Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Review: It's hard not to feel that this game could have been so much more, but for what it is, Sonic Generations is a fun, well-made tribute to the blue blur.

There's nothing like watching the character from your first video game turning 20 to remind you of how old you are. Well, that and knowing that 11-12 year olds these days missed the 90s altogether....damn. But yes, 2011 marks Sonic's 20th birthday, and Sega has chosen to celebrate it by releasing Sonic Generations, a game which pays tribute to Sonic's many adventures over the past two decades. With gameplay evenly split between Sonic's current self and his Sega Genesis self, with some of the series' best level design, and with lots of replay value and bonus missions to complete, there's no doubt that Sonic Generations is a quality title and a definite pick-up for anyone who has ever called themselves a Sonic fan.

The game begins -where else- at Sonic's birthday party. Many of the series' characters are there, congratulating Sonic on growing a year older. Their celebrations are cut short, however, by a mysterious and villainous force, which pulls them all into a new world drained of color. Sonic wakes up to find his friends frozen, and he sets out to unfreeze them and bring color back to this world, which consists of a collection of his memories. Soon he meets his Classic self, a design based on Sonic's Sega Genesis character model, and the plot occasionally, but not nearly often enough, features a fun dynamic between the two as they work together to stop the entity responsible for their troubles.

The important thing about the two Sonics turns out not to be their role in the storyline but rather how they influence the gameplay. Each of the game's zones features two acts; one in which you play as Classic Sonic, with his Genesis gameplay intact, and one in which you play as Modern Sonic, which is a far better-controlling take on Sonic's gameplay from his last 360/PS3 adventure, Sonic Unleashed. I was definitely concerned initially, especially after the mess that was the first episode of Sonic the Hedgehog 4, about how Classic Sonic would control and play, but my fears were put to rest almost immediately. Though there are some slight differences, and he moves noticeably faster when spin dashing, Classic Sonic controls very much in the spirit of how he did in the Genesis games, with physics to match, and I found myself instantly at home while playing as him. This section of gameplay takes place of course pretty much entirely in 2D, and offers some of the longest Classic Sonic levels in the series' history. It's hard not to be impressed by the many paths always available throughout each act. The fact that I knew, from my familiarity with the Genesis games, that "okay, I can jump on that guy, and he'll give me enough height to reach that ledge!" and the fact that SonicTeam really still has a knack for inventive 2D platforming, makes for some truly fun levels here. So much so in fact that I found myself shaking my head and asking myself many times why they decided to outsource Sonic the Hedgehog 4 to DIMPS when SonicTeam clearly knows 2D platforming so well.

The good news is that Modern Sonic also plays remarkably well. There are far fewer bottomless pits than there were in Unleashed and Sonic Colors, his Drifting mechanics, which felt nearly useless in the past, have been improved significantly, many paths have been added, the QTE trick system is gone, and all in all, his controls feel much tighter. The amount of paths through these levels is nothing short of stunning. Many times I found myself falling down a pit, totally ready to lose a life, but to my surprise, I'd end up still alive, but on a different path, and that's the way Sonic should be. The trial-and-error level design mechanics which put a dent in my enjoyment of last year's Sonic Colors are gone here. Bottomless pits are marked, there are lots of opportunities for 3D platforming (playing as Modern Sonic is not simply a boost-fest) and the speed at which Sonic tears through these levels is at times nothing short of jaw-dropping.

Sonic Generations is also loaded with fan service. The many Sonic tunes that can be found and unlocked, their new remixes, all the unlockable concept art, the fact that each stage is a re-imagination of a past Sonic stage, and of course, the return of Classic Sonic's gameplay, will ensure that long-time fans of the series will have plenty to be excited about as they play through Sonic Generations.

In its central gameplay, this game definitely delivers. I have almost no complaints about how both Classic and Modern Sonic play, and this is a huge landmark for the series. Here there are no gimmicky powers (with the exception of the Planet Wisp stage) there are no Werehogs, and there are no other playable characters; it's simply Sonic as he is now and Sonic as he was then, and I couldn't be happier with how both of them play.

That's not to say that Sonic Generations is perfect, though I really wish I could say that it was. Despite the rock solid gameplay, I can't help but feel disappointed in the game that's wrapped around it. For all the commotion about Sonic's 20th birthday and the epic game this promised to be, Sonic Generations feels small to me, almost more like a taste of Sonic's past than a full-fledged tribute, and while I know that some fans will be completely happy with this, for me it all feels a little half-assed.

First thing's first; The Hedgehog Engine which powered Sonic Unleashed returns here, and along with it, the bright visuals and incredible draw distance. Everything has the same warm glow that Unleashed did, and it creates some beautiful-looking areas. Also returning however is the unstable framerate. While nothing in Sonic Generations feels quite as choppy as the framerate in Unleashed levels like Adabat or Eggmanland, Generations never reaches its silky smooth heights either, falling somewhere in the middle. In almost any given level you'll run into some choppiness, and though it's not game-ruining by any stretch, it is a bit of a bummer, especially with Sonic's emphasis on speed, to see him hitting so many framerate rough patches. It's also unfortunate that SonicTeam, maybe in an attempt to help the framerate or hide Sonic Generations' sometimes embarrassingly bad texturework, went overboard with the motion blur. Every time Sonic speeds up, especially Classic Sonic, his surroundings and the background images become so blurry that I at one point questioned whether there was something wrong with my eyes. Go back and boot up Sonic Unleashed and you'll find a much sharper picture, and why this was done, I have no idea, but it makes it difficult to appreciate the colorful graphics when they frequently dissolve into a background blur. There's even several instances of pop-up, which I don't remember ever happening in Unleashed. It might be that Sonic Generations received a budget cut, or that less care went into its visuals with Hedgehog Engine creator and Unleashed director Yoshihisa Hashimoto no longer with SonicTeam, but either way, it's sad that the visuals aren't all that they could have been.

It's also amazing to me that SonicTeam didn't feel compelled to include more levels than they have. Here we have a game that's supposed to cover and celebrate Sonic's history, and it does, to an extent, but with only 9 zones, it feels more a checklist of each game than a full-on celebration of them. Some games, like Sonic 3, aren't represented at all, which is weird, since the game's producer, Takashi Iizuka, started his work on the series with Sonic 3. Don't get me wrong, it's amazing to get to blast through Chemical Plant as Modern Sonic, actually, it's a series highlight. But....really; there wasn't more from the incredible Sonic the Hedgehog 2 that they wanted to include? It's in this way that Sonic Generations feels more like a sampling from each game than a full-on embrace of them. Every Sonic game here is represented by only 1 stage, and while saying that they didn't always pick the best stage is of course a matter of opinion, it's a thought that I feel many will have. The few levels included when there were so many amazing ones to pick from is all the more surprising when the game ends as quickly as it does. Another 3 levels even would have been ideal, but like Sonic Colors, I felt that Generations ends just a little too soon.

The fact that these levels are all re-imaginings of older levels, along with the fact that the game puts them in order, gives Sonic Generations the unintended consequence of feeling predictable. Though I made it a point to avoid knowing all the levels that were to be included beforehand, it turned out to be unavoidable for me and probably for most people playing as well. So when you know what all the included levels are going to look like, and you know what order they'll appear in, and with both Classic and Modern Sonic being refinements of past gameplay styles rather than new experiences, you pretty much know from the start what Sonic Generations has to offer, and the game has almost no surprises up its sleeve. There are some cool rival battles and a fun boss fight or two, but even in this category it feels like there should have been far more. What's offered is great, but why are there so few of them? And why is the final boss so awful?

The story also leaves much to be desired. The world, which consists of a white path and a bunch of old levels littering it, is the blandest ever to be featured in a Sonic game, and the mini-cutscenes that take place when Sonic frees his friends are incredibly awkward. Again, there was so much to pull from, including the potentially awesome dynamic of Classic and Modern Sonic working together, but even with the great new voice actors returning from Colors, Sonic Generations feels like fan fiction that was thrown together in about 45 minutes. How can you make a Sonic game where Dr. Eggman feels like a cameo appearance?

To the game's credit, though, while it does end quickly, the replay value's pretty good. Each zone has a series of missions to undertake, both as Classic and Modern Sonic. Completing only one mission per zone is required to progress through the game, but doing others helps net you tons of unlockable music and concept art, and there are also powerups you can buy for the Sonics, or to unlock by collecting the Red Rings throughout the stages. People wanting to explore all of these possibilities can pump untold amounts of hours into the game, though unlocking music and concept art, while cool, ultimately didn't prove to be enough of an incentive for me to continue playing the game much beyond its conclusion; maybe before the age of Youtube it would have been, but you can hear all the music there and you can only view so much concept art before that loses its appeal too.


Verdict: All of these flaws serve not to ruin the game, they just prevent Sonic Generations from being the ultimate tribute that I think it wants to be. The number of levels included barely scratches the surface of Sonic's stay in gaming, the story's a big missed opportunity, the game offers little in the way of surprises, and the added missions, while cool, still don't feel like enough. Why not bring back some of Sonic's great mini-games like Chao raising, the multiplayer battle features, the Twinkle Park racing, Colors' co-op play.....something? Sonic Generations feels like a selection of great Sonic levels, and they truly are great, in a game that feels like it was hastily thrown together around them. For many fans, this will be completely fine and a more than fitting tribute. For others, like myself, Sonic Generations feels a little bit empty. Still, what can't be denied is that level design-wise, this game's incredible, and there's no shortage of fun to be had here. I recommend Sonic Generations to all fans of Sonic; it's a tribute that, while, in my opinion, is incomplete, is still very much worth experiencing.

Presentation: Convenient but rather bland hub world, basic and thrown together storyline. But lots to complete if you want to, and there's no shortage of fan service to be had.

Graphics: Colorful but blurry and with poor textures and a sometimes rocky framerate. Not an awful-looking game but far from being great, and this is coming from someone who still finds Sonic Unleashed to be the best-looking platformer this generation.

Gameplay: Fast action, great platforming, tons of multiple paths, no other characters or fluff to slow things down. This is Sonic done right. Optional bonus missions are hit and miss and the game's over too quickly. Needs more bosses and levels!

Sound: Some of the remixes are pretty awful but many of the originals are here. The classic Sonic sounds are of course intact. Very nostalgic audio experience. Voice acting, especially for Modern Sonic, is pretty good.

Replay Value: Lots of bonus missions to do, not a whole lot of compelling content to unlock. Still, completionists will be kept busy for a long time.

Overall: 8/10

(My reviews go on a .5 scale. This review was for the Xbox 360 version.)

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