Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Review: Sonic Colors is here and it's ....really colorful.

Sega’s effort to restore honor to the Sonic name continues with Sonic Colors, which was given a surprise announcement earlier this year. While I was skeptical at first, Sonic Colors began to look more and more promising, as it seemed to take the best parts of Sonic Unleashed, (Sonic’s levels) and bring them into a game that had no werehog. Sonic Colors, it turns out, actually has a very different feel from Unleashed, and it ends up offering a surprisingly fresh take on the series. It’s certainly not without its flaws, but this is a game that Sonic fans, especially fans of 2D Sonic, will definitely enjoy.

Graphics:  Visually, Sonic Colors is a game loaded with, well, color. There's a lot of creativity on display here, with SonicTeam for the first time since Sonic 3 getting to let loose and create a complete fantasy setting. Taking place in a giant interplanetary amusement park built by Robotnik…erm…Eggman, there’s no shortage of surprises, from areas made out of food, to a run through a starry space sky, and even levels on a grassy alien planet and the series’ best underwater sections. Sonic looks great, easily his best non-HD design to date, and the cutscenes, a mixture of in-game and CG, (with mostly in-game) feature lip movements that match the dialogue. It makes Sonic Adventure's story feel like a world behind. The framerate does drop occasionally, especially in the underwater levels, but this is rare and doesn’t take much away from the spectacle. The only bummer about the visual presentation is how jaggy the game looks on an HDTV set. While the Wii is of course not an HD system, there are many Wii games that look great on an HDTV in 480p. Sonic Colors is not one of them, with everything looking so unbelievably jagged that it’s almost reminiscent of the PS1. It’s pretty sad, because there are amazing graphics here for a Wii game, but the jaggies give everything a very rough look. If you have the choice, definitely play this on an SDTV. Don’t let it be a deal-breaker, as the game still looks great, but it will look much closer to the vision of the developers in Standard def.

Gameplay:  Sonic Colors uses the physics from Unleashed, but what makes this so different is that while Unleashed was primarily a 3D experience with some 2D thrown in for good measure, Colors is mostly a 2D adventure. In most levels, I’m talking about what feels like 70% in 2D and 30% in 3D. The 3D segments are used almost exclusively for grinding, or running and boosting down wide paths. Almost all of the platforming is saved for the 2D parts of the game. Sonic Colors contains some of the best 2D platforming I’ve ever seen, and it’s miles ahead of Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1. On the other hand, the focus on 2D makes this feel smaller in scope than other 3D Sonics, and I….sort of like 3D platforming, to be honest, so it was a little disappointing for me to see it so scaled back. That said, many of the boss fights are in 3D, (or a mix of the two) and some recycling aside, boss battles are pretty fun. They often make use of powerups called Wisps, which are the alien creatures captured by Robo….Eggman, and these add a layer of freshness to Sonic Colors’ gameplay.

Each Wisp offers Sonic a different ability, from boosting, to drilling through dirt, to floating, and even rampaging. Unlike most gimmicks used in 3D Sonic games, the Wisps do not slow Sonic down much at all, in fact, they actually add depth to the game. They open multiple paths through the levels and the hover powerup is awesome in a "Mario Galaxy" type of way. I’ve got to give SonicTeam props for Colors’ atmosphere. I haven’t played such lively Sonic levels since Twinkle Park from Sonic Adventure. There’s a feeling of excitement all throughout the game, even the world maps (which are just level select maps, Mario style) radiate with color and energy. It almost all feels like a giant celebration. Every level’s a running level, which means no werehogs or other playable characters to be found here. Sonic Colors features six acts per stage, plus a boss battle, each act managing to feel distinctive.

There are, though, definite issues that need to be worked out. Similar to Sonic 4: Episode 1, the controls in the 2D segments feel slippery, and there's too much reliance on bottomless pits for my liking. The game can also be maddeningly vague at times with regard to how to control certain segments. For example, in one of the food-themed levels, Sonic can swing from floating lolipops, but you're given no indication exactly when you should hit the A-button to cause the lolipop to propel Sonic upward. Frustratingly, they force you to hit several of these at once, and falling on one sends you right into spikes. Similarly, a roller coaster in a couple of later levels is sure to send some controllers flying, and unlike in some of his more recent games, when Sonic loses rings in Colors, he loses *all* of his rings, regardless of how many he happens to be carrying at the time. Other frustrating factors include instances of Sonic finding himself on a road that suddenly turns upside down over a bottomless pit, and it’s unclear which direction you should be holding the analog stick to keep him moving. I feel like SonicTeam could really benefit from doing some more pre-release test sessions with gamers; I definitely think that some of Colors’ more frustrating sections could have been fixed with a little gamer feedback.

So yes, it can be frustrating, and the controls are less than perfect. But there’s something so “fun” at the heart of this game. It has a very “Sega” feel to it, from the upbeat music to the always-excellent sound effects. Each level feels like a new experience. Some of the platforming is so inventive that I found myself full of admiration for SonicTeam, who clearly still has the skills to do this after all these years. Great stuff. If I had one other complaint, it'd be the short length. Clocking in at around 6 hours, it feels like this could have used another planet or two. Keep in mind, though, that there's a retro-themed co-op mode (that can also be played solo) that grants you a bunch of new levels. These are unlocked by collecting red coins in the main game, and there are plenty of these to go around. There's also a Challenge Mode, which is basically an endurance mode with all the game's acts, one after another, with no break in between. Of course, there are also the usual S-rankings to achieve.

Audio and Storyline: Sonic Colors' soundtrack is a mix of orchestra and synthesizing, and I couldn't think of a better fit for this game. The piano in particular is used to great effect. The audio fits the exciting and imaginative levels and provides some truly catchy jingles. If only Sonic 4: Episode 1 had this type of work put into its audio experience. Sound effects mix the old and the new, again, to great effect. The theme songs are mind-numbingly awful, but thankfully they stay mostly out of the way.

As far as voice acting goes, Sega has finally ditched the 4 Kids Entertainment voice actors, replacing the cast (except Eggman, who keeps his 4 Kids Actor) with new talent. From the start, it’s a huge improvement. Though I complimented Sonic’s previous voice actor for stepping up his game from Sonic and the Secret Rings to Sonic Unleashed, the fact remained that his voice just always sounded too childish, and lacked the attitude that Sonic needed. This is entirely fixed here, as Sonic’s new voice actor does a thing all his own, (for some reason it makes me imagine how a “stoner character” would talk in a 1990s cartoon) and he turns Sonic into a really likable character. The dialogue helps, and this game follows Sonic Unleashed's lead in the script department. Complete with plenty of chuckle-inducing moments and the return of Eggman's dimwitted robot sidekicks, cutscenes are always fun to watch, despite occasionally feeling a bit childish and the game's pretty lame ending. This humor-driven approach is, without a doubt, the perfect way to tell the story in a Sonic game.

Verdict: With Sonic Colors, we are seeing an undeniable shift back to the 2D perspective, and I’m sure a lot of people will celebrate this change. Fans of the 3D Sonic games may have slightly more mixed feelings about this, though luckily the 3D gameplay hasn’t been forgotten entirely. There are some definite issues that need addressing, including the frustration factor and a short length. I also have to stress the *serious* need for improved “2D” physics. All that said, Sonic Colors is so fun that it’s almost impossible not to recommend it to Sonic fans and people who like platformers. Incredible atmosphere, great music, nice visuals, funny story, some very inventive platforming, and of course the usual Sonic speeds make this one of the year’s bigger surprises.
Score: 7.5/10
(my reviews go by a .5 scale)

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