A Flawed Return To Form For The Blue Blur
My history with Sonic the Hedgehog is a long and turbulent one. Alex Kidd in Miracle World aside, the Master System version of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is one of the first games I ever remember playing. From there, my relationship with Sega's mascot took the next logical step - the Mega Drive. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve sitting in my parents' bedroom after school, playing the first three Sonic the Hedgehog games. Even now, those titles pretty much define a pure gaming experience for me, and I frequently return to them when I'm looking for something that I can just get lost in for half an hour. When my family made the jump from the Mega Drive to the PlayStation, Sonic and I parted ways for a good number of years. I missed the days of the Dreamcast, completely bypassing Sonic's move into the third dimension. It wasn't until Sega took the Blue Blur multi-platform with 2004's Sonic Heroes that we were reunited, and the reunion was not a happy one. Since then I've sworn off Sonic games, and witnessing the once-great figurehead of gaming's downward spiral from the comfortable distance of video game forums has been a very sobering experience.
So assuming we're ignoring the Sonic Mega Collection and Sega Mega Drive Ultimate Collection compilations, it's been six years since I last purchased a Sonic game. Now, in 2010, the tenacious blue rodent has once more managed to spin-dash his way into my wallet. The reason? Simple - the promise of a Sonic game that's returning to the series' two-dimensional, speed-focused roots. The promise of a title in the same vein as the old Mega Drive games was something that sounded both too good to be true and too good to pass up. So, on the day of the game's release, I bought some Microsoft Points and spent them on this downloadable title. After a few days' worth of blasting through the game's four zones, I feel like I'm ready to pass judgement on Sonic 4. That judgement is, effectively, "It's good, but it could have been something better".
Let's start with the game's plus points, shall we? First up, there's the visual presentation, which I honestly can't fault. The game looks great throughout - each of the four zones on offer has its own distinct theme and feel. Enemies are all returning culprits from previous Sonic games, but in a lot of ways that's nice. I for one loved seeing the familiar forms of various nasties rendered in 3D. I don't think people out there who dislike Sonic's redesign will warm to the game's visual style, but I personally found it to be both faithful to the franchise and appropriately updated for a modern audience. The gameplay itself is tried-and-true 2D Sonic - a simple case of powering through a series of multi-pathed levels as quickly as possible, collecting rings and wiping out any of Dr. Eggman's robots that stand in your way. It's functional, it's fast, and most importantly, it's fun. Part of this is down to the incorporation of a Homing Attack, a new move that enables Sonic to lock onto items mid-jump and power through the air towards them. This simple addition brings an additional dimension to all aspects of the gameplay, making jumping sections faster and more fluid, and making enemies easier to dispatch. Its overall effect is one of streamlining the whole experience, and anything that makes the game look, feel and play faster and smoother is a welcome addition in my book.
Each themed zone is made up of three acts, followed by a boss battle against Eggman himself, so the format is definitely going to make those of us who grew up on Sonic feel comfortable. That being said, Sonic 4 also takes some big steps towards modernising the traditional set-up, making it feel more suited to the contemporary market. The biggest of these steps is an incorporation of a level hub, something that didn't feature in the Mega Drive games. This level hub has huge implications for the way the game is played - rather than simply powering through the whole game in one sitting, as you had to in Sonic 2, it's now possible to jump in and out at will. It's also possible to hand-pick any of the game's twelve acts to play individually. This makes it very easy to leap back into a previous level to earn some extra lives if a particular boss is causing you grief, or to go for that all-important level high score. While I was playing the XBLM version, I should also imagine this feature is a big plus in the iPhone version of the game, making it much easier to simply pick-up-and-play an act or two. It may not sound like a big deal, but it definitely felt like one to me. Throw in the now-standard widgets like Achievements and online leaderboards, and what you have is a Sonic game that feels true to the series' origins, but also relevant in the twenty-first century.
Put all this together, and you've surely got the makings of a perfect 2D return for Sonic, yes? Well, not quite. You see, there's one crucial element I haven't spoken about yet - level design. To say that Sonic 4's level design is inconsistent is an understatement - it jumps from one end of the spectrum to the other with schizophrenic frequency. This is where I feel my comparison to Mirror's Edge is justified. When the level design is geared towards maintaining momentum, and you're bouncing from springs and running through loop-the-loops at top speed, Sonic 4 really shines. Unfortunately, there are moments where the level designers deliberately interrupt that momentum by throwing in some form of awkwardly-controlled platforming puzzle, and this really tarnished my experience. To be fair, this happened to a certain degree in all the Mega Drive Sonic games too, but never as frequently as it seems to in Sonic 4. I appreciate that Sonic Team needed to find a way of providing that sensation of speed without developing a game that effectively plays itself, but I definitely think there was a better balance to be found.
Sonic 4 would probably be worth getting excited about if inconsistent level design was its only flaw, but unfortunately it's not. I took issue with a couple of other points while playing the game, the first of which was its musical score. Previous Sonic games have boasted incredibly catchy, funky soundtracks, and several tracks from the first three games are now seared into my synapses as a consequence. Sonic 4 clearly tries to emulate this, but fails horribly. The funny thing is, I honestly can't put my finger on the reason why. Maybe it's because everything sounds a bit too "clean" and "polished"? I don't know. All I know is, the music does nothing but grate, and I certainly won't be walking around humming any of Sonic 4's soundtrack to myself. Another, much more serious issue the game has is its overwhelming tendency to recycle content from previous Sonic games. As I mentioned before, this includes the enemies, but it's not limited to them. Each zone feels like a mish-mash of the memorable zones from older Sonic games - Splash Hill Zone is effectively Green Hill Zone in all but name; Casino Street Zone acts as the obligatory Vegas-inspired zone; Lost Labyrinth is a cut-and-paste of the original Sonic's Labyrinth Zone, complete with the same "endless waterfall" sequence; and the Mad Gear Zone lifts heavily from Sonic 2's Metropolis Zone. This rehashing extends to the bosses, too - every single Eggman fight in the game is lifted straight out of a previous Sonic game. You're getting very little content for your 1200 Microsoft Points as it is, so to find out that a significant portion of it is second-hand is pretty disheartening, to say the least.
in some ways, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode One is a startling success. I certainly wasn't expecting it to deliver in all the ways that it does - it's definitely the fastest Sonic game I've ever played, with the sensation of speed far overtaking (no pun intended) the Mega Drive games. Its slick presentation, fun gameplay and updated feature set offer more than I'd expected to get from this downloadable title. Unfortunately, the questionable level design, appalling soundtrack and distinct lack of original content really do hold the package back, preventing it from fulfilling its true potential and reducing it to the status of being simply "another Sonic game". When you consider that you can buy all three Mega Drive Sonic titles on Xbox LIVE Marketplace for the same price as Sonic 4, you really have to question whether or not it's worth its asking price. Supposedly there are still two more episodic packs for Sonic 4 on their way. When they do eventually arrive, I'm hoping to see some better level design and more original content. Will it happen? I guess only time will tell.