Xbox 360 Preview - Sonic the Hedgehog
Sonic The Hedgehog
Developer Sega • Platform Microsoft Xbox 360
Version Reviewed Xbox Live Demo • UK Release November 17th 2006
By James Hunt and Josh Barton
"When you are near a trail of rings, you can do a light dash by pressing the X Button."
No. You. CAN'T.
After approximately twelve plunges to your death in a row, you'll be wondering just what deranged game designer felt the need to have this particular nugget of wisdom imparted unto you by the disembodied voice of some complete bastard every time you repeat the level, because if nothing else, dear reader, it is COMPLETE FICTION. Perhaps, yes, someone out there can do a light dash by pressing X. Perhaps some ultimate Sonic master who has spent 18 hours a day playing this game. But not us.
Make no mistake, the review you're about to read is certainly no nostalgia-fuelled polemic against all 3D Sonic games. It's a frustration-fuelled polemic against what can only be described as a polished piece of dog shit. It makes the previously lacklustre Sonic Adventure 2 seem like a work of gaming genius. This demo, and let us not forget that this doesn't represent the finished article, is nothing less than a piece of steaming hedgehog dung. It honestly makes us so angry, that we've made references to TWO different types of animal excretion in as many sentences.
Such vitriol should probably be reinforced by 'facts' and other observations that support a 'well thought out' and 'structured' argument. In terms of the visuals, the game is certainly no slouch, and holds up relatively well to other next-gen games being released on the platform. The level (aren't they called Zones anymore?) we've been gifted with is an accurate, if mostly unexciting representation of the Marble Zone archetypes from the original Sonic games on the Mega Drive, complete with rocks, grass, what looks like a chunk of the Parthenon lying around, and, of course, a giant eagle that carries you across the level.
Wait a second.
Such is the train of thought you'll follow playing through the demo; the familiar offset with the absurd. At the end of the demo, the 'end' being where you run out of lives, rather than making any actual progress, the absurdity is continued in the pre-rendered trailer for the full game. This features, amongst other things, a caped and disturbingly realistic Dr.Eggman, Shadow The Hedgehog driving a car (why does he need a car? He can travel at the speed of light), and the obligatory (lazily-designed) new character Silver The Hedgehog. Sonic Team decided long ago that their well-realised setting of Mobius which appeared in the original Mega Drive games, should be discarded for a poorly conceived, bizarro version of Earth, which is also evident in the CG trailer. This wouldn't be so bad if they didn't insist on shoehorning terrible human characters into the storyline, and it appears that Sonic and cohorts will be helping a princess in the new title. That shit might fly in the Mushroom Kingdom, but not here, my friend.
Still, the relative (and by this point, expected) insanity of the game's characters, setting and storyline is wholly forgivable when compared to some of the frankly broken gameplay mechanics. The controls themselves are as terrible as ever, and although some of the better concessions to controlling Sonic in a 3D world (such as the homing attack) have made it through to the new title, they're still nowhere near as organic and fluid as they should be. This wouldn't be quite so bad if the various jumps and puzzles had been designed around the control scheme, but the game seems to expect the player to manipulate Sonic with far more precision and speed than is actually possible. Sonic shouldn't be about laboriously making a jump through trial and error; it should be about making the jump first time, and thinking about how cool you looked doing it.
The game world itself also suffers from the same problems of its predecessors, in that it presents players with elements of the 2D games that operate in a somewhat fuzzy manner when translated into 3D. For example, when Sonic is running through a loop, does the player hold one direction until it finishes, or change direction at its peak? It's hard to know, and the game isn't very forthcoming in establishing parity from one set piece to the next. Given that such occurrences often result in the player falling off the level, and into the aforementioned bottomless pit of death, perhaps a less crushingly disheartening approach could have been taken for punishing mistakes made by the player. Sending them down to a base of the level or at least a lower platform would be slightly more forgiving, and would make the levels seem more realised, rather than the contrivance of invisibly suspended platforms.
In a lot of ways, Sonic Team want to have their cake and eat it; a game which is lightning fast, but which also includes a detailed 3D world which the player can explore. Rather than making concessions to either of these ideals, the titles feel like a botched mishmash of both, neither produced particularly well. The original Sonic games were all about speed; you had a simple aim, and that was to tear through each stage as quickly as possible. Although the design occasionally allowed for some exploration, it was mostly unnecessary, and rarely rewarded. The great thing was, it didn't need this element; there were already several ponderous platform games available on the platform, and Sonic offered gamers a more charged, visceral gaming experience.
Perhaps this explains why the handheld games in the Sonic series have been more successful; the technological limitations of these platforms has meant that the titles have, for the most part, stuck to the roots of the Megadrive originals. It seems that the future of good Sonic games is effectively based in two dimensions, and if the excellent Sonic Rush on the DS, or the promising Sonic Rivals on the PSP is anything to go by, we can at least expect to see some good titles coming out of the franchise in the foreseeable future. There's even hope for the series on home consoles, with the Potteresque titled Sonic And The Secret Rings on the Wii, which has adopted a downhill racing-style mode of gameplay which should allow the game to focus more singly on the element of speed.
We did find some elements of entertainment in the demo of Sonic The Hedgehog; the speed of the original Sonic games is partially replicated in 3D, although they've also managed to wreck that by providing you with environments too small to actually run around, and a camera that flips dementedly around you when you're moving, and responds sluggishly when you're standing still; you know, the time when you'd actually like to use it. For some particularly fleeting moments, the game's elements all come together, and you're rewarded for your persistence with about six seconds of genuine fun. However, at the end of this, you're treated to - you guessed it - another of those delightful plummets to your death.
When this game was originally announced, its title seemed to suggest something of a return to form for the franchise; an implication that perhaps Sonic team would address many of the problems and issues that had plagued the older 3D titles. Unfortunately, having played the game, this now seems like something of a hilariously transparent marketing ploy to disassociate itself from the mistakes of the past, whilst simultaneously appealing to the nostalgia set. Kind of like one Pope blaming his predecessor for turning the other cheek to the Nazis. Sonic Team are fooling no-one; this is Sonic Adventure 3 in all but name; all of the previous game's problems are more prevalent than ever, and ready to send you into a blind rage, and there are more (unfortunately playable) ubiquitous side characters than ever.
At first, it seems that a new Sonic game would be a real treat. Like a cake. Just as the cake is beautifully decorated, enticing you to take a bite, Sonic's appearance has been given a next-gen makeover, making you forget about the former botched attempts at moving the series to 3D, and leaving you really, really wanting to play the game. As you reel away from that first bite of cake, bloody mouthed because it was actually full of razor blades, you'll realise that the developers of Sonic The Hedgehog, much like the makers of the cake, are a group of hate mongering bastards, mocking you for putting your trust in them in the first place.