Sonic the Hedgehog Preview

Poor old Sonic. He’s had a tough time over the past few years, both critically, and storyline-wise. Many will remember their initial amazement when they played Sonic Adventure for the first time, and the incredible rush they got from guiding this new, sleeker looking Sonic around beautifully recreated worlds at insane speeds on SEGA’s all-powerful (and sorely missed) Dreamcast. Those same fans will also probably remember feeling a little disappointed over the years that followed, as Sonic Adventure 2 seemed to lose it’s way slightly (although it was by no means a bad game), and the less said about Sonic Heroes, and Shadow the Hedgehog, the better. Somewhere, somehow, something went wrong for Sonic, and the games haven’t been the same ever since.

However, it seems that someone at SEGA has had a brainwave, in a meeting that may or may not have gone a little like this :

“Why don’t people like Sonic anymore?” Naka-san asked.

“I don’t know, maybe it’s because he’s blue?” said SEGA employee no.1. “But, our market research shows that maybe it’s because we keep creating rubbish characters (bar Big the Cat), tacking on annoying gimmicks and committing the ultimate blaspheme in giving Shadow a gun.”

“Maybe you’re right!” Came the reply.

And so, the developers set to work taking Sonic back to his roots, where speed and reactions were the order of the day, as opposed to glitches and guns. Sounds good to us.

Sonic turns from the sunset in his new game.

With this in mind, it was with a new level of excitement that we picked up the 360 pad to try out the latest Sonic adventure for ourselves. The game’s plot would appear to be in the same mould as the first Sonic Adventure title, seeing our hero taking on Dr.Robotnik across an epic storyline involving a Princess, a fat Doctor with a gravity defying moustache, and a hedgehog who can drive a car. SEGA had promised us that for Sonic’s 15 birthday game, we’d get a spectacular story, and they’ve certainly not disappointed.

In the city of Soleanna, there is a Princess who holds a magical jewel called the “Flames of Disaster”, which would appear to either a Chaos Emerald, or be in someway linked to the Chaos Emeralds. As soon as Dr.Robotnik learns this, he swoops down and kidnaps the Princess, hoping to finally lay his hands on the Emerald’s ultimate power. Somehow, Sonic learns of this tragedy, and sets off to rescue the Princess and stop Dr.Robotnik from ever reaching the Chaos Emerald. If only things could be so simple…

As in Sonic Adventure 2, there is a newcomer on the scene in the form of Silver the Hedgehog, a time travelling, kind of Uri Geller-light character, who can manipulate objects with the use of his mind (expect to see plenty of Matrix-style “stopping the bullets mid air”). For some reason, Silver thinks that Sonic is actually something known only as the “Iblis Trigger”, a key to a great disaster that will lead to the deaths of thousands of people, unless Silver can somehow prevent it by stopping Sonic.

Expect plenty of mind-bending fun with Silver the Hedgehog

So, the epic, twisting plot is all present and correct, but what about the gameplay? As mentioned earlier, Sonic The Hedgehog seems to borrow heavily from Sonic Adventure in both the structure of the game, and the exotic locales you’ll visit. Fans of the series will be pleased to know that adventure stages are back, which see our hero taking a break from running from A to B as fast as possible, as instead, we get to take him around a city and explore. These were a welcome addition to Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast, and provided a much-needed break in the pace. We only hope that they are as well executed on the 360 version.

The level we played saw Sonic at the beginning of a huge canyon, which almost seem to go on forever, with no fogging as far as the eye could see (literally). Everything in the demo has been beautifully rendered in next-gen graphics, and it’s certainly not hard to tell that Sonic Team have spent a long time making the most of the 360’s graphical power. Sonic himself has also been through a makeover for his next-gen debut, and now resembles a human much more closely than before, thanks to his extra long arms and legs.

Sonic’s controls and moves follow the same pattern as previous games, and all the staples of the series are still here, including the homing attack, and the light-speed dash, which lets Sonic rush along a trail of rings, helping him to cross otherwise impossible gaps. New to Sonic’s repertoire is a sliding kick attack, which can be used to destroy crates, or certain enemies.

These “wind paths” work in a similar way to grinding rails.

One of the main features SEGA have been promoting for the new Sonic game is the integration of Havok physics, to try and give the game more of a real world feel. However, we’re disappointed to say that in the level we played, the physics do absolutely nothing to help the level of immersion. Rather than use the physics to help make the levels feel more real, or include some sort of destructible scenery, Sonic Team appear to have just used it as pure eye candy. Scattered randomly throughout the level are several large piles of bricks, which serve no purpose at all other than to collapse in a realistic matter when you attack them. There are also a few large boulders in one of the paths that will roll realistically when you run into them. Impressive, eh? To make matters worse, in the current build, whenever the 360 has to process any physics, the frame rate begins to crawl to halt, which is a BIG no-no in a Sonic title. You can’t have slowdown in a game that’s focused on speed.

Also scattered throughout the level are rainbow circles which serve as hints, however, these have also been poorly placed, as one “helpful” reminder we found tells the player to “press X when near some rings to do a light-speed dash”. So, doing as we’re told, we pressed X, and promptly rolled off the cliff. If SEGA can’t get context sensitive controls right, then maybe they shouldn’t try it at all, and put different moves on different buttons. Homing attacks are also still as hit-and-miss as ever.

Watch as they realistically roll! Realistically!!

However, all of these complaints are minor compared to the main problem we found – the overall level design really doesn’t seem to be up to the same standard as the other titles. Although there are many separate paths through the level, none of them really seem defined enough for it to be noticeable, and when you do eventually reach the end of the level, it’ll feel more like a product of trial and error than an accomplishment. In a game as fast as a Sonic title, pin-point controls aren’t just a luxury, they’re a necessity. However, at the moment, controlling Sonic is about as accurate as a pensioner on ice. Although the build we played was apparently an E3 version, Sonic is incredibly unresponsive. If you push left while you’re running, sometimes he’ll turn 90 degrees and fly straight off a cliff, and other times he’ll just ignore you and continue running in a straight line. Compared to this, Sonic Heroes is perfection. The camera is also one of the worst we have ever come across in a game. When you’re under fire from enemies, and the camera is facing the wrong way, you need to be able to reposition it quickly. However, at the moment, when you press the right, or left bumper, the camera rotates so slowly, it’s almost unbelievable. If we were to time it, we reckon you’d almost have enough time to be able to make, drink and pass a cup of tea whilst you’re waiting for the camera to rotate!

Still, somewhere behind all of the negative points, there is a great game dying to get out. The game is choc full of potential, and that’s what makes it so frustrating that it’s been so poorly executed.

Currently, the game feels nothing like the return to the series’ roots that we had been promised. Where were the realistic physics in the original title? There were none – and that’s because Sonic doesn’t need them. It just needs good controls, a smooth frame rate, and a responsive camera, which is exactly what this demo is lacking. Luckily, there is still time. It’s been a while since E3, and the game has had plenty of time to progress behind closed doors. No-one here wants to see this game fail, as it really could end up being the Sonic Adventure 3 we all want, complete with an epic storyline (something a certain plumber could take note of), a varied set of characters, and some stunning next generation graphics. At the moment, though, it has to be said that the game is very much style over substance, and it certainly has a very long way to go.

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