It's all too easy to draw parallels between Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog. The classic mascot characters have endured the years to become videogame icons, recognized and loved by millions of game addicts around the globe. Nintendo's fat, Italian plumber helped pioneer the platformer genre and SEGA's blue hedgehog transformed it completely, placing a new emphasis on speed and rollercoaster-inspired level designs. In the old days, Mario and Sonic stood on even ground, each taking lead roles in an impressive selection of critically acclaimed titles. But as the years passed and consoles become more and more powerful, Mario's inevitable jump to the third dimension faired much better than Sonic's. Case in point: Super Mario 64 is remembered even today as one of the greatest games of all time. Sonic Adventure for Sega Dreamcast is conversely thought of as a flawed, but still enjoyable sequel by hardcore fans, and an altogether broken platformer by everybody else.
It is more than a little puzzling, therefore, that developers SEGA Studios USA and Sonic Team continue to draw upon that archaic, clunky design for various Hedgehog-based sequels. Sonic Adventure 2, for instance, hit Dreamcast and was later ported to GameCube with the same fundamental mechanics and shortcomings that blemished the original title. And now, the software house has created Shadow the Hedgehog for GameCube, PlayStation 2 and Xbox, a game that looks and plays like it was designed for Dreamcast a full six years ago. Sonic's darker half occasionally shines in the same way that its predecessors did -- namely, with an impressive sense of speed and dazzling stages complete with trademark twists and turns. And it's solely for these reasons that anybody who defends the original Sonic Adventure will probably like Shadow's one. Alternatively, though, players unimpressed with Sonic's Dreamcast outings will find more of the same here, and unlike a fine wine, age has not improved the formula.
Shadow the Hedgehog seems to be Sonic Team's unofficial attempt at aging up its platformer games and as a result the title regularly deals with slightly darker and more convoluted themes that center on the balance between good and evil. The story is kick-started by a gorgeously rendered full-motion animation cinematic that introduces players to the troubled Hedgehog, who has recently lost his memory and is struggling to come to grips with his place in the world. The tale picks up after the events in Sonic Heroes and consequently Shadow can only vaguely recall in flashbacks that there was a girl named Maria, he may have loved her, and she was murdered.
Shadow isn't allowed much alone time before his thought process is so rudely interrupted by the sounds of war and destruction. An alien threat called Black Arms explodes onto the scene and demolishes everything in its path, including nearby city skyscrapers. This is, again, all illustrated in impressive FMA cut-scenes that seasoned Sonic fans will undoubtedly appreciate. Shadow observes this phenomenon with a level of indifference before he is approached by a demon-like figure known as Black Doom, who leads the extraterrestrial forces. The menacing entity acts as though he knows Shadow and commands the Hedgehog to retrieve the seven powerful Chaos Emeralds located throughout the land. The anti-hero begrudgingly agrees, but only because Black Doom promises to restore his memory immediately after the artifacts are collected.
This oddball setup is supposed to extend into and become an integral part of the gameplay experience. Shadow is out for himself and therefore he can and in fact does switch allegiances depending on the preferences of players. The hedgehog can be made to carry out Black Doom's commands, or he can switch sides and team up with Sonic and friends, or even Dr. Eggman. Changing teams is as simple as tapping the D-Pad during gameplay. One quick tap and Shadow will find himself being guided to various goals, such as destroying G.U.N. troops, for Black Doom. Another tap and Sonic and friends will appear at his side to fight against the Black Arms.
The concept itself is intriguing primarily because it enables gamers to choose different paths for themselves as the hero advances through the adventure. The choices made will have a direct bearing on the stages that follow thanks to a branching storyline that allows for several possible paths and endings. This is a clever way to extend replay value and we're confident that completionists will play through the title several times, switching allegiances, so that they may see everything that there is to see.
However, observing the unique goals per different allegiances is a messy undertaking marred by poor design. The fact of the matter is that any level of serious planned strategizing is wholly unobtainable in the intensely frantic makeup of the game, whose mechanics perpetually dart Shadow forward with both limited visibility and control. In turn, even when gamers are trying to fight alongside Sonic and friends, they will accidentally dispose of hordes of allies and even zoom into and activate switches or complete puzzle components that they should ignore. This truth renders the entire operation of choosing sides more or less useless. Speed, Loops and Guns, But Very Little Fun
Dreamcast owners will already have an unfortunately accurate idea of how Shadow the Hedgehog plays (and for that matter, looks). To be brief, like Sonic Adventure before it. What this means is that speed and forward momentum are emphasized over control, puzzles, or to be frank, depth. Honestly, that isn't always a bad thing. Shadow, like Sonic before him, has his redeeming gameplay moments. We're referring to the rollercoaster-like stages complete with loop-de-loops, corkscrews and pinball bouncers that send the hedgehog zigzagging up and down environments at remarkable speeds. Because these scenarios are still plentiful, undeterred supporters of Sonic Team's efforts will undoubtedly find something to like about Shadow's quest.
That noted, these thrill-ride fundamentals have outworn their welcome, as far as we're concerned. Just because they dazzled players six years ago does not mean that Sonic Team can copy and paste exactly the same loops and spins into each new franchise iteration and expect everyone to be happy with the outcome. Admittedly, Shadow is at its best when the character is zipping through 360s and or skating a rollercoaster track. But it's also during these moments that the game plays itself. It is, in fact, possible, for participants to put their controllers down for seconds at a time and simply watch what unfolds. How is relinquishing control for what amounts to watching Shadow tumble through a scripted corkscrew a rewarding play environment?
Unfortunately for Sonic's darker half, there are all-new problems exclusive to his adventure. The very first level in Shadow the Hedgehog is a shining example of spectacularly lackluster game design and probably one of the worst single stages that we've played in any title for many months. The reluctant hero is thrust into a drab environment and immediately nudged forward -- right into a progression of objects, including obstructing walls and enemies. Disappointingly, the platformer also features a horrendously malfunctioned camera system that catches on environments or even occasionally runs amok for no particular discernible reason. The result? Commonly frustrating undertakings where the goal is to burst forward and gain speed, but before that can happen Shadow crashes into enemies and loses rings, or simply goes careening off a ledge. These impossibly trying outcomes are worsened because Shadow moves loosely through the worlds he explores, which at times makes precision navigation an insurmountable hurdle.
The character can, unlike Sonic, wield a number of imposing weapons, from massive swords to explosive projectiles. But in a move that again harkens back to the days of Dreamcast, there is no lock-on system in place and therefore what is a simple process in other titles is overly complex and cumbersome here. Successfully targeting and unloading a bazooka shot at an enemy may as well be left to chance. Sonic Team has positioned Shadow's gunplay as a primary selling point to the platformer, but in practice the mechanics are really not that enjoyable.
Recycled technology and replicated production values have ensured that Shadow the Hedgehog looks and sounds almost exactly like its Sonic-based predecessors. To Sonic Team's credit, there are more than 20 levels in the game and each is varied in design. Some areas have a futuristic look to them while others feature large metropolis backgrounds and more still take Shadow through lava and forest settings. Meanwhile, the game engine draws long, stretching locales populated with a moderate number of polygonal characters. And on GameCube and Xbox, the fluidity usually aspires for the 60 frames per second mark with some dips. The PlayStation 2 version is noticeably more sluggish despite the fact that it is visually lacking compared to its counterparts. And yet, these are small graphic victories, especially when held to today's more robust standards. Shadow oftentimes looks like it could have been designed for Dreamcast simply because the worlds and characters lack polygon numbers, which leads to a generally square presentation void of curvy shapes. Worse is that many of the game's textures are downright muddy, especially when the camera malfunctions and pans up close, as it consistently does. And overall character animation is primitive and incomplete when compared to the majority of today's games.
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