Platform: PS3 | Xbox 360 (version tested) | PC | iOS | Android | WP7
Developer: Sonic Team
SEGA have long been faced with something of paradoxical quandary: in order to expand the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise and keep the blue spiky speedster relevant, they've had to look to the future, and try to build upon their legacy. But in order to keep their most vocal fans happy, they've had to make huge concessions to the past. The results have been mixed, to say the least.
The first numerical Sonic title in years, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 was a 2D throwback to the games of old. No werehogs, no princess romancing, the idea being that it's just you and Mr. Blue. But originality was in short supply, and the changes and developments that had been made were either technically flawed (the dubious physics), or frustratingly designed (that horrible torch section). Moreover, 1200 MS Points/£9.99 price tag was deemed too steep by many, and justifiably so.
These are all issues SEGA have acknowledged, and the good news is that it seems they've not only taken the criticisms of Episode 1 to heart, but have looked to rectify most of them with this sequel.
The handling, for example, is vastly improved. The jumping feels weightier, accelerating from a standing start means a slight delay, and momentum is once again required to scale heights, before hurling Sonic down the other side. It was not uncommon to have Sonic go from being stationary to full speed in an absurdly short space of time, or waltz up a steep incline with no effort, in Episode 1. We've seen his quads and calves, it was completely unfathomable! This time around, though, everything handles much more like the classic titles on a basic level.
But there are new elements afoot, and the first thing you notice is just how jaw-droppingly good everything looks. The delights of the Sylvania Castle Zone saw us zooming through grassy ancient ruins, and flying across jungle vistas, in surroundings so well-rendered, you almost wanted to pause just to get a better look. Leaves bristle and flutter in your wake as you speed off to pastures new. Water sprays up as you dash across the surface, rippling with every move should you sink below the surface. Indeed, aside from the multiple mossy paths, and rock switches that need smashing, a few routes took us underwater, instantly evoking Aquatic Ruin memories from Sonic 2.
It's here that Episode 2's most striking feature comes into play, with the '2' proving rather telling: enter Tails. Having the airborne fox by your side in this game is about more than sheer companionship and ego-boosting. Tandem moves are most certainly in, with Sonic and Tails high-fiving before going into a double, cartwheeling spin-attack, or boosting across or under water, or using Tails' eponymous body part to lift Sonic over obstacles and out of harm's way.
Sylvania Castle saw us using the tandem spin-attack to bust through rock walls, or engaging the spin beside circular switches, the swimming boost particularly handy underwater. Far from being gimmicks that feel intrusive and untoward, these feel quite natural, adding a little variety to proceedings, mixing things up a little bit, and providing the opportunity for new platforming challenges. As some fans often forget, Sonic has never been entirely all about speed.
The second level we saw was the snowy White Park Zone, which managed to combine essences of the Carnival Night and Ice Cap zones from previous titles, with Sonic and Tails racing across snow-strewn surfaces as theme park rides and carousels flew by, as if SEGA's mascots were tearing up Hyde Park in December. Here, again, the co-operative moves came into good effect, with the tandem roll use to forge paths through enormous snow-drifts, and Tails' airlift used to good effect to avoid a giant snowball that had previously flattened us twice before.
Whenever a Sonic game appears on the horizon and us journalists get a chance to go hands-on, there's almost always a mild hubbub of 'Ooooh, maybe this could be the one to bring the glory days back...', which is rather unhealthy. But, from what we've seen thus far, Sonic 4: Episode 2 is at least a good example of feedback being used to fuel positive change. You don't have to have been a long-time Sonic obsessive to feel the difference in terms of the way this handles in comparison to its predecessor. And with full co-op on the way, and some inventive level design with a plethora of potential paths from start to finish, we're hoping this will be a game we can simply bask in.