Tuesday 5 July 2011

Sonic Generations

Demo reviews?! Witchcraft!

Yes, it's Squirrel's bi-annual Sonic-rant-o-thon, where this time I dissect the latest blunder in the once great Sonic the Hedgehog series - Sonic Generations. Bet you're as ecstatic as I am.

Last year you caught me expressing my dissatisfaction with Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1. A shortened version would read something like "don't buy this". Unfortunately people did buy it, and here we are with the second attempt at making a "classic" Sonic the Hedgehog game in recent times.

Sonic Generations is the upcoming "big" Sonic game. This time the gimmick is not guns, swords, werehogs or aliens, but instead multiple Sonics and some stupid plot involving time travel. Effectively you've got two characters, "Modern Sonic" and "Classic Sonic", each of whom travel through various remastered Sonic levels from the last two decades for no apparent reason. It's to celebrate twenty years of Sonic games, in which fifteen years of those games haven't lived up to the might of Sonic 3 & Knuckles.

Sega, still proving that they cannot market products, have released a time-limited demo of the first act of the first stage - "Classic" Sonic running around in a remastered Green Hill Zone. It's so fresh and innovative. It's a poorly poorly built 650MB demo, bloated thanks to unused assets, manipulable through changing your system clock, glitchy thanks to a lack of testing and unpolished because nobody at Sonic Team used their brain before releasing it. Already it's not looking good.

Or is it? Because they've certainly thrown together some nice visuals. Green Hill Zone has a musical score that isn't horrible for once, and it certainly stands a very pretty rendition of the stage. I am happy to litter my blog with these doctored press release screenshots. But with the exception of the disaster that was Sonic 4, there was never a doubt in my mind that Sonic Team could deliver on the visuals. Take out the vocals and they can do music too. They've even made the effort to license out the real Sonic theme this time, so they've got two big areas in game development spot on.

But... I don't really care, because so have many other big developers. You won't win me over on looks alone, and you've lost points straight away for forcing a 30FPS frame rate in a game all about precision and speed. It caught me slightly off guard and I ran straight into a badnik, prompting the question that perhaps if there were more frames to see and Sonic moved a bit slower, things would be a tad better.

But that's "high definition" visuals for you. Definition improved, but rate of definition halved. Guess that's an issue for the next generation to solve. It doesn't kill the game, and in fact many of you won't even notice it, but it's a point that has yet to be discussed and in my opinion, is more important than cheaply upscaling 720p to 1080p.

Sonic Generations is very much a remake rather than a brand new experience - a "best of" Sonic game, much like the many other "best of" Sonic games. The difference is, of course, that this one isn't just a Mega Drive emulator in new clothes (though from the sounds of things it's due to get one bundled in) - this is a fully fledged platform game developed for a plethora of consoles and computers. But are we really desperate to see the same things from different perspectives? I'm not sure. I think I'd prefer a new "classic" zone to look at rather than this one for the thousandth time.

The stages apparently represent the "Classic", "Dreamcast" and "Modern" ages of the franchise, though from my understanding, "Modern" only differs from "Dreamcast" because they chose to make it more "Classic" a few years ago. That's why I assume there's 2D bits for the darker blue hedgehog. Also as each era is being regarded as an equal, it means the classic world of Sonic is left short-changed with only three levels to represent it.

Basically, this alone is a clue that classic Sonic fans won't be too happy with this release. Like Sonic 4 it's pretending to be a good game, but it's really designed for the current head of Sonic Team, Takashi Iizuka. The focus is on running fast, primarily through cities, and it ignores many of the concepts that made the first few games great. Again. The mainstream media will claim its a return to form, but as many of them are too young or too out of touch to know what "on form" really is, they're not a group worth listening to.

The better choice is to listen to talentless nobodies such as myself. I'd have thought that would be obvious!

In a nutshell, rolling barely works, spindashing is far too powerful and control is taken away from the user at every given opportunity. It feels rigid, scripted, and much of it is still too fast for the average man to comprehend. It's not quite as bad as Sonic 4, but this one raises different concerns so it's difficult for me to compare the two. If I recall correctly the spindash in Sonic 4 was underpowered, so they've created new faults.

You can't use Sonic 2 or 3 tactics in Generations - you have to play the Takashi Iizuka way - moving very fast, preferably through the air, and not paying much attention to your surroundings. Maybe it's for the better, because then you can ignore the collision and camera glitches. But even the Sonic Advance 2 generation will struggle to see the upside of this one - at least in that game you could roll around loops.

There's all sorts of stupid features, such an auto-spindash button, for if holding down first is too much of a challenge. Code exists in the game to enable a homing attack move, and fixing the rolling is apparently as easy as changing one value - it's a half baked game from what I can see. Yes it works, yes you might have fun with it, but you should have a lot more fun with the Sonics of the early 1990s unless cutting edge visuals are more important to you than good gameplay (but as I said, 720p at 30FPS isn't cutting edge!).

And that's the point I'm making here. Despite two decades of technical improvements, bigger budgets than ever and an audience of tens, if not hundreds of millions, we have ourselves another Sonic product which is vastly inferior to the games of twenty years ago. I just came from a Pinball FX 2 review, and the attention to detail, physics and professionalism of that game seems to be in an entirely different league to this one. They used to say Sonic was a platform-pinball hybrid - I can't see how this one could possibly be.

This demo is based on a prototype, so we can assume things will be fixed before the final version goes on sale, however this does not excuse Sonic Team for releasing it in this state. I'd like to think abusing this release may lead to the scrapping of some of the many planned city stages but I guess only time can tell. All I know is it's no substitute for the Mega Drive games.

So, if you somehow feel the need to clog up your Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 with half a gigabyte of an unfinished Sonic game, do be prepared for a lackluster experience. I would hope things improve but I'm struggling to think of reasons to recommend Generations as it stands here today. It's not the worst Sonic game out there at the moment, but by no means is it even remotely close to being the best.


  1. Dreamcast is too cool to be Modern.

  2. This game made me realize I like modern Sonic more than the Megadrive games.

    While the Dreamcast titles were glitchy in control and camera, the Generations racing style 3D is quite controllable and very effectful in the way it gives a sense of sitting on speedy needles.

    I also must say the modern Sonic in classic zones, plays way more smoothly than classic Sonic. Homing attack and speed boost actually are good from a game design perspective here where they favor the speed that the series is said to have - while classic Sonic is frustratingly slow to control. (Maybe the zones of te 90's were better designed for that, but when retro replay them I just want back to modern Sonic)

    I really don't like the story and setting of Generations though; a best of collection of zones, where I cannot quick select the zones but have to search through a labyrinth-like hub world with frustrating obstacles, what happened to zone selection menus? X )