Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sonic 4: Episode 1 (video game)

Platform: X-Box Live Arcade, PSN, Wiiware, iPhone
Developers: Sonic Team, Dimps
Genre: Action, Platformer
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Release Date: October 7th-13th (released on a different day for each system)

Everyone has an idea in their head about what Sonic 4 should be. It's been about fifteen years since Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Fifteen years of expectations. No matter what they did, not everyone would be happy; especially not the unpleasable retro section of Sonics fanbase. But they pressed forward with this regardless. Now the first episode is out; all the PR speak is said and done, the whining irrelevant. Does what we have thus far deserve the name "Sonic 4"?

Yes, actually; but make no mistake, the game isn't perfect.

First off, the game looks great. Everything feels slick and modern in a way we haven't really seen in a 2D Sonic title. It's unfortunate that the looks of the zones are rehashed from previous Sonics - same for the badniks as well - but damn if they don't look pretty in HD.

The music is similarly excellent. Not all of them are on the same level as the classics - and seeing as Michael Jackson is dead, they can't exactly get his help to hit the kind of style 3&K had - but they are as catchy. Each of the three acts of every zone has it's own music, each different from the last; though later acts in the same zone may have a variation of the music from an earlier act. It's not all roses with the music, however; the regular Dr. Eggman theme for Sonic 4 is hardly the pumping tune you might expect from an encounter with the rotund doctor, though the theme for the panic mode of every boss fight is much better.

As for the gameplay, well, this is going to be the most divisive. Straight up, the physics are not exactly the same as the classics. In fact, they're more than a bit off. I suspect this game uses a heavily modified version of the Sonic Rush engine, because I recognized some of the faults that were common in that engine. Not all of the issues persist - it's fixed up enough that it does not have all of the same faults Rush did - but enough return to be noticeable. Momentum also does not work the same as in the classics and could use some tuning up; if you stop pressing in a direction, for instance, you stop moving dead in your tracks and just drop, a physics goof that really needs to be fixed post haste. To be blunt, if you're the type that takes your Sonic games way too seriously, this game will send you into the type of nerd rage that would likely inspire someone to backhand you.

Everything else, however, reeks of classic Sonic influence. The physics may have some of the problems Rush did, but the level design does not. Whereas Rush emphasised on speed over all else, Sonic 4 is slower and more deliberate. Timing your jumps and true platforming are the order of the day and the levels are built to be explored. Bottomless pits are far rarer, saving unnecessary death. Say what you want about the physics, but I'm not sure they could have changed the feel of the game as much. The level design is what makes this game feel like classic Sonic more than anything else; and it's a welcome change that helps smooth over the faults. By the time you get to Lost Labrinth Zone, the developers had clearly hit their stride. It and Mad Gear Zone are crazy awesome.

While they may have mined classic Sonic levels for the overall look of each zone, the gimmicks and a lot of hazards are mostly new. From ziplines to playing cards to outrunning giant stone spheres like Indiana Jones, there's a lot here we haven't seen before. Some gimmicks return - the canons from Sonic 3 are back - but even those don't play the same as they did before. Same goes for the boss fights. They're culled from past games, but if you think that means you know everything Robotnik will do, then you'd better watch out; when his contraption takes enough damage, he goes into a "Panic Mode" of sorts, switching up his attack patterns completely.

Everything old is new again.

As far as the amount of content you get goes, I'm conflicted. On the one hand, I want to say that fifteen dollars is too much for four zones plus a final boss rush level, all of which based on the classics instead of all new. On the other hand, this game has three full length acts per zone, plus a separate boss confrontation for each. That's the same overall amount that the original Sonic the Hedgehog gave us. I think ten dollars would have been a fairer price point, but I suppose that it's ultimately a judgement call. Either way it's well worth picking up; I would just have rather paid ten dollars for what I got and paid fifteen for Episode 2 on.

I will say this though; the majority of Episode 2 had better be new. I can handle the homages for one fifteen dollar episode, but I don't think I can justify continuing if the whole thing is going to basically be a remix of the classics. I'm paying for Sonic 4, not "Best of Sonic HD"; I'd buy that, but not under the guise of being Sonic 4.

The Score: 8 out of 10

Look, this game isn't perfect. At all. I'd very much like it if the physics were fixed to be more like the classics. But it's fun. A lot of fun. Isn't that supposed to be what matters most? Frankly it's the kind of fun the Rush games should have given me, but never managed to deliver. Sonic has been on an upward trend in recent years and Episode 1 seems to be where Sonic Team and Dimps are truly getting their legs under them. If you're a physics nazi, steer clear; but if you're nowhere near that anal, this is worth dropping the coin. Sonic seems to be in good shape again; if they can fix the physics for Episode 2, Sonic 4 could live up to its pedigree yet.

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