by MARTY DEMAREST & r & & r & Sonic Riders & r & Rated Everyone; Wii, Playstation 2 & r & 4 Stars & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he racetrack in front of me looks like a road for only a few feet -- a few feet of digital pavement repeating a drab gray made drabber by gray streaks of rain falling down. Then the road fractures into an array of routes, winding up, down and around the main racetrack. Rails spiral into the night sky like corkscrew shortcuts. A wall peels away from the floor, turning into a vertical track of its own. Further ahead the path runs sharply upwards, climbing and curling around to hang like a ceiling overhead.
Neon signs and large video monitors proclaim and conceal the alternate paths through the crazy-straw racetrack. Whether grinding along a rail, soaring through hoops in the sky or flipping a U-turn on gravity, if I have the skill to take a shortcut, it pulls me faster, further ahead, moving me through the game like chutes and ladders, keeping the path from becoming predictable. Each of the racetracks in Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity is designed like a puzzle-laden pinball machine, with the famous hedgehog Sonic, or one of his pals (or rivals) playing the part of the ball, zinging along paths that open up, branch out and occasionally score big.
Not all of the shortcuts and secret routes are accessible to every character. The game's various racers, who are drawn from the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise, use individual skills (good cornering, speedy, etc.) in combination with various hoverboards, bikes and vehicles, allowing them a much wider range of abilities than the sneakers-only Sonic possessed. Despite the game's title, however, none of the racing machines is gravity-free. The anti-gravity effects in Zero Gravity are tricks, but effective ones. Many of them are classic Sonic loop-de-loops, during which the game zips the character around the screen automatically. Otherwise, the racing character is almost always upright, even when racing on what was once the ceiling, where the rain falls up.
THE GOOD: It only took a few laps to get used to Zero Gravity's use of the Wii's motion-sensitive remote. Racing is accomplished by tilting the controller forward or backward to speed up or slow down, dipping it right and left for those respective turns. Combined with using my thumb on the controller's standard directional-pad, I was able to corner the racetracks gracefully, and even fly through the air with greater precision than I had when steering arrows in the PS3's Heavenly Sword and riding dragons in Lair.
THE BAD: Even with dual cheesy cartoon storylines, Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity is the sort of fun, fast and smart game that both the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 could use, but it is published for the Wii and the (seven years older) PlayStation 2. I suspect the reason is purely graphical. While there are charming flourishes -- a big victory finger flashing behind a racer, a sassy snap of tail -- this game looks shaggy by state-of-the-art standards. Characters are animated with a blurry haze to disguise their choppy actions, often moving from one position to another with a brutal jump of nothing in between.
THE BOTTOM LINE: A smart and devious cartoon racer, Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity takes the action beyond the racetrack with tangled paths, blinding speed and twisted racing powers.