Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sonic Rivals (video game)

Platform: PSP
Developers: Backbone Entertainment
Genre: Racing
ESRB Rating: E
Release Date: November 24th, 2006

No kidding? Sonic has a game on the PSP? Who woulda thunk it? Anyone with a firing synapse, actually. It's not like Sonic has missed a console since Sega went third party. So here we are with his first PSP outing. Is it any good?

First off, I'm actually kind of surprised it took so long for Sega to put out a game like this. Rivals is less "action platformer" and more a racing game with platforming elements. It echoes some of the familiar bits of gameplay from the 2D classics filtered through a race to the finish line. Seems like a no brainer, dunnit? I mean, hell, Sega had done the concept before with multiplayer of the classic Sonics, making it surprising they hadn't tried a full game of it before.

So, you know, Eggman's up to his dirty tricks again. Apparently he went out and bought himself a spiffy new camera at Best Buy or whatever store he hasn't been thrown out of yet. Naturally the first thing he's going to do is piss off his nemesis with it. Only, gasp, this camera turns whatever it takes a picture of into a little card, including Amy and Tails. Now, Sonic doesn't think this is really the way his friends should be treated, so it's time to go beat up fat people again. But then, a twist; now a bunch of Sonic wannabe's plus Knuckles are after him too, so naturally the way to settle this is by racing.

The term "team-up" is apparently lost on all of them.

The story's alright for what it is. It's really just an excuse to get four characters to race one another. It kind of makes everyone look pretty dumb though. I mean, they're all after a fat dude with a hilarious mustache. A couple of them are friends or at least on decent terms. Shouldn't they be helping each other, or at least not getting in each others way? Shouldn't they at least try to have a conversation before deciding "ha ha, I'm totally faster than you, I'll catch him first"? Apparently this doesn't occur to them until the rotund doctor decides he's going to turn the planet into a card.

I guess in Sonics world, love interests, best friends and huge gems being turned into trading cards isn't reason enough to work together. Nope, racing is clearly the superior option. It's all fun and games until somebody turns the planet into a card. If you ask me their priorities are a little screwed up.

Music and sound fare alright. None of it's really spectacular, but the actual stage music is pretty nice. There are also some sound clips, but they're not a big deal; it's a shock to get a voice clip with more than one word. At the very least, Tails is a card for most of the game, so I don't have to worry about wanting to strangle him as previously. The graphics are decent, but ultimately far from noteworthy.

The gameplay's technically sound, but while the basics work out, the other stuff does it's best to sink it. For one thing, this games a rubber band racer. No matter what you do, no matter how well you play, that sum bitch is going to catch up to you and kick you in the shins. Whoever is in second place suddenly becomes faster than the guy in first, so even if you play perfectly chances are good he's going to catch up.

There are power-ups to help keep them from passing you, but they don't always help. I really hate this kind of crap because it just takes skill out of the equation. When this sort of thing is done, it's usually done under the guise of keeping the challenge up or the game fair, but it's an artificial fix that actually makes things worse. I hate it when racing games do it, so you can imagine how much I cared for it here.

The level design this go around is pretty respectable. They usually have three different paths to go by - top, middle and lowest - similar to the classics, only streamlined for racing. This only succeeds in making them less interesting, but for racing tracks, they're not horrible. A bonus is that bottomless pits are less of a hassle here; the only real penalty for falling in one is losing a couple seconds while you respawn, a far cry from the pain they usually are.

Here's where the trouble really starts. You've got four playable characters - including Silver, a character whom Sonic '06 was in the process of ensuring we probably won't see again - each with their own story. But aside from a signature power-up-triggered move, that's the only thing different about them. They all play exactly the same, with no strengths or weaknesses among them. It's a problem the franchise had for a while, in that the developers never seemed to understand that having multiple playable characters meant nothing if they played exactly the same.

Compounding the problem is that the levels are exactly the same for each of them, with no variations whatsoever. If you want to play through all four storylines, you essentially have to play through the game four times, through the exact same levels in the exact same order. Since the levels aren't interesting enough to be worth replaying much, this means you're going to get bored around when you finish your second run through with another character.

There isn't the now-traditional last story in this game either, which means the only incentive for completing all four is to play as Metal Sonic. He doesn't even have his own story, so it's not really much of a prize. The game tries to add replay value through collectible cards, but it doesn't quite get the job done, since the game itself gives little reason to want to play more to get them all. There are challenge modes for each stage as well, but it's difficult enough just to force your way through the six levels four times for each story, so it's not exactly an attractive option. Add in an utterly worthless Grand Prix mode - to unlock a cup, you literally have to complete every single challenge for a level - and you have a game that tries to add replay value but utterly fails.

The game is enjoyable for a bit though. The first playthrough is at least mildly entertaining. I get the feeling this game would have been more enjoyable if it were a more traditional Sonic platformer, however. The sixth and final level, you race against time instead of a "rival", so it feels more like a regular Sonic stage. The time limit is relatively strict, but still, it feels different and a bit more enjoyable. What could have been.

The Score: 6 out of 10

In all, there's about an afternoons worth of fun here, but that's about it. You're really best served just playing it for Sonic story and then putting it down, because you'll have seen most of the game. It may be worth a rental. I just wouldn't recommend buying it unless you found it for dirt cheap.

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