Sunday, August 7, 2011

Sonic Heroes Review

Last summer, I reviewed three of the controversial 3-D Sonic games - namely, Sonic Adventure, Sonic Adventure 2, and Sonic Unleashed. This was partly due to my hype for the then-upcoming Sonic games - Sonic 4: Episode I and Sonic Colors - and also because I find 3-D Sonic games an interesting subject, what with the controversies, broken fanbases, and allegations of bias towards professional critics surrounding them. Well, this year is Sonic's 20th anniversary, and we have yet another awesome-looking game coming out called Sonic Generations. Before it comes out, I've decided to review the 3-D Sonic games I skipped over last year, just so no one feels left out.

Uhh...yeah, sorry, but not that one. I tried to play it again, but the torture was just too much to bear. That statement alone should say enough about my feelings for THAT game. I also won't be reviewing the Riders or Storybook series, as they're just spinoffs and had little influence on the direction or canon of the Sonic games overall. Instead, I will start my excursion through the remaining two 3-D Sonic games with Sonic Heroes. It was released in early 2004 to mixed reception from both the fans and the critics and is sometimes considered the point where the franchise starting its downhill spiral that it has just now broken out of. I, myself, absolutely loved it as a kid, but do I still care for it as much now that I'm an older, more seasoned gamer? It's time to find out!


Sonic Heroes focuses on four teams of characters: Team Sonic, made of up your usual Sonic the Hedgehog, Miles "Tails" Prower and Knuckles the Echidna; Team Dark, made up of series veterans Shadow the Hedgehog and Rouge the Bat as well as new character E-123 Omega, who is a robot that Eggman built; Team Rose, made up of Amy Rose, Cream the Rabbit (first introduced in Sonic Advance 2), and Big the Cat; and finally, Team Chaotix, made up of Espio the Chameleon, Vector the Crocodile, and Charmy the Bee, all characters from an old 32X spinoff that very few people even knew about. So why did they even bring them back? Well, we'll see soon enough. Anyway, Team Sonic's story is exactly what you would expect: Eggman's planning something evil and they've got to, in Sonic's words, "CRACK THAT EGGMAN WIDE OPEN! YEAH, LET'S PARTY!" Team Rose has to find Froggy and a lost Chao named Chocola, and Team Chaotix (being a detective agency) has to help out a mysterious client by completing missions. Team Dark's storyline is the most interesting: whilst breaking into Eggman's base, Rouge finds Omega and the thought-to-be-deceased Shadow (who can't remember anything), and they all pursue Eggman for their own reasons - Shadow for answers as to his lost memories, Rouge for treasure and Omega for revenge.

Sonic Heroes was the first 3-D Sonic game after the Adventure series, and changes things up from them by introducing the team gimmick. Rather than controlling each team member separately in their own levels as in Sonic Adventure 2, each of a team's three members are controlled at once. Each team is made up of a "speed" character, a "flight" character and a "power" character. The formation of the team changes depending on which one is the leader, and the leader can be switched out using the "Y" and "X" buttons (on the GameCube). Obviously, while in "speed" formation, the game moves at its fastest, and you will also be able to use the homing attack, which is useful for damaging enemies and sometimes even crossing gaps using said enemies. Speed characters also have a tornado move that can knock enemies off balance or take away the shields of some enemies as well as allow the team to swing off of poles, and some can even dash along a trail of rings by pressing the "B" button or jump between walls. When in "flight" formation, the characters stack on top of each other, with the flight character on top, allowing him/her to carry the entire team by flying. The flight character can also shoot the characters s/he's carrying as electrified balls to damage enemies. Finally, when in "power" formation, the team's attack power increases, making this formation useful for clearing obstacles and fighting groups of enemies. The power character can also throw other team members at enemies as fireballs, and can also float, which can be used to propel everyone upwards in areas with giant fans. You will often have to switch between characters to suit different situations or clear certain areas, and sometimes you can take a different path or shortcut depending on which formation you're in. Overall, the team gimmick is unique and places a fun twist on the usual fast platforming gameplay.

One thing that fans will appreciate is the callbacks to the original Genesis Sonic games. In the classics, there were always "Zones" with two (three in the first game) "Acts," or stages, in each, followed by a boss. Things are much the same way in Heroes. While it drops "Acts" and "Zones," you always go through two similarly-themed levels and then fight a boss before moving on to two more similarly-themed levels. Special stages also return from the classics. To access them, you have to find a caged key somewhere in the stage, and avoid getting hit for the rest of the stage to keep it. If you have it when you get to the end of the stage, you will enter the special stage. The way the special stage works is that you must gather spheres scattered around the stage to keep your boost gauge up, which you use by pressing the "B" button repeatedly, as you make your way to either the goal ring or a Chaos Emerald, and the boost will become more effective the more spheres you get. If you enter the special stage in the first of a pair of stages, your spheres will count toward your score, which will be converted into points if you get to the goal ring. If you enter in the second stage of a pair, you will be racing against a Chaos Emerald, of which you will need seven to enter the final story, and you can only have it if you catch up to it. It's actually a pretty fun special stage, and I think that the fact that you have to get the Chaos Emeralds yourself in this game rather than receiving them over the course of the story like in other 3-D Sonics makes things more interesting.

Sonic Heroes succeeds aesthetically as well. The graphics are very good for their time, featuring bright, colorful enivironments. Most of the character models are pretty good, too, but I can't help but think that a few of them are a bit shinier than they should be. Heroes also features a great soundtrack for the stages. While, as usual, I found that most of the vocal themes didn't appeal to me personally, there were a couple that I liked: namely, "This Machine," a catchy industrial rock track, and "What I'm Made Of," the final boss theme.

So, Sonic Heroes does get several things right. It's a bit unfortunate that the rest of the game doesn't fare quite as well. While the gimmick of the week is fun and the gameplay is as fast-paced as ever, not everything about the gameplay succeeds. First of all, the grinding mechanics in this game suck. In Sonic Adventure 2, your speed upon hitting a rail was determined by how much momentum you had beforehand. To keep moving fast, you had to hold the "B" button down to crouch, but you couldn't keep holding it down or Sonic would lose balance. In addition, while I suppose this is more related to the level design, you usually wouldn't be grinding for a very long time without having to partake in some form of interaction or platforming. None of this is so in Heroes. You still hold the "B" button to go faster, but prior momentum is not a factor when jumping onto a rail, nor is balance. Grinding pretty much boils down to holding the B button while the game does the rest for you, which is honestly kind of boring. This would just be a nitpick if it weren't for the fact that this game places a much larger emphasis on grinding than in Adventure 2. Outright automation extends to the few loops that the game has. When going through a loop, you are thrust into a semi-scripted event that strips control completely away from you. This doesn't bother me for most of the smaller loops in the game (such as the ones in Seaside Hill and Ocean Palace), but when it comes to larger ones such as those in Grand Metropolis and Frog Forest, I just found it to be pretty annoying.

The game feels pretty darn unpolished. Though I wouldn't quite call the Adventure games "polished," it was pretty rare that the glitches would intrude on the experience, at least in the Dreamcast versions. Unfortunately, I can't say the same thing for Sonic Heroes. There are times when a homing attack or light dash will backfire, which can lead to your doom. In the few boss fights where you will be using the Thunder Shoot ability, the hit detection for it can be severely off at times, leading to frustration. Also, notice that I referred to the loops in the above paragraph as "semi-scripted". Dare to let go of the control stick while running through them and the game will glitch out. It doesn't glitch out severely, but it happens. There are two levels featuring pinball mechanics, but the controls are kind of unresponsive when on the pinball tables. This was probably, to an extent, intentional, but it adds needless frustration to at least one of these stages. And none of this is even getting into the camera. 3-D camera angles were never quite Sonic's best friend, but the camera in this game sometimes likes to go through walls, and also won't always clearly show bottomless pits. If you try to turn it with the shoulder buttons, it moves pretty slowly and can sometimes make the angle even worse. Though you should be able to, you can't use the C-Stick to turn the camera around, as moving it in ANY direction causes you to switch to a useless first-person view. Just...why?

Even if these problems with the gameplay had been fixed, there is another element that's of almost equal importance in a platformer: the level design, and in Sonic Heroes, it's pretty much a mixed bag. There is a lot of variety in mechanics and gimmicks, and, as mentioned earlier, there are times when you can take a different path or shortcut depending on which team formation you're using, which is great. On the other hand, (again, as mentioned earlier) some levels feature long sections of the aforementioned boring grinding. Another problem is that the levels sometimes feel like they're relying on beat-em-up elements too much in a game that's supposed to be a platformer. I have no problem with there being SOME sections where you have to defeat a group of enemies to proceed - after all, that's one of the things that the power character is for, right? The problem is that there are just too many of them.

Boss design is even more of a mixed bag than the level design. At the end of each pair of levels you will either fight Eggman himself, one of the game's other playable teams, or several waves of enemy robots. Eggman battles are an absolute joke, and can be won just by continually spamming a single attack. Team battles, on the opposite end of the spectrum, are freaking frustrating. It's supposed to be like rock-paper-scissors, where the opposing team is in one formation and you have to choose the formation it's weak to, but the game never makes it completely clear which formation is weak to which, and even if you do figure it out, it's still pretty annoying. The only bosses that I really enjoyed were the ones that required you to fight off waves of Eggman's robots. These were legitimately difficult and pretty darn fun. In fact, if they wanted so much emphasis on beat-em-up elements, why didn't they just make a few more of those? Aside from those, the only boss I really liked was the true final boss, which, while not as great as the ones from Sonic 3 & Knuckles or the Adventure games, was still pretty fun.

Unfortunately, the problems don't quite end there. Sonic Heroes is a pretty short game...that is, it WOULD be if you didn't have to play through it three more times before gaining access to the last story! As I stated earlier, Sonic Heroes offers four teams to control. What I didn't say was that you have to complete the game with all of them to unlock the final story! Normally, I wouldn't have a problem with this; after all, you know what they say, the MORE the MERRIER! Ohohoho - no, I won't ever quote that line again. *ahem* The problem is that the order and designs of the levels are exactly the same when going through it with each team, with the only difference being in difficulty. It pretty much forces you to play through the game on hard mode (Team Dark) and easy mode (Team Rose) before allowing you to fight the final boss. If you enjoyed the game the first time, you'll probably enjoy it again, but it's a cheap way to extend the game's length nonetheless.

And then there's the final team, Team Chaotix. Earlier in the review, I questioned why they were brought back, since very few people had even played the game they came from. Well, apparently, making you play through the game on different difficulties didn't cheaply extend the length enough, so Sonic Team saw fit to shoehorn THESE guys that nobody cared about in. So what difficulty are they? Super Easy Mode? Brutally Hard Mode? Nope. Team Chaotix's levels are mission-based, either requiring you to find a certain number of items in the level or proceed through a level stealthily. If you ask me, the item collecting stages are flawed conceptually. The Adventure games had stages that required you to hunt for items, but they were open-ended in design - like they should have been. Heroes' levels are linear in design, which, when combined with the game's bad camera, can sometimes make required items easy to miss. Sometimes, if you miss JUST ONE, you'll have to go back through the entire stage AGAIN just to find it. You'll also find yourself trying to explore around a lot to make sure you're not missing anything, which will require you to try to turn the camera, and considering how bad the camera is...yeah, I'm sure you can see where I'm going with this. Especially notable is the mission in Mystic Mansion, which requires you to use your tornado ability to put out 60 red torches. How many red torches are there? 60 exactly. How long is the level? Long enough to decently space out 60 red freakin' torches.


So, is Sonic Heroes the point where the series started going downhill? Unfortunately, I would have to say so. It's not quite a bad game; the gameplay can be pretty enjoyable at times and the team gimmick works well. However, almost every aspect of it is flawed in some way so that it seriously hurts the experience. Some would say that the Adventure games weren't that good, but I would still say that Heroes is the one where you could tell something was very wrong. Sorry, fans, but this one is a bargain bin purchase at best.

Score: 5/10

My Scoring System:
10 - Amazing game. Flaws are minor at best. If you don't own it, you should be ashamed of yourself. (Zelda: Ocarina of Time)

9(.5) - Fantastic game. Perhaps a couple of notable annoyances, but still a must-have. (Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep)

8(.5) - Very good game. Has a few flaws, but you won't be disappointed with your purchase. (Klonoa)

7(.5) - Pretty good game that either has several problems or is just too short for its price. Enjoyable to play, but you may want to wait for the price to drop a bit before picking it up. (Rayman 3D)

6(.5) - Passable game. Has its strengths, but unless you're a fan of the series or genre, you're probably better off not bothering. (Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 2)

5(.5) - Mediocre game. Not a bad experience, but it's too flawed to be much fun. A bargain bin purchase at best, and only if you're a fan of the series. (Mega Man X7)

3 or 4(.5) - Bad game. A mostly negative experience, and whatever it does right fails to save it overall. Even if you're a fan, you're probably better off not playing it. (Sonic and the Secret Rings)

1 or 2(.5) - Utter garbage. An unholy abomination that we should do all in our power to avoid playing. In other words, STAY THE HECK AWAY! (Dragon Ball Z: Ultimate Battle 22)

0 - ...No. Just freaking no. (Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing)

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