17 October 2010

Sonic 4: A Blast From The Past? - by Jamie Mann

      Posted 10/13/10 07:09:00 pm  

In many ways, Sonic's history has often mirrored the wider story of Sega: the early Sonic games took full advantage of the Megadrive's 16-bit power: huge, fast-moving, brightly coloured and varied graphics, an amazing soundtrack, excellent level design and Sonic himself: an oddly coloured cartoon hedgehog with a perfectly judged personality: enthusiastically energetic without being overly cocky or aggressive.  However, the quality of subsequent games saw a steady decline, as Sega added new elements which often interfered with the fast-flowing and smooth gameplay of the original.

But now, Sega has finally listened to the cries of the fans: we don't want guns, we don't want swords, we don't want RPG elements, we don't need more characters and we don't particularly like the 3D environments.  We just want to hurtle around vast 2D levels, bounce off enemies, collect rings and ferret out secret areas.

So, here we are, with Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 (or in this underfunded reviewer's case, the demo thereof).  A game which Sega claims harks back to the 2D platforming fun of the 16-bit era, but spruced up with modern 3D graphics.  Can this really be what we've been looking for?  Let's fire up the Help and see if there's any mention of guns, swords, experience points or Herbert the gymnastic ferret...

Oddly, the first thing you get when you look at the Help section is "The typefaces included herein are solely developed by DynaComware."  Not the most useful bit of Help I've experienced, but if we read on, it turns out that Sonic is apparently a "Champion of Justice", there's just one new special move (a "lock-on" dash) and the screenshot of the bonus level indicates that we're back to Sonic 1's rotating maze.  It really is looking properly old-school.  So let's fire up the game and see what's what.

First impressions are pretty good: the first zone may be called Splash Hill, but you can't fool me: this is Green Hill through and through, from the trees and waterfalls to the enemies and checkered-rock backgrounds.  The graphics are gorgeously bright and colourful and there's some nice touches, such as the fast-moving clouds and the way vegetation rustles and moves when Sonic passes.  This is as close as you can get in 3D to the old 2D sprites.  Though there is a caveat: for some reason best known to the developers, the action has been zoomed in.  On the Megadrive, Sonic was 32 pixels high, or 1/7th the height of the screen.  In Sonic 4, he's 1/5th the height of the screen, significantly reducing vertical visibility.  Admittedly, anyone playing on a modern widescreen displays will have good horizontal visibility, but the game does feel a bit too zoomed in.

In any case, let's get Sonic (in all of his modern, lanky-limbed glory) moving.  And this is where things go a bit pear-shaped: his acceleration curve is more like a truck than a motorbike. Sure, his top speed is decent, but it takes a noticable amount of time to get there - and in the meantime, it looks like he's skating, rather than running.  This ain't quite right...

Things are also a little bit odd when it comes to the level design.  For starters, there's nothing hidden in the trees: no TVs to knock down or springs to bounce on.  Also, there doesn't seem to be many secrets: there's no rooms hidden behind destructible walls, for example.  Instead, the emphasis seems to be on areas which can only be accessed via use of the new lock-on system - though trying to get the timing right across multiple springs is distinctly tricky: it took me a good twenty tries to complete one set piece: you have to bounce straight up, lock onto an angled spring and then hurtle across the sky at the right angle to be able to hit the next vertical spring while maintaining enough horizontal momentum to make it to the fourth spring and bounce straight up.  And after all that, it turned out to be just another route with no bonus items.  Ack.

Something else which is notable about the level design is that while there's still multiple routes, it feels like backtracking and exploring is actively discouraged, with deep chasms, S-bends and one-way accelerators pushing you ever right-wards.  In one pass, I discovered a new route at the top of the map, complete with a high-speed dash which takes you through a brick-filled tunnel - but having failed to make a bounce part-way through, the only way to get back to the start of the route would be to quit the game and start from the beginning again!

Having made it through to the end of the zone with over 200 coins, I then got to experience... a nag screen.  This is a deliberately short demo: you just get the first level and even the bonus zone has been stripped off.  As a result, I've no idea how the "new" bonus zone compares to the original.

Overall, Sonic 4 feels more like a modernised remake of Sonic 1, rather than a new game.  And judged on that basis, it feels good, not great: having booted up the original (or at least the XBLA emulated version), it's a more enjoyable experience with its sharper controls and more free-form level design.  Magazine reviews seem to agree - the scores I've seen to date are generally around 80%.  Though conversely, Xbox gamers seem to disagree: with nearly 2000 votes on the marketplace, it's hovering around the 90% mark.  It'd be interesting to find out how many have actually played one of the original Sonic games in the last decade...

In some ways, I feel sorry for Sega: after years of being damned for changing Sonic's gameplay, I'm now giving them faint praise for producing something which is almost - but not quite - identical to the games of yore.  But that's perhaps the point: after twenty years, it's plain that we don't want game-changing gimmicks, but on the other hand, we're also looking for more than a simplified remake.  With odd things like Sonic's inertia and the font-type declaration making it through QA, you have to wonder if Sega's heart is really in this...

Samuel Fiunte Matarredona
14 Oct 2010 at 4:57 am PST

No comments:

Post a Comment