminded of while playing Sonic Free Riders.
In fact, SEGA's Kinect offering is even more infuriating than my misadventures on the mountain. At least there I could turn right. In Sonic Free Riders, moving in either direction is a constant struggle, thanks to one of the most unresponsive control schemes in recent memory. Leaning to steer your imaginary hover-board simply doesn't work. Sonic will flirt with the barriers constantly during a race, only dragging himself away from them during straight sections of track. Even the most dramatic of leaning (to the extent that you're nearly falling over) fails to bring your racer back on course, meaning the only option is to wait for the course to straighten itself out before you can build your speed up again.
A delay between your real life actions and on-screen representations only adds to the problems. Whether you're collecting rings, jumping between grind rails or preparing to launch yourself off a ramp, you'll need to react quickly. This isn't a problem in itself - it's not hard to move your body in time to whatever's happening on screen, and it's something we're conditioned to do as gamers. The problem is that the game refuses to translate your movements in time, meaning you'll miss those rings, fall off that rail, and fail miserably in making that jump. Sonic Free Riders is an experience defined by these frustrations.
I've jumped straight into the technical inadequacies of the game without taking the time to set the scene, so let's back up for a moment. Sonic Free Riders follows the second EX World Grand Prix, which Dr Eggman has organised in order to mask some kind of nefarious scheme. Racing on anti-gravity boards known simply as Gear, Sonic and chums split into four race teams in order to take part in the competition. The start of the game presents a choice between Team Heroes - comprised of Sonic, Tails and Knucles - and Team Babylon - with Jet the hawk, Wave the Swallow and Storm the albatross. Between each event, the characters throw banter about in embarrassing cutscenes, advancing a throwaway story that eventually brings Eggman's evil plan to light. Later on in the game, the Rose and Dark teams become available too, but you'll need the patience of a saint to play enough of the game to unlock them.
The main Grand Prix mode is split into several challenge-based categories. These range from standard races and trick runs, to events that see you maintaining high speeds like Keanu Reeves in an out-of-control bus. The variety is certainly welcome, but each game mode suffers from the same problem outlined at the start of this review: a fatally broken control scheme. Your bog standard races are perhaps the least distressing facet of the game, purely for the Mario Kart-esque power ups dotted about the track. Missiles can be hurled like footballs and fizzy drinks can be shaken to activate speed boosts. You can boost without the aid of items, too. Lift a foot off your imaginary board and you can give yourself a burst of speed by pushing the ground beneath you – as you would to move forward on a skateboard. This is one of the few moves in the game that offers any kind of satisfaction, but even so it's a bit hit and miss whether it'll work or not.
The game is also plagued with weird glitches - not graphical abnormalities or broken animations, but fundamentally broken code. During a high speed challenge where I had to keep my speed above 135mph, I crashed into a barrier and lost all momentum. I quite clearly should have failed, but instead, the word 'Congratulations!' appeared on the screen and I was whisked away to the next level. While I wasn't particularly angry (I'd been struggling with the stage for far too long), it's an example of one of many strange problems that surfaced during my time with the game. Similarly, I once finished last in a race, failing to collect any rings and generally weaving about the track like a drunkard; Comically, after crossing the finish line my rank was revealed as an 'S', which clearly shouldn't have happened.
It's a shame, really. The premise of an anti-grav racing game lends itself to the Kinect tech fairly well. Every now and again there's a glimmer of the game that it could have been, a sparkle that manifests itself during multiplayer races. There's clearly potential for a great Kinect take on the Mario Kart formula, but this isn't close to being it (and nor is Joyride, I hasten to add). Free Riders is broken and infuriating, a game that taints the name that Sonic has worked so hard to restore this year.
The two worst games I've played this year have both been on Kinect, and Sonic Free Riders - you might not be surprised to learn - is one of them. Avoid.