Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sonic Generations Demo Impressions

At this point, a lot of people would agree that 2010 was, at the very least, a better year than we’ve come to expect from Sonic. Sure, there was Free Riders and the TERRIBLY done XBLA/PSN port of Sonic Adventure, and due to its (often seen as negative) deviations from the Genesis games to which it is touted a sequel – and I’m not just talking about GREEN EYES – Sonic 4: Episode I has earned a reputation as a very love it or hate it game – quite unfortunate for the first part of a game that is meant to be Sonic’s opus, but given Sonic’s track record on consoles throughout the latter half of the 2000s, it’s honestly (and sadly) somewhat respectable. But then we have Sonic Colors, which rocked both of Nintendo’s current systems last Christmas, and while it didn’t satisfy absolutely everyone, I personally thought it was awesome, and it’s the first 3-D Sonic game since the Dreamcast version of Sonic Adventure 2 to secure a position in the green on Metacritic. Heck, it even got an 8.5/10 from IGN. Let that sink in. A 3-D Sonic game got a great review from IGN.

Unfortunately, gamers and the gaming press at large tend to ignore this fact, as demonstrated by this Kotaku article. Even IGN, whom lauded both Sonic 4 and Colors with praise, would rather point out Sonic’s missteps in their already-infamous history of Sonic feature, posted the other day, rather than many of the games that succeeded. Perhaps it’s to be expected, though. We’ve been burned so badly for so long that perhaps it will take quite a while to forget the pain. Or maybe we need one game so amazing that it will be nearly impossible to deny that Sonic is back.

That is what Sonic Generations, coming to 360 and PS3 this holiday, is setting out to do – and, even better, looks like it WILL do. It features two separate play styles a la Sonic Unleashed, but don’t worry: no stretchy-armed monstrosities this time! Instead, as part of the celebration of 20 years of Sonic, we will be playing as two different Sonics – the rounder, cuter, more childish Sonic that Genesis kids will remember, and the taller, leaner, green-eyed Sonic that my generation knows and loves – or “Ruined Forever Sonic”, as I like to call him after a small but annoyingly vocal faction of fans’ reaction to his presence in Sonic 4. Classic Sonic’s levels feature fast platforming based around momentum physics reminiscent of the Genesis titles from which he hails, and, judging from what we’ve seen, “Ruined Forever Sonic” combines the best elements of Unleashed – that is, the GOOD levels from Unleashed (the amazing sense of speed and seamlessly switching between 2-D and 3-D perspectives) – with the best elements of Colors (enjoyable sections of straight-up platforming). Keeping with the theme, each of the game’s levels are based on locales from Sonic’s previous adventures, (Green Hill from Sonic 1 and City Escape from Sonic Adventure 2 being the ones thus far shown) all reimagined in glorious HD, with remixed music, levels designed to fit the two play styles, and perhaps a few surprises a long the way. You know you want it.

And just to show even further how much they love us, for a limited time (20 days to be exact, starting at June 23, Sonic’s official birthday) SEGA is offering a free demo of the beta version on Xbox Live and PSN to give us a little taste of what we’re going to get. Although we can likely expect to get to play as “Ruined Forever Sonic” at some point, so far only Classic Sonic’s Green Hill Zone is playable. Over the past few days, I have played the demo almost non-stop, analyzing it as if it were some elaborate, complex, deep work of art meant to be studied and appreciated. I’ve played it until I’ve gotten bored with it, and then played it some more, and I can safely say that while there are improvements that can and probably should be made in the months leading up to the game’s release, it’s probably time to put all of our fears and doubts to rest. Ladies and gentlemen, the demo of Sonic Generations is awesome.

The first thing I want to go over is the visuals. Green Hill Zone has never looked so great. The lighting effects and colors are simply gorgeous, and the zone’s checkerboard patterned walls and grass are beautifully detailed and generally look fantastic HD. But even aside from that, the level just feels so alive. As you run through the level, you will pass by numerous giant totem poles and be able to admire the surreal landscape of the level. It’s not content to bore you with repetitive scenery, either, and as you traverse the stage you will venture into dimly-lit caves and run along mountaintops. Classic Sonic’s model is also highly detailed, as are those of the enemies in the game, which seem to have been given somewhat of a metallic shine. Definitely a nice touch. Oh, and while I’m at it, the remix of Green Hill Zone’s original theme is VERY nice.

Of course, at this point Sonic Team knows better than to put all of the work into the graphics, and it certainly shows. The first thing most of you who were disappointed with Sonic 4 are probably wondering is if they got Sonic’s physics right this time. For the most part, yes, they did. When running or during a spindash, Sonic carries and maintains momentum just as he did in the classics and just as he should. Perhaps the best way that Sonic Team has shown their work is that it’s even incorporated into the level design, as you will need to make use of Sonic’s momentum to go through loops and to take some of the faster paths through the stage. Oh, and when coming off of a quarterpipe, he doesn’t uncurl either, if that bothered you, you unpleasable little retro nerd (kidding). Unfortunately, not all is perfect with the physics. In fact, this brings me to the first negative point I will mention: pressing down while running (which causes Sonic to roll into a ball briefly), while not as useless as it was in Sonic 4, generally only slows you down from my experience. It’s not a big disappointment, but it’s something I’d like to see fixed by the time the game is released.

Now, there IS another change that has been made to the physics, but it seems to be intentional. Bouncing off of an enemy no longer causes you to bounce to a height proportional to how much downward momentum you gained. Instead, the height is always fixed. I say this is intentional because bouncing off of enemies seems to have been made into a sort of “double jump” now. This is demonstrated very well by a section toward the beginning of the stage where you have two paths to take: a lower route through a tube that will overall be a slower route, and a higher route on a ledge that Sonic can’t jump to normally. However, there is a purple bee enemy flying back and forth, and if you can time a jump so that you can hit it while it’s close enough to the ledge, you will bounce off of it and be able to reach the ledge. It’s a mechanic that works well and that I hope to see used more often in the game’s levels.

This brings me to yet another of the demo’s major strengths: the level present is EXTREMELY well designed. The level blends speed and platforming very well, just as the Genesis games did, but that’s not even the best part. The level is multi-layered like in the classics, featuring an upper, middle, and lower path, the upper path being the fastest to take but the hardest to stay on. This is where you can REALLY tell that Sonic Team knows what they’re doing, because as I continued to replay the demo, for the first ten or so playthroughs I kept finding new areas and shortcuts through the level. There are TONS of different pathways and shortcuts to take in this one stage, and it truly captures the freedom and exploration that set the Genesis games apart from other platformers way back in the early 90’s along with Sonic's speed. Oh, and as mentioned before, to take the fastest paths through the stage, you will need to utilize Newton’s third law of motion to your advantage. If the first stage of the entire freaking game is like this, then just think, what will the rest of the classic stages be like?
He's waaaaaiting...

Now, a common criticism of the game (aside from the poor implementation of the rolling mechanic) from those who have played it is that Sonic feels kind of heavy and stiff, and I will have to concur. It’s nothing game breaking, but it’s definitely noticeable and it’s something that should be fixed. I’ve also heard people complaining about things like the number of scripted events in the stage, how springs are activated by hitting them from any side rather than by jumping on them (and are also scripted) and that the stage has more automated segments than the classics. Though I do think that changing some of this could help the game to feel even more like the Genesis games, I honestly didn’t take issue with any of these points. Not enough of the level is fully scripted or automated to detract from it in my opinion, and the thing about being able to use a spring from any side seems really inconsequential anyway. Really, just polish it up, fix the rolling, make Sonic feel lighter to control, and make the spindash a bit weaker and I think this game will be ready to play this Christmas.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the Generations demo. Now, SEGA, getting to play a classic level of this game early is great and all…but when those 20 days are up, will you let us play Modern Sonic’s level a bit? Please?

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