Sonic 4: Episode 1
SEGA's decision to return to Sonic's 2D roots in an episodic downloadable format has delighted fans and pundits alike- but the long delay has left us hungry for information and some hands-on time with the preview version. Luckily, SEGA brought along the full version to their product demo day, though us lowly journalists were only allowed access to Splash Hill Zone and the first couple of levels from the newly-unveiled Lost Labyrinth (upon pain of "ninjas dropping from the ceiling," apparently). From what I was able to play, Sonic 4 is shaping up to be a serious downloadable return to form- with possibly a couple of hiccups along the way.
Splash Hill Zone is the stereotypical green field with plenty of loops and flowers that tends to preface Sonic's two-dimensional adventures. You know the drill by now... but most importantly, the retooled physics are much less "floaty" than the earlier build (which caused SEGA to push back Sonic 4). Chaining together jumps and homing dashes feels intuitive and natural, with Sonic's extremely slow walking speed making his ground dash more relevant than the recent 3D offerings. Both purists and newcomers alike are bound to dig the mix of classic gameplay with some impressively rendered backdrops.
The Lost Labyrinth zone is very different, featuring many more traps and pitfalls to. Enormous Indy-style rolling boulders can be leapt on for a free ride, requiring you to tactically walk back in order to balance. The temple setting is atmospheric and Unfortunately, proceedings suddenly grind to a bizarre halt as Sonic grabs a torch... slows down... and solves puzzles. We call this Torch-ure.
The visibility drops to a few inches, meaning that Sonic has to slow to a crawl in order to see where he's going and plot a route through the level. What's more, players will frequently have to stop dead in order to work out some time-sensitive puzzles. For example, one section requires a selection of torches in the right order and with the right time delay in order to trigger some platforms. These sections feel nothing more than an inappropriate violation of a game that's supposed to be getting back to Sonic's supersonic roots... but with any luck they'll be so few and far between that we won't notice. Unfortunately, there are also on-rails mine cart segments. We'll wait for the final product before making a call on this one.
The classic psychadelic bonus levels are also making a welcome return. As you'd expect, these involve rotating a maze around Sonic as he falls downwards under the effects of gravity, collecting rings to open doors and attempting to reach an extra life before the time runs out. Bounce pads and dead ends make several of these labyrinths a lot harder to negociate. These bonus stages are absolutely classic (if epilepsy-inducing), and we're glad to see them back.
Sonic 4 will be available by the end of the year on PSN, XBLA, Wiiware and the App Store.
Just in case you don't know, Sonic Adventure was a 3D Dreamcast title that brought together several characters (including several new faces) to create an interlinked story with multiple campaigns and play styles. For example, Sonic's missions involve racing along blistering courses with an insane degree of visual stimulation, whilst Knuckles can climb, glide and punch his way through openworld levels in search of Chaos emeralds. Oh, and Big the Cat has a fishing sim.
SEGA were kind enough to bring the XBLA trial version along for the day... so whilst I was only able to play the very first level, I can happily submit the following report. It's the same, but with crisper graphics and a controller that doesn't slice your hands in half (sorry, Dreamcast). And just a hint of the slightly dodgy camera that occasionally fails to keep up with the protagonist.
The insane sense of speed and crazy rails segments are back in force, and personally I can't wait to get stuck back into Knuckles' open-world shenanigans again. The detractors may say that the extra characters are useless additions that dilute the formula... but considering the size of each campaign, it's technically just extra value. Want to see Sonic outrun a killer whale and sprint down an exploding skyscraper or catch some fish with a huge purple cat? Sonic Adventure will have you covered- and is set to provide a seriously meaty downloadable experience with an immense amount of content.
Sonic Adventure will be downloadable on XBLA from next Wednesday (September 15th)