There’s an ongoing misconception when it comes to pinpointing exactly what makes a Sonic game great. Some mistakenly say it’s his defining character trait – the spinney rodent’s complete abuse of the laws of nature and physics as he shatters land-speed records. Countless pretenders from Zool to Bubsy the Bobcat prove that speed can be more of a hindrance than a help when mishandled.
No, the essential ingredient that defines a great Sonic game was none other than that brilliant Newtonian formula of mass meeting velocity – momentum. That continuous high of perpetual motion as the blue blur slices his way through the plains, loops and tunnels of the Green Hill Zone, leaving a wake of nuts, bolts and golden ring sparkles, is what exhilarated players in the mid-nineties. Momentum is a formula Sega defined with 16-bit Sonic, perfected with Nights Into Dreams on the Saturn and have ultimately failed to appreciate with almost every step those red sneakers have taken in the third dimension. Until now.
Ending a string of broken promises, failed experiments and bewildering design choices, Sonic Team have delivered the seemingly impossible – an extremely good Sonic game. First impressions don’t instil huge amounts of confidence as a whiny pop-punk intro theme clashes against grandiose orchestral world map music in what looks to be an uncomfortable leap from his fashionably edgy past to a more Mario Galaxy-like present. Of course this isn’t the first time Sonic has left Earth’s atmosphere, but the minimal trim of the hub world and linear level progression combined with planet exploration in deep space certainly show that Sonic has been paying attention to his old rival’s success.
The game’s six areas each house six acts that form the healthiest mix of high-speed in-to-the-screen 3D action stages and classic side-on platforming seen so far. In clear response to the positive feedback gained garnered from Sonic Unleashed’s daytime stages, the pleasingly tight 2D stages make up at least two thirds of your time controlling Sonic, with the remaining third’s 3D areas seeing more than their fair share of improvements too. Sonic’s high-speed antics still make following lengthy strings of rings with any degree of precision difficult with a Z-axis, but the system of switching between three planes action when the pace really ratchets up helps to keep control in the hands of the player.
Across both sets of stages exploration is kept to a minimum, focusing instead on that ever-important forward propulsion. That’s not to say that the levels are overly linear – as with Sonic’s sprite-based titles, there’s a clear distinction between beginner and pro routes through the stages, with skilled players navigating the high-grounds to accrue valuable point bonuses for extravagant grinds, as well as uncovering the five red stars hidden away in each course.
Level designs perfectly facilitate Sonic’s minimal, yet effective move set. Armed with a forward-thrusting boost and a downward-directed dive, well-played acts are choreographed ballets, discouraging deceleration as you cut your path from spring to boost pad. Thematically Sonic Team has drastically improved following a rut of indistinct generic action environments in previous titles. From looping chocolate-covered donuts and boosting through rivers of popcorn on Sweet Mountain to the aquatic beauty of mechanised Japanese gardens in Aquarium Park, the levels are a constant pleasure to be a part of.