Sonic the Hedgehog, like Nintendo's fat, Italian plumber, has been around forever. He blasted through loops and sped through corkscrews on Sega's 16-bit Genesis console and has delighted hordes of fans ever since. But not everybody's been happy with the mascot's transition to 3D. Sonic Adventure 1 and 2 for Dreamcast (both of which were later ported to GameCube) proved to be fast and pretty, but also lacked polish. Drawbacks included play styles with less emphasis on raw speed and more on exploration; clunky, underdeveloped camera systems and in-game bugs and glitches.
There is a light beginning to glimmer at the end of this tunnel though. After a hiatus, Sega and Sonic Team are back with an original new installment in the Sonic franchise. Sonic Heroes has gone back to the roots of the franchise in many ways, the most important of which relates to level design. The worlds that Sonic zips through are ultra-entertaining, unpredictable thrill rides. The game is faster than its Dreamcast ancestors and it's a lot prettier too. Plus, there's an entirely new play dynamic - the ability to switch between three characters in-game - which mixes up the gameplay styles in the level as opposed to the previous Sonic titles which split the levels between the different characters. The result is a more interesting and fun game to play.
Still some of the same old problems, many of them technical, are back for one more round and these again put a dent in the complete product. Even though the series has gotten further than before, it still has a long way to go.
- The first wholly original 3D console Sonic the Hedgehog game since Sonic Adventure 2 for Dreamcast
- Play as one of four teams including Team Sonic, Team Chaotix, Team Dark and Team Rose; 12 combined characters total
- Control three characters in-game: switch between them at any point and utilize their unique strengths
- Story, Challenge and Tutorial modes included
- Battle mode includes two and four-player split-screen action
- 14 unique stages
- View unlockable CG trailers and listen to music in the theatre section
- Progressive scan mode supported
Developer Sonic Team seems to have covered all of the bases so far as Sonic Heroes' presentation is concerned. The game doesn't feature a single storyline, but four intertwined ones. We won't give away the specifics, but each - full of trademark characters and goofy, over-the-top style - is illustrated through the use of crispy clean full-motion video sequences that set up the action and then help drive it throughout the course of the title. Sonic Heroes revolves around team play and though the make-up of levels remain the same, challenges are varied depending on which of the four unique teams is chosen.
There are even different degrees of difficulty that relate to which group is selected. For instance, beginner players will want to go with Team Rose, which includes recognizable Sonic stars Amy Rose, Big the Cat and Cream the Rabbit, as it's designed to be more forgiving; it even starts off with a traditional tutorial. But pros will want to go with Team Dark, featuring Shadow, E-123 Omega and Rouge the Bat, because maneuvering them and completing their objectives is harder and requires more skill. Team Sonic falls somewhere in the middle. It's very well thought out and equally well implemented. In Sonic Heroes, gamers control a team of three characters with individual strengths. Though the players on each team are different, the same basic rule applies: one mascot is used for speed, another for flight and the last for power. The button layout is such that players can intuitively cycle through the characters. Though it initially takes some getting used to, especially with the game's fast pace, the process is easily mastered with a little practice. In the levels, most of the terrain can be covered by all three mascots, but there are often spots where one specific mascot is needed in order to continue.
This new dynamic beefs up the strategic element of the experience some, but it's not used in enough clever, challenging ways to really change the overall experience. True, there are brick walls that only the power character can break through, but there is always a sign nearby that explains what to do or who to use, which cuts down on the difficulty considerably, a disappointment.
There are a variety of satisfying maneuvers between the teams and characters and many of them require the cooperation of three mascots in order to function. Sonic can speed dash, zip along walls, create wind tornadoes that suck up enemies and allow him to swing up poles, while Knuckles can demolish walls and naturally Tails can fly. More impressive, though, with Knuckles in the lead all three characters can lock arms together and then soar on the tops of wind funnels. Or Tails can throw his friends at hovering bad guys and knock them out of the sky. And on top of everything else players can perform a Team Blast, a devastating and dazzling move that eliminates all of the enemies on the screen. The selection, which is commendable, keeps the battle elements from growing stale.
We like these new additions. But we have to be honest here, and the truth is that we're simultaneously disappointed by them because we simply enjoy the thrill-ride elements a great deal more. Sonic Heroes does an absolutely sensational job of re-creating the intensely fast and unpredictable looping, corkscrewing stages from the classic games in 3D. Gamers who make it to the title's Casino Park stage, where the characters become virtual pinballs and bounce through chaotic, psychedelic casino environments, will be absolutely amazed at the speed and unpredictability of the areas. In Rail Canyon the heroes zoom along a series of 360-degree loops, unbelievable drop-offs, zigzagging turns, and more and it's so frantic and fun that there's barely enough time to blink. Sonic fans are going to be very pleased. These elements are done so well that every time we have to stop racing, or bouncing off pinball-like buzzers, jumping over landscapes, zipping around curves and more, we find ourselves disappointed. We would rather not break from the adrenaline rush.
It's also when the heroes stop zipping along that the game reveals one of its technical shortcomings, the same drawback that has nicked the presentation of previous Sonic the Hedgehog titles. The camera system seems to work when the characters are corkscrewing through environments, but when the action slows, especially during arena-styled battles, it sometimes goes haywire. It occasionally frames the play from behind doors, or so that players are unable to see what's ahead of them. It can also decide to do a sudden 180 and show the action from the other side. Flying up a cliff, I had just made it to the top when the camera flipped around and I was suddenly going the wrong way. During exploratory missions or even just trying to move around, the camera can make the proceedings practically impossible. Regular jumping puzzles become extreme tests of faith since there's little clue to where you're going to land. Several jumps to what I thought would be a safe location had me fall off into the abyss. The camera never knows when to pull out or go in close to make the situation more understandable.
The title delivers some 14 levels, which are large and varied. Still, experienced gamers should be able to go through the game in a couple hours. To please Sonic fans, it's possible to go through again and again with the four different teams and experience slightly altered scenarios as well as unique story offerings. There are also rewards for getting high scores or setting a new time for a level. While it provides some incentive to keep playing, it just doesn't add much more to the game.
Colorful. Vibrant. Cheery. And entirely Sonic the Hedgehog in design. Players familiar with the franchise will recognize not only the characters, but also many of the locales. The saturated green world with blue water backdrop from the original game. The brown and tan tiled loops and runways. The crowded pinball machines and the casino themed courses. They're all back and looking good.
The game spits out large, moderately detailed locations that hold up at a distance, but up close they reveal themselves to be rather simplistic. The worlds are brightly lit. There are faked environmental shadows and gorgeous shimmering, transparent water effects. Meanwhile, the 3D models in the game are detailed and varied. The characters are well animated; be it the Hedgehog's quick spin or the heavy movement of E-123 Omega, it all looks fluid and realistic.
The game's framerate is perhaps one of its most impressive feats. It runs at 60 frames per second without fail in single-player mode, an impressive feat given just how fast the game speeds along at some points. Unfortunately, the framerate does not hold up in multiplayer mode. The title also runs in progressive scan mode, a welcomed benefit for high-definition television owners.
The Sonic the Hedgehog franchise has never featured our favorite brand of music and this latest installment is no different. Sonic Heroes returns with cheesy 80s-style guitar riffs and all. But the quality is at least very pristine. So even though the music may send everyone else running from the room, at least it sounds good.
Meanwhile, the sound effects are perfectly implemented, from the ding of pinball buzzers to the nitro burst noise that accompanies Sonic's speed binges, but the overall effect is a little too much like a Saturday morning cartoon. Where the heroes get bright and happy sound effects, the enemies get barely any. There is no satisfying thump when destroying a robot, just a bit of "whoof" sound, as if Sonic was deflating an air mattress rather than taking down a machine. All of the sounds lean much more towards the treble than the bass and rounding out the sound effects would have made a more satisfactory experience. All of this runs in Dolby Digital, but I have to wonder why anyone would bother. Only a die-hard Sonic nut could appreciate the horrendous voice work that is meant to colorize characters. Our suggestion to players: turn down the volume during cut-scenes. This way, you can avoid the plotlines that don't even make any sense and just enjoy the high-quality CGI.
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