Sunday, 17 October 2010

Review: Sonic 4: Episode 1 (PS3/PSN)

Sonic’s had a tough time as of late. It’s been nearly fifteen years since his name was last synonymous with quality gaming, a quality that appeared to diminish as soon as he and his various cohorts made the jump to 3D. It’s not just that however, subsequent 2D instalments have also missed the mark, and the point by favouring speed and automation over skilled platforming action. With Sonic 4 Sega is looking to rectify this by delivering a title that not only promises to play like the Sonics of old, but also to look like them as well. But does it succeed?

Right from the outset Sonic 4 wears its heritage on its sleeves. From the chequered scenery of the Splash Hill Zone, to the low-fi, synth-inspired soundtrack throughout (by Sonic Team’s Jun Senoue), every part of the game wants to be one of those 16bit Megadrive originals. And for all Sega’s efforts it largely achieves that, minus a few unnecessary slips along the way, and perhaps a tendency to stick a little too closely in trying to remake past titles instead of delivering something new.

What you’ll find in Sonic 4 is what can only be described as classically styled Sonic action. You’ll be running and jumping across various platforms, speeding through loop-de-loops and corkscrew paths, whilst being propelled into the air via star-printed springs, and bouncing on enemies to release your fluffy comrades locked inside. There’s no embarrassing voice acting, no wannabe superstar, quasi-metal music, and no additional playable characters. Although the latter was never a bad thing in the MD Sonics.

Power-ups make their trademark return. And for Sonic 4 Sega have simply gone back to the basics here as well; the bubble shield, speed shoes, and invisibility are the only ones to be included. And each one looks, and acts very much like it did all those years ago, bar a few modern changes of course. These are activated by jumping onto the various monitors located throughout each of the game’s four main stages, and other than giving you the aforementioned abilities, you can also find ones which give you ten rings instead. Again, exactly like the old Sonic games.

In terms of moves the spin dash introduced in Sonic 4 remains, though slower in execution than before, and perhaps a little less useful this time around. And this is joined by a homing attack, which works pretty much exactly as it did in Sonic Unleashed. What’s nice is that Sega haven’t tampered too much with the basics here; the homing attack works really well with the standard Sonic mechanics and level designs, and although these have been heavily altered, the inclusion of a new move actually keeps things fresh rather than feeling broken.

There are some cool parts throughout the game which sees Sonic, after speeding through a series of tunnels and loops, being catapulted into the air before allowing you to use the homing attack to bounce off a line of enemies, thus going down a different path in the stage than you normally would. In fact, there are quite a few different routes to take through each zone in Sonic 4. Some simply take you down Sonic Advance-inspired speed runs through a wealth of gorgeous scenery, whilst others find you carefully navigating a maze of platforms, bouncing off more enemies before both paths converge back onto the main route.

It’s things like these which show how accomplished some parts of the level design is in Sonic 4, and are clearly touching lightly upon aspects which later played a large part in Sonic 3, and Sonic & Knuckles. Admittedly, not all of these ideas work as expected, or anywhere near as well as they should. A few areas in the later parts of the game are filled with bottomless chasms, and cheap traps leading to a quick death. These often feel like remnants from the Sonic Advance games, and at times cast a real shadow over the splendid work Sonic Team have done with much of the game.

Another area in which Sonic Team (and Dimps) seems to have missed the mark is with regards to the game’s physics, and handling of Sonic himself. And they seem to have missed this by some margin.

One of the main complaints about Sonic Rush, and the recent 3D games, was that Sonic was just too fast, so much so that you often collided with enemies, and flew off platform edges before you knew that they were coming. Now, while this has indeed been addressed in Sonic 4, the developers have instead gone the opposite way, balancing out a lower top speed with really slow, and somewhat sluggish acceleration. Sonic 4 is slower (though only slightly) and less responsive that any of the 16bit titles in this regard

Annoyingly, the game was supposed to bring back the feeling of building up momentum and reaching top speed through cleverly finding that ‘perfect path’ through each level. However, the physics in Sonic 4 don’t seem to conform to gravity, instead they feel rather floaty and pretty heavy at the same time. It is possible for Sonic to walk up walls, lose speed whilst moving downhill. Plus, on top of that, it takes a good few seconds for him to get going fast enough for the game to begin to feel responsive.

On the upside, once you get used to this you’ll scarcely find that such issues break the game, let alone appear frequently. Although later parts require you to be able to move and respond faster, and without delay, it is still possible to manage with the current mechanics without causing too much in the way of frustration. Saying that Sonic Team definitely needs to address these concerns if they are to really make an exceptional, or even great Sonic game.

Still, I found my self regularly enjoying large parts of the game as a whole, sometimes loving them regardless of the issues present. It was also rather nice to see some solid, and often well thought out platforming sections throughout the game, balancing out the fast/slow dynamic the originals were known for. The odd, out of place puzzle in the Labyrinth Zone notwithstanding, much of the level design is firmly crafted mix of action and exploration, with a few more frequent bouts of high-speed excitement to differentiate things.

Laid out for all to see, Sonic 4 is played across four distinct zones, each with three main acts, and a final boss act, in which the player is faced with another battle against Dr Robotnik, and one of his Egg Mobile contraptions. The entire game is one retro-styled remix of the first two games, with elements from 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, combined with some original ideas and a lovely HD graphical overhaul.

The boss battles in particular are classic ones lifted from past games, whilst each being given an unexpected twist at the end. Sometimes these are awesome to fight against (the first boss), while at other times they are long and drawn out for far too long (the final encounter against all of the game’s bosses, and then a remake of Sonic 2’s end boss), which serve to annoy rather than to invoke fond memories of the old games Sega are trying to recreate.

Visually, Sonic 4 looks astounding at times. The unique mix of pre-rendered 2D sprites and polygon-based enemies and characters looks fantastic, and totally in keeping with the series trademark look. If you’ve ever wanted to see just what a HD-remix of Sonic 1 or 2 would look like, then Sonic 4 delivers just that. On a slight downer, every one of the game’s four stages are pretty much direct remakes of levels found in the first two 16bit Sonic’s. And whilst it is nice to them lavishly recreated in HD here, this is supposed to be Sonic 4, and not New Sonic The Hedgehog. But even then, I quite like the obvious homage.

One thing that does stick out for the worse is that Sonic’s running animation is also a little off and out of time with how fast he appears to be going. Making the change between walking, running, and full, flat-out, leg-rolling sprint never looks particularly comfortable. It’s fluid for sure, but also a little disjointed. However, the rest of the game is positively beautiful, and is exactly how I’d expected a current-gen 2D Sonic game to look like.

I have no qualms about Sonic’s brand new look. Overhauled using textured, anti-aliasd geometry was definitely the right choice - although I would’ve loved to see a totally sprite-based presentation (it’s about 95% at the moment) - his design echo’s what I would describe as a natural continuation of his look based on unused Knuckles Chaotix sprites, along with being jazzed up to fit in with how the brand is currently portrayed.

The music, made using low-fi synthesiser samples, sounds tonally very similar to that of the classic 16bit games. Whilst lacking the same range, the compositions themselves are perfectly in fitting with the game’s stages, and the retro-styled nature of the whole production. The title screen, Splash Hill Zone, and the first act of Mad Gear Zone are by far the best Sonic 4 has to offer.

You'll also be pleased to know that most of the sound effects have been taken from past games - the 16bit titles in particular, although some Sonic Adventure samples have been used for the menu screens throughout the game. Like with the music and the style of the graphics, the combination of seemlessly integrating old effects with ones taken from modern Sonic games is a great way of keeping that 'old-school' feeling intact without making it seem dated.

Sonic 4 is definitely a homage release in the vain of New Super Mario Bros, and a partial remake of Sonic’s 1&2, rather than an all out sequel to Sonic & Knuckles. Although that is hardly a bad thing considering it could have turned out so much worse.

I’m sure plenty of fans will moan about the change of art style surrounding Sonic himself, the obvious re-tread of various stages from the first two games, and the fact that the handling and physics aren’t quite as they should be. But that said, we all have our own ideas about just what Sonic 4 should be like, and what we have here is a rushed middle-ground of sorts; an often flawed, occasionally messy, but also sometimes great first attempt at crafting a modern day Sonic classic.

Sega’s latest is a solid mix of combining the old and the new, lacking in originality, or any real inspiration. But at the same time finding its feet after being absent for the past fifteen years, and in places doing a reasonably good job at that too. All things considered, and a few problems aside, with some small improvements and a more unique identity, then Sonic 4 may just turn into the true sequel we’ve all been waiting for. And that is all anyone, fans and new folk alike could really ask for. Though sadly, we’re not quite there yet.


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