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Sonic Team
GENRE: Platformer
November 14, 2006

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Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I

More in this Series
 Written by James Dauer  on November 30, 2006

Review: I'm beginning to think 15 years old in Hedgehog years means 90 years old in human years.

Sonic's been almost running on empty since his debut on the Dreamcast. Anyone who has played one of the many 3D platformers of the Xbox/PS2/Gamecube generation could tell you that. While people have their differing opinions on the two Sonic Adventures and Sonic Heroes, we can all agree that the Sonic series has had a very violent and rough transition into the 3D age. While most platforming series have gracefully worked out the majority of the bugs such as camera and control problems, every 3D Sonic game has failed with each of these aspects. That being the case, it's not hard to understand the hopes that many had pinned on this Sonic game. After all, Sega was reinventing Sonic for the next generation. It was a new start. It was time to wipe the slate clean and show fans just how dedicated the team was to delivering a quality product. Now, I could draw this review out and keep your anticipation up as to whether or not Sonic delivers, but I think those of you as interested in Sonic as I am deserve a straight answer. The short story is that Sonic feels more like a $60 slap in the face to anyone who had any interest left in the blue hedgehog. If you're considering buying the game- don't. Save yourself the pain. Wait for it to hit the bargain bin. If you're still curious to know just how bad a disaster this game is, continue reading, but be warned, it isn't pretty.

First off, Sonic's new storyline reeks of last-minute script writing. The entire game takes place in a human town called Soleanna, much like Sonic Adventure's Station Square. In Sonic the Hedgehog, chaos emeralds play second fiddle to a crazy plot featuring a princess named Elise and some powerful force known as the Flames of Destruction that Eggman wants to control. One way or the other Sonic is forced to save both the princess and Soleanna from certain destruction. It gets really bizarre when the princess begins to find herself romantically attracted towards the hedgehog. Yes, there is actually a point in the game where she almost hits on Sonic. Despite being a completely pointless scene, it also is one of the biggest warning signs that Sonic as we know and love him is coming to an end. The rest of this painful narrative throws crazy plot devices at you such as hidden government conspiracies and time travel- something everyone wants to see in a light-hearted mascot game. Some how they try to tie all of these ideas and levels together with the Soleanna hub world, but to a confusing effect. The first time I saw the hub world, I honestly got the feeling it was tacked on to cover up the fact that there was no real design phase to the game. As I progressed, I found out just how right I was. The guys at Archie comics could and have written better Sonic narratives than this, and that's really not saying much about the Archie comics Sonic series. Sonic obviously hasn't had a good story since Sonic 3 and wouldn't you know it, that game didn't have a story to speak of.

The biggest problem with this game is its playability, or lack thereof. Players can choose between either Sonic, Shadow, or the newcomer Silver the Hedgehog. Each character has some differences between their stages. While all feature the same actual levels, each has different means for exploring them. Sonic will run through each stage, Shadow will not only run through each stage (same as Sonic), but he'll also commandeer a few weapon loaded vehicles, and Silver? well, he'll casually walk through the stages, but at least he's got psychic powers to use and he'll be less likely to run off the edge of the stage. All three also have somewhat similar boss battles. Sonic and Shadow actually share a few bosses with the same patterns and methods of defeat.

If you've played through any of the Sonic Adventure games, you'll already know what to expect from the blue hedgehog's missions. Sonic will run fast, bounce off of springs, grind rails, and? run fast some more. I noticed a few different play-types to Sonic's stages. The first is the average Sonic gameplay where you work your way through a 3D level, fighting off robots and finding multiple pathways and secrets. These parts are some of the best in the game and in defense of the game feature the best environments and level designs the series has ever seen since its 3D inception. With the exception of one or two levels, I never got bored with Sonic's stages. That isn't to say I didn't get very frustrated, but the game's levels feature overall fantastic design. That's about where the positive karma ends. The camera somehow got worse between Sonic Heroes and this game and will often cause you to die in the dumbest ways (read: taking blind walks off cliffs). Luckily Sonic Team has seen it fit to give players 6 lives per continue. You'll definitely need them. The other play-type is where Sonic runs full bear and the only control the player has over him is left and right steering, and jumping. These are horribly annoying because whenever Sonic jumps, there is no way to steer him. If you make Sonic jump and he isn't facing straight ahead, you can bet he'll end up falling off the stage in no time flat. These are few and far apart, but dread them whenever you see them; they will often eat up the majority of those 6 lives and any extras you may find.

When Sonic isn't rushing through a stage, he'll be wandering through the worst hub world ever. Just one look at Soleanna and you'll get the feeling it was just tacked on to keep the game looking like there was some actual content there. Soleanna is a cross between Italy and France with a little New York thrown in for flair. Though it is interesting to note that downtown Soleanna has many sky scrapers, but almost no one on the street, and no cars to speak of. Either way, the hub is where it becomes painfully obvious that the words ?Sonic? and ?Adventure? should never be uttered in the same sentence again. Sonic has to walk around and talk to many generic poorly modeled townspeople to get direction in the game. This takes time and can be frustrating since the only map in the game is a tiny one in the top corner of the screen.

Also, there are some townspeople that will give out missions GTA style. Once again, putting GTA elements in games that are clearly not GTA means someone ran out of ideas. The extra missions are often dull and uninspired. The difficulty of the missions also ranges from stupidly easy to insanely hard. The hub is also where most of the bugs take place. I often found myself getting stuck in walls, mysteriously diving off into the abyss, and fighting the camera.

There are a few customizable options with Sonic. He can buy and equip chips to his shoes that allow the right trigger to perform different actions. These range from faster speed to special attacks. The last few chips actually add a little buggy fun to the game. One chip lets Sonic throw a gem around and wherever it lands, Sonic will instantly perform a jump of Superman proportions to land (near) where the gem landed. It's almost fun in a Spider-Man 2 sort of way, though it serves absolutely no purpose. Another gem lets you shrink Sonic down to a fraction of his size and yet somehow run faster and fly. Yes, he can fly when he is tiny, and I'm about 99% sure it's just one of the hundreds of bugs that didn't get worked out of the game. Just shrink Sonic down and perform a homing attack over and over and before long you'll be able to jump your way anywhere in the game.

Shadow's stages play exactly like Sonic's with the exception that at random periods through the stage, Shadow will run across a buggy, hovercraft, or some other out of place vehicle that he can drive. While driving, Shadow can usually shoot stuff down. This is fun for a few minutes. Unfortunately the vehicles tend to have poor handling, and also suffer from a few bugs here and there. Instead of having Sonic's running levels, Shadow will sometimes take to the sky with a hang glider. You can't control how fast he moves or make him jump, but you can still steer, and you can shoot missiles. At least you won't jump off the edge of the map unexpectedly.

Silver is the real surprise of the game. His missions, while much slower than the other two, feature some portions that really test out the silver hedgehog's telekinesis abilities. The telekinesis ability works pretty well and is quite reminiscent of the gravity gun from Half-Life 2, only a tad bit easier to use. Silver can stop most projectiles from hitting him, and launch them back at the enemies. He can also jump onto objects and levitate them. There's really no use for doing this considering Silver can float himself around, but it's still cool looking. As mentioned before, the only real downside with Silver is that he's just naturally really slow. The irony is that Sonic and Shadow's broken stages are the ones with the most potential for being fun and they fail, and yet Silver's stages never really progress beyond moving and throwing boxes, and yet they actually are fun, at least for a little while. I'd also say that Silver is the only reason the Havoc engine was used in the game, because let's face it, there's no reason that Sonic needs to have destructible realistic physics in his stages- he's usually running too fast for anyone to notice it.

In every character's play through there will be points where players will be forced to use that character's friends. If playing as Sonic, this means Tails and Knuckles will come along for the ride. If playing as Shadow, Rouge and E123-Omega will come along. And while playing as Silver, Amy Rose and Blaze the Cat will join up (so that's the alternate dimension she was from in Sonic Rush?) Basically whenever these characters come into play the game goes from being moderately interesting to horribly boring.

The only other thing to consider with Sonic the Hedgehog is the Multiplayer which is easy to overlook and still not very exciting. Basically it's two modes, Tag and Battle, that both have two players playing as either Sonic, Shadow, or Silver in a race to the finish. One pits the two against each other, the other encourages that they work together. Either way, it's just the same game as single player only with a vertical split screen and no hub, which looking back may be a good thing. I didn't notice any Xbox Live multiplayer capability, which isn't a surprise in such an unpolished game.

Aside from the fact that the game clearly wasn't tested very well as can be seen by the many control issues facing simple things like wall-climbing and attacking enemies, there is also one other aspect to the game that keeps the headaches rolling. This would be the load times. From simply pressing start on the title screen to entering missions, everything has at least a 10 to 15 second load time to it. It gets really ridiculous when taking up NPC missions in the hub world. The scenario goes like this:
Talk to NPC and accept mission. Wait for 15 second load time. Read one or two useless lines of dialogue. Sit through another 15 second load time. Perform mission and either pass or fail. Sit through another 15 second load time. Get ranking. Sit through another 15 second load time. Rinse. Repeat.
If that wasn't enough, there 15 second load times at the beginning of each stage, and between each part of every stage. This means that when transitioning from an average Sonic stage to an uncontrollable running Sonic stage, you'll be waiting at least 15 seconds. It all ads up really fast, and from the people I've talked to, it's the worst problem with the game despite all the glaring bugs. If I'm going to wait for so long to play the game, then there better be a good reason for it.

Visually Sonic is a crazy game. At times, Sonic will floor you with some of the best looking environments you've ever seen in a game as well as some of the best looking FMVs. At the same time, Sonic features some of the worst character models this generation. The NPCs make some original Xbox games look good, and the sheer sparseness of Soleanna is just embarrassing. The only thing good looking about the hub world is the fact that it runs in High Definition. Buildings are nothing more than decent looking wall-paper plastered onto some flat square polygons that may or may not have awnings. This just furthers my claim that the hub was simply tacked on at the last second since everything related to Soleanna is broken and looks bad. It's sad, too, because once inside any of the levels, you can see the beauty of level design unseen in any of the previous Sonic games. Just looking at stills of the game will give a good example of just how nice the actual levels look. If one could just strip away the nasty hub world, the game would actually benefit greatly. Also while the FMVs look good in general, there's still something a little awkward about them. While Sonic looks great on his own, and so does Princess Elise, everything just looks off when the two are in a scene together. There's something very ?Who Framed Rodger Rabbit??-esque about the scenes with very human looking characters talking to very cartoon looking animals.

Sound was a bit of a surprise in Sonic. The soundtrack is a bit different than any of the recent Sonic games. While stages still feature the usual rock riffs expected in the other Sonic Adventure games, the hub features some relaxing acoustic sounds and other pleasant music. It won't turn everyone on, but as a fan of smooth jazz I was pleasantly surprised. This all makes since considering the man behind the last three Sonic games was not the same one behind the music in this game.

Bottom Line
Ultimately I can't see anyone who isn't completely into Sonic being happy with this game. It's just broken. It's so broken in fact that one wonders if they weren't trying to intentionally botch the game- it's just that bad. There's no reason that the game should glitch from the first 10 seconds of gameplay, and yet I managed to wreck the game right off the bat by (literally) running into a wall. It's such a rushed effort the game barely works as a Beta version of a game. And it's really sad because somewhere in this mess of bad programming and poor QA is some of the best level design and gameplay seen in any Sonic to date. There's a fantastic game just waiting to be released in this mess, but I guess Sonic just couldn't get the love it needed. Maybe one of these days a patch will be released for the game to keep it from sucking, but I've got a hunch we'll be seeing flying pigs before then. At least Sonic fans can still look forward to ?Sonic Rivals?, ?Sonic and the Secret Rings?, and the remake of ?Sonic 1? on the Xbox 360 and GBA for some (hopefully) good 2D action. Otherwise I can't recommend this game to anyone unless you want to invoke pain and suffering.

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