Platforms: Wii U
Developers: Sonic Team
Publishers: SEGA | Nintendo
Sonic Colours gave the blue blur a renewed lease of life, hitting critical echelons hitherto unseen by the speedy hedgehog since his glory days. It was enough to give anyone who'd gamed their way through the Nineties a heart attack: here were the greatest rivals in retro gaming history playing nice together, exclusively. The defining mascot of one had found the perfect home on the console of the other. Sonic Colours was good, really good in fact, and so when news broke of SEGA and Nintendo brokering another exclusive partnership for another new Sonic title, we allowed ourselves to get a bit excited.
Super Mario 3D Land looks great, but it doesn't exactly look terribly new given that it's based on an 18-month old 3DS game. Sonic: Lost World, on the other hand, looks like a breath of fresh air. Better yet, though Nintendo appear to have bottled it, SEGA are running (very fast) with the legacy of Super Mario Galaxy. And that's a really good thing.
Producer Takashi Iizuka recently admitted that the new Sonic game takes a vast amount of inspiration from the Wii's best game, but that's only natural when you're looking to push the boundaries of a series in a three dimensional space.
"With Lost World we wanted to evolve how Sonic works in 3D. When you think about a 3D level, it's still limited - the sides are limited - so we talked about making levels as cubes or tubes," Iizuka told ONM recently.
"Expanding the sides around 360 degrees enables players to take many paths, not just two or three. We ended up with a tune stage and realised we were a bit close to Mario Galaxy!"
Our hands-on started off in Windy Hill, which nicked a bunch of art assets from the Green Hill Zone and then applied them to a rotating cylinder sprinkled with beasties, suspended in a glorious blue sky peppered with clouds. The level layout made no logical sense to us, but then it didn't need to. We're playing as a super-speedy hedgehog who wears trainers, realism isn't important.
The game is still fast, but it appeared to us that Sonic's pace has been dialled back a little bit, giving players the opportunity to play around with levels that are richer and more diverse than ever before. The Sonic series has ever been an advocate of multiple routes through a level, and it looks as the widened scope for traversal will play into that very nicely indeed. Sonic still has his homing attack and his spin dash to get a little bit of extra speed, but now there's a dedicated boost button that puts the blur into'blue blur' and allows him to defy gravity for longer periods of time, running up walls or onto the ceilings of tubes. There are quite a few tubes.
But the great thing about the cylindrical level design is that it doesn't just feel automatic in the way that some Sonic titles have in the past. The awkward relationship between ridiculous speed and well-thought-out platforming has long been a noose around the series' neck. But the level design looks to provide options for slowing down a little and appreciating the design work. Whether or not SEGA can provide incentives to do so is another matter entirely, and not something we were able to ascertain from our brief time with the game.
Perhaps more so than Super Mario Galaxy, Lost World's Windy Hill resembles Sonic X-treme -- the canned Saturn game that had been planned to bridge the gap between Sonic & Knuckles and Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast -- which presented players with a slightly fish-eyed camera and took place on a floating 3D plane, littered with levels that embraced cylindrical design and switching perspectives. As we flip our way through the tubular islands in Windy Hill, it's hard not be struck by the similarities, even if SEGA are preaching coincidence.
The first level of Desert Ruin (should that be Dessert?) is a more traditional 2D affair set against a backdrop of various pastries and pudding delights. Here, there are a few fiendish platforming challenges as the game slows down and precise jump timing is an absolute requirement. The homing attack came into good use towards the end of the level as we had to use enemies to bounce our way to the top, though again timing was at a premium, with this stage in particular perfectly happy to kill off players simply mashing the A button.
The final level was something of an auto-run affair, again back in 3D and hurtling about what appeared to be tree trunks, liberally strewn with giant slices of honeycomb. We had to rotated Sonic around the tubular trunks to line up entry into the honeycomb tunnels, and there were several moments where we found ourselves flitting from side to side to follow incomplete paths up through the levels. Unlike the swift, slick quick side-step available in Sonic Generations, Sonic's lateral movement was pretty sluggish here, and we fell to our deaths a couple of times before growing accustomed to his turning circle. But I almost think it's better this way. It didn't feel so on rails as we tried to wrestle Sonic under our control, and then flipping about with the right trigger once inside the honeycomb tunnels to avoid giant, worm-like enemies was fairly rewarding. We lost a few lives, but the checkpointing was fair, and we had fun doing it. There's perhaps a bit of tightening up to be done, but Lost World looks promising.
If Colours and Generations were example of Sonic Team coming to terms finally with the delicate balance between past and present, then Lost World could be their modern opus. Our demo was filled with more invention than nostalgia, and we haven't been able to say that about a Sonic game in years. It could be a false dawn, of course, and we've surely had enough of those when it comes to Sonic, but of all of the games at this Nintendo E3 showcase, it was one of the few that seemed genuinely concerned with using the Wii U to advance something, to push a series onwards. And that's certainly earned it the benefit of the doubt for the time being.