Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Game Review: Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I

Sonic 4: Episode I is a great, yet not spectacular sequel, 16 years overdue that should appeal enough to new and old fans alike.

Sonic 4: Episode I was released back in October 2010 on multiple platforms including the Xbox 360 Live Arcade, Nintendo Wii, and the Playstation 3. It’s considered the direct sequel so “Sonic 3 and Knuckles” the two games released in 1994 on the Sega Mega Drive and Genesis, marking a sixteen year gap between the two sets of games.

Now unless you’ve been living under a rock chances are high that you know that many MANY Sonic games have been released in the sixteen years between these games. But a lot of fans of the Sonic games lost interest and disliked the direction that Sonic took after the release of the classic Sonic titles. Sonic 3D back in 1996 was received poorly, and while Sonic Adventure, which was released on the Sega Dreamcast in 1998, was received quite well, a lot of the older fans didn’t like the change in style that Sega were adamant on keeping. The newer Sonic titles were in full 3D and still concentrate on his speed but in the 3D environment the controls are very poor when in relation to the speed they were setting. Sonic Adventure 2 was then released three years later in 2001 and was also relatively well received by newer fans, but disliked by fans of old. The gameplay was changing even more with the release of Sonic Heroes in 2003 on the Nintendo Dreamcast, Xbox and Playstation 2, with the multiplayer aspects and the idea that you control more than one character at a time, but once again the game was well received by newer fans, and disliked by the classic fans.

There has been a big debate about the Sonic series since 1994 as you can tell. The reception of most games were mixed to positive by newer fans but mixed to negative by older fans. Sega wanted to keep up with the times and move forward with a 3D hungry video gaming world. They had mixed results doing this. But the all time low for Sonic was the release of “Sonic the Hedgehog” in 2006, released on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. This move was bold as Sega were attempting to use the “Sonic the Hedgehog” title again rather than move to spinoff titles. It was seen as a series redesign and an attempt to appeal to both new and old fans alike. The game was received extremely negatively, by both new and old fans for its poor controls and its attempt to make the plot deeper with an awful storyline. It’s to some considered one of the worst games ever made. After this release a lot of fans really started to turn on the Sonic series, as it had been such a long time since a truly great Sonic game was released. Despite the Sonic Adventure series receiving decent reviews, there was no true gem in the Sonic series since the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis days. They then released Sonic Unleashed in 2008 on the Playstation 2 and 3, the Wii and the Xbox 360. It merged some new gameplay with some old school game 2D gameplay from the 16-bit era and the game was warmly received by both sets of fans.

Then, one year later, it was revealed that Sega were to finally make a game directly targeted to appeal to old school games. The game would be fully 2D and would bring the gameplay back to its older days. The music would be reminiscent of the music in the older games and some of the enemies from these games would make returns. It was also decided that the only character available in the game would be Sonic the Hedgehog himself. The game, once again quite boldly, was to be called Sonic the Hedgehog 4. A lot of fans immediately thought back to “Sonic the Hedgehog” back in 2006, a move that was a failure to bring back some of the old fans. Was labelling this new game “Sonic 4” to be a success, or a failure?

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I brings the plot back to 1994 and take place straight after the events of “Sonic 3 and Knuckles”; Dr Robotnik (NOT Dr Eggman, I refuse to use that name in this review again) has been defeated and his space station is destroyed. Sonic takes a break away from his friend Tails and his new companion Knuckles and goes to explore new places on his own. Little does he know that Dr Robotnik has returned and he has reconstructed some of his own old creations to make them bigger and badder than before, and to stop Sonic once and for all.
He must have stolen something really valuable if he's running THAT quickly.
The gameplay for Sonic 4 does indeed return to its roots; it’s the simple 2D terrain and Sonic runs forward with the press of the D-pad or analog stick. He can jump on enemies and boxes, and the Spin Dash, first featured in “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” returns. The Spin Dash is done by pressing the D-pad downwards and pressing the jump button multiple times, and allows Sonic to roll on the ground at a high speed. The game has returned to its roots, but the major addition to gameplay in “Sonic 4” is the addition of the Homing Attack; when Sonic is mid-air a target may appear on an enemy, a bumper or a box, and by pressing the jump button again, Sonic immediately homes into his target at high speed. This however is a welcome addition to the old school gameplay as it gives the title its own flavour and separates the game slightly from its predecessors. Older fans think this too; not all change is bad after all.

The levels look fantastic in Sonic 4. There are five levels, four of them have two acts and a boss battle and the fifth level is a large final boss battle with multiple stages. The graphics for Sonic 4 are smooth and colourful and look even better in HD. Despite times changing in the past 16 years and there being more and more emphasis on 3D games now, these 2D graphics are just excellent. Sonic games have always been vivid and lively in its colour palettes and this is no different, it’s just done stronger now than ever before. The five levels are all homage and tweaks to levels in the original Sonic titles; first you have “Splash Hill Zone”, which is homage to “Green Hill Zone” from the original “Sonic the Hedgehog” game, then you have “Casino Street Zone” which pays tribute to “Casino Night Zone” from “Sonic the Hedgehog 2”, “Lost Labyrinth Zone” has many elements from the original “Labyrinth Zone” from “Sonic 1”, and “Mad Gear Zone” has a very similar design to “Metropolis Zone” from “Sonic 2”. The final boss level, which is only unlocked if you beat all four zones and their respective boss levels, is the “E.G.G. Station Zone“, which combines many elements from the previous four boss levels while adding a new final boss, one that is very similar to the final boss from “Death Egg Zone” from “Sonic 2”. All of these tributes are more than welcome additions to the game, the only problem otherwise being that some of the levels and designs can be argued to take too much from the original game series, but it is of my personal opinion that there’s enough originality and tweaking here to see it as homage rather than recycling old materials.

I said earlier that you have to beat all four zones and their boss battles to unlock the fifth and final zone. However one major change to Sonic 4 that was not done in the original series is the flexibility of completing your acts and boss battles in any order you wish. When you load up Sonic 4, you must complete Act 1 of “Splash Hill Zone”, after that however you have access to a screen that you can select any of the four zones in any order. If you beat Act 1 of that level, then the second act opens up, then the third if you compete the second, and then the boss battle when you finish the third. But by all means go straight to “Mad Gear Zone” once you have access to this screen if you wish. My feelings on this are mixed, as I loved the idea of you going through the levels in order of events as it made you feel like you were following Sonic on his amazing adventure like a story. However with the times completely changed from the way things were 16 years ago you can understand why Sega have decided to give you access to nearly everything from the get go; we live in a generation where we are impatient and want to do things straight away, rather than unlock our rewards with hard work. Another addition naturally are the leaderboards, where you can compare your time and point tallies to other people who have played the game across the world.

There are other elements from the original series that remain in Sonic 4. You still have to jump on enemies or spin into them to defeat them. You still have to pick up rings, and if you get hit by an enemy you lose all of those rings. If you have no rings and get hit you lose a life. The boxes you can jump on still contain 10 rings, an extra life, running shoes to make you run even faster, temporary invincibility and a shield. Unlike “Sonic 3 and Knuckles” however there is only one shield, similar to “Sonic 1” and “Sonic 2”. A shield lets you take one more hit from an enemy, giving you extra protection and saves you from losing your rings. One thing that is different however is that there are no continues in Sonic 4. Once again the idea of having continues is silly in a modern gaming environment so it simply doesn’t need to exist.
He must have stolen something really valuable if they are releasing giant BALLS at him!
When you finish an act, like “Sonic 1”, if you have more than 50 rings you will see a large ring that Sonic can jump into, leading to a Special Stage. These Special Stages are too, reminiscent of the ones that were added in “Sonic 1”, where you have to guide Sonic through a puzzled level full of bright lights and rings, to the end where a Chaos Emerald will lie. The big difference between these Special Stages and the ones in “Sonic 1” is that you control the level in this game, and you must move the level rather than Sonic to get him to go in the right directions to the end, where as in “Sonic 1” you controlled Sonic and made him move and jump through the stage. If you collect all 7 Chaos Emeralds, you will have access to Super Sonic, golden, faster and invincible version of himself, like in Sonic 2, 3 and Knuckles. To activate him, you must first accumulate 50 rings, and as he is set off, your rings deplete by one per second, and if you run out, you’ll revert back to normal Sonic. Super Sonic is another great welcome in the series, and the times and points tallies on the leaderboards separate between just Sonic, and levels where Sonic and Super Sonic where used, so it’s good fun.

The music in this game is indeed reminiscent of the music found in the games released on the Mega Drive. It’s still crisp and clear enough to tell that it’s got a tinge of modernisation, but the move is certainly welcome, and the music immediately brings you back to the days when the music was so good. A lot of the newer Sonic games try to incorporate rock and metal music rather than the soft dance/techno sounds found in the games released in the early nineties. The sounds are also pretty much exactly the same as the classic games, with Sonic’s jump noise, the collection of rings, opening of boxes and spin dash all sounding as great as it did back in the day.

The main problem with Sonic 4: Episode I for me is the controls when it comes to high speed movement, something that has always been a problem with modern Sonic games. Sonic moves very fast as he always does, and in the older games released 16 years ago and prior, the gravity defying movement was controlled perfectly, with very few hitches. While this game for large parts deals with the pace and the movement of Sonic well, there are times when Sonic stops, or hits the end of a wall. These situations are quite irritating as some of the finest memories of Sonic are when he’s in motion, running or rolling across a terrain with ease and grace, and for a glitch or a wall to be hit in a way that the game doesn’t like unexpectedly, brings the motion to an abrupt halt. Another thing is that Sega have also made Sonic fall with good poise on some occasions rather than him fall in a ball movement like he used to. Sonic will look downwards at the ground below and in this stance he is vulnerable to attacks, where as when he is rolling downwards from the sky he is in an attacking stance, and will land on his enemy crushing it. This can catch you out at times when you want to attack certain enemies below you as you’ll lose your rings if he is not in his rolling attacking stance, and there seems to be no consistency with it.

Another problem that was once raised was the length of the game. The game has three acts and a boss level for four zones before the final boss. Tally that up and you have 17 levels in total. Considering when the game came out it was 1200 Gamerpoints on the 360, around £7 on the Playstation 3 and 1500 Wii Points, which are considered steep prices for the “arcade/downloadable” stream of gaming available, it’s still pretty cheap. These games cost anything from £30 to £50 when they were individually released back in the early nineties, so complaining about the price is silly. Remember that “Sonic 1” had six zones of three acts, totalling 18, and “Sonic 3” had even less; six zones of two acts, totalling 12, so this isn’t a bad deal. Not only that, but the games have since been reduced in price on both the 360 and PS3.
The special stages are as difficult and trippy as they ever were.
The most important question in this review simply is, does the game live up to the expectations and hype? Will the old school fans be happy? Overall, I think the answer is yes. Sonic 4 does a great job in bringing nostalgia and homage to the old series while doing just enough to clarify its position as an individual title released sixteen years later. Sonic 4 is a fine, if not extravagant effort that should bring old and new fans together to appreciate what was so amazing about the series in the early nineties. The music, the level design, the enemy design and most importantly, the 2D design are all reminiscent of the classic games yet the Homing Attack, the new level select menu, and the leaderboards all serve reminders that this is the 21st century; a game released in 2010 not 1994. And the game does a good job of balancing elements from both worlds, and, both sets of fans, old and new. Overall, Sonic 4: Episode I is a great, yet not spectacular sequel, 16 years overdue that should appeal enough to new and old fans alike. There is room for improvement, and I hope that Sonic 4: Episode II will deliver that promise.

Rating: **** stars

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