Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I review
Last night I was hanging around in Soho with a friend, enjoying a sneaky Sunday pint outside one of our favourite pubs. Randomly, one of the UK games industry’s better known PR people strolled past; he was in town for a preview event taking place just this morning. In our catch-up banter, we discovered that despite being mercilessly immersed in gaming, we both have a huge pile of games to get through but just haven’t got around to playing them.
For him, the issue is a lack of time to actually play though any games (which makes sense, as I know he works really hard to keep us games media types happy). But for me these days, it seems to be more a question of apathy towards actually playing through lengthy video games in general. I’ve felt this way for about the last year; I just haven’t fancied devoting the time required to play through any of the last year’s major releases. Not even the furore of Modern Warfare 2 or the charm of Mario Galaxy 2 tempted me; I’ve just felt like I’d rather spend my leisure time doing other stuff. I had quietly, almost guiltily been wondering: do I no longer care about my most important pastime?
The reason I’m mentioning all this here is because I had a sneaky feeling that Sonic 4 might change this current ‘lull’ in my attitude towards spending time playing games.
I knew that Sonic 4 would be one of probably two games released this year which I would medically need to play (the other being Portal 2), mainly because of how emotionally invested in each series I have been in the past. (Particularly Sonic, without which I would probably never have ended up becoming involved in games in the first place). I also knew that since Sonic 4 was being released episodically, it probably wouldn’t be too large a time investment.
So when Sega’s friendly PR man gave me a PSN code to download the game last week, I switched on a console with an itch to play a game (rather than watch a Blu-ray or DVD) for the first time in literally months – since Super Street Fighter IV, I think. (Actually I had already been playing Sonic 4 on iPhone, released on App Store last Thursday, but the console version – released later this week – is a whole lot more impressive).
Screaming ‘Classic Sega’, Sonic 4 is simple, beautiful, slick, and for me, one of those rare titles that reminds me why I liked playing games in the first place. It’s a nice blend of classic 2D Sonic gameplay with modern, impressive HD graphics. By the time I finished playing through, I realised my assumptions were right: I feel like I suddenly care about games again! And I felt excited enough to steal the review opportunity from our regular editors.
Sega’s done away with the extended cast of characters (everyone – including Tails – is OUT) and now it’s just Sonic against Dr Robotnik, just like the old days. It nicely echoes the much-requested ‘back to basics’ approach in Sonic 4, and fortunately the game lives up to expectations – it’s actually worthy of being the first ‘numbered’ entry in the original series in sixteen years.
My biggest concern about the game from having seen the trailers and gameplay footage was that the core physics seemed a little bit off, but exactly the opposite is true. Sonic’s overall movement has been updated slightly since the originals, and after a few minutes of initial play it feels really natural, and actually more dynamic; in particular I like the stronger link between jumping and momentum, Sonic’s improved vertical running strength, and most of all the precise level of directional control you have over him at all times – whether on the ground or while in the air. The fusion of the more modern, 3D Sonic-era ‘homing attack’ with old-school 2D gameplay ingredients actually works quite wonderfully; I think they’ve got the core control just right and the resulting pace of gameplay matches the style of level design rather well. (It does feel a little bit tricky on the iPhone at times, but with a real controller there are no real concerns).
It can’t really be said that in terms of raw level design – the way that platforms, enemies and bonuses are lovingly positioned – that these levels match the genius of the original Sonic, although to be fair it’s not that far off. There were only a couple of areas I actually thought were ‘bad’ (both in the otherwise exceptionally beautiful ‘Lost Labyrinth’ zone). One involved a pesky switch puzzle that felt somewhat out of place in the overall scheme of things, and the other was simply a matter of the game not telling me I needed to use the analogue stick to get from A to B rather than awkwardly trying to jump through the section – it took me about 50 deaths to figure that one out, and there seems to be no reason why the d-pad is rendered useless in that particular area.