Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Review - Sonic Generations

Sonic The Hedgehog has been one of gaming’s most recognisable faces since his debut twenty years ago. His “way past cool” attitude and insatiable need for speed has earned the love of millions worldwide, and his fanbase has remained loyal through good times and bad – unfortunately, bad times have been dangerously abundant in recent years for the blue blur. A series of mediocre titles may have tarnished Sonic’s legacy somewhat, but Sega is striving to repair the damage by literally taking the series back to its glory days with Sonic Generations.

Survivors of Sonic The Hedgehog 2006 will be glad to learn that Sonic Generations is light on the story. Sonic’s [presumably 20th] birthday party is interrupted by a giant shadowy monster, which abducts all his friends and drops him in a timeless void alongside himself from the past.  This past version of Sonic is a perfect recreation of how the hero actually was in the early games, and the two heroes take a trip through memory lane to save their chums and defeat the evil beast. The story is little more than an excuse to put two generations of Sonic in as many games’ levels as possible, and is told through short cut-scenes that are thankfully light on dialogue.

The real premise of the game, then, is to retread Sonic’s storied history from both a modern and classic perspective: each major Sonic game is represented by a single stage, which can be played as if it were lifted from the Mega Drive, or plucked from a current-gen release. The choice of stages is excellent, and every act is expertly constructed to evoke as much nostalgia as possible – from the rolling Green Hills to the truck chase of City Escape. It is especially exciting to play stages from the “other” perspective; to see how the classic Chemical Plant might look today, or how Planet Wisp might have been on the Mega Drive. The entire experience leaves you hankering for more and imagining how any other stages might be reinterpreted. Interestingly, not a single one of Sonic’s handheld releases is represented, nor is the recent Sonic The Hedgehog 4, but the game is nine stages strong and bursting with content.

City Escape's truck chase is pretty tough for classic Sonic. Must be those stubby legs.

Sonic Generations boasts an impressive sense of speed while staying true to Sonic’s legitimate platforming roots. Every act is constructed along multiple separate routes, rewarding multiple playthroughs with unique scenery, faster run times and hidden Red Star Rings (which unlock bonus concept art and music tracks). This does mean, however, that a certain amount of trial-and-error is required in order to make the speediest run through a level as possible: alternate pathways can whizz by so fast that you will definitely miss them unless you know exactly when and where to jump. There are plenty of times, however, when the game slows down and puts your skills to the test. It is these sections perhaps more than any other that make the game feel truly “Sonic”: bouncing off enemies up to higher platforms, making leaps of faith above bottomless pits, and timing your run underneath a falling bed of spikes.

In addition to the standard levels available, there are also a plethora of bonus challenge stages; uniquely designed snippets of the stage designed with a certain goal in mind; be it surviving a bomb-ridden environment with only one ring, or racing one of Sonic’s friends to the finish. These challenge stages are plentiful and do well to squeeze a little extra juice from the stages, or showcase some of Sonic’s abilities. They are all practically optional, but at least one from each stage must be cleared in order to reach the next boss.

Not exactly a fair race, but whatever.

The bosses themselves are a surprising low point of the game. There is one mini-boss (a running battle with one of Sonic’s many rivals) and one main boss for every three stages. Considering Sonic games usually feature a boss at the end of every stage, this is disappointing – and as the bosses are fought separately from the stages, they feel disjointed and tacked-on. This also means that a lot of fan-favourite bosses are left out, such as Dr. Robotnik’s iconic ball-and-chain flying machine. The bosses also suffer from being too formulaic – with so few of them, you might expect them to be extravagant, flashy challenges, but instead they are simple rinse-and-repeat affairs. This would be fine if there were more of them, but the end result is a series of forgettable encounters that are downbeat and muted in comparison to the rest of the game.

Spoilers: you make Shadow eat his words.

Graphically, Sonic Generations is a masterpiece. Every stage is lavishly colourful and exploding with energy; Sonic runs, spins and grinds his way through the perfectly crisp environments and the modern acts in particular are designed with extravagant set-pieces in mind, whisking you through the world in a sparkling blaze of glory. The sound design, too, is spot-on. Expertly remixed stage music sets the perfect backdrop for a high-octane ride through Sonic’s history, and you can change the music to any of the songs you have unlocked, from classic 16-bit tunes to wailing Crush 40 anthems.

Sonic Generations is a superbly crafted retrospective of the fastest thing alive’s historic career. The game is presented with such enthusiasm and so much love for the blue hedgehog that it almost makes you forget his past blunders entirely. Beneath the exterior nostalgia rush lies a genuinely fun game – Sonic hasn’t been this good in years.

Phil thought this game was...

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