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Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 review: Spin-dashed hopes


Sega is giving the people what they want. Sonic's lips are sewn together tightly, his pals have been laid to rest in a shoebox somewhere in the garden, and the world is nice and two-dimensional again. This is the 16-bit sequel you've been craving for sixteen bitter years, one that sidesteps every pitfall introduced in Sonic's 3D outings. Finally, the cycle is over!

But there's a problem. If you've been on the verge of starvation for 16 years, you might be a tad too eager to swallow any crumb that's flicked your way. And if there's one thing that Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is, it's crummy.

In an attempt to remix nostalgia and tick every box on what the survey said the fans would like, Sonic 4 never feels like a distinct game in the series, let alone a long-awaited sequel to the Genesis classics. It's not as good as any of them, and the plunder-and-update mentality leads to a game that feels more insubstantial than evocative.

The utterly repulsive graphics are a good indicator of what can go wrong with this kind of project. The pre-rendered backgrounds are pristine and of the highest resolution, but so static and devoid of artistry that they resemble the generic backgrounds of a casual puzzle game. I think I saw most of Sonic's "Lost Labyrinth Zone" behind the marbles in Zuma. They've stuck new, polygonal Sonic on top of all this -- new, polygonal Sonic who doesn't have a shred of personality, who robotically saunters into a run, and who glides across the stage on a bar of soap wrapped in a banana peel.

There is something nice to be said about the level select screen, at least.

Sonic's momentum feels completely wrong too, as he can now simply walk up hills and even into his iconic, checkerboard loops with little resistance. It's almost as baffling as the inclusion of his mid-air homing attack, which is activated by pressing the jump button a second time. This was introduced in Sonic Adventure and aided movement in a three-dimensional space -- here, in 2D land, it only removes the need for precision when jumping on enemies. The game's already too easy and too eager to succumb to auto-pilot progression.

Of course, it's also about running, and Sonic Team is still obsessed with having Sonic ricochet through a controlled sequence of boosts and springs, rather than letting him run through multi-tiered levels. Sonic 4 attempts to find a better balance, often fluctuating between the extremes of tying you up too tightly, or leaving you uncertain as to which way you should go. Some stages do a poor job of flagging bottomless pits, while others instill you with enough confidence to fall off one path, knowing that another will catch you below. Either way, there's too much repetitive, on-rails bouncing, and the most ambitious levels in Sonic 4 never approach the intricacy of stages like Oil Ocean Zone, or the upside-down cleverness of Death Egg Zone in Sonic & Knuckles.

There is something nice to be said about the level select screen, at least. Allowing you to jump between zones right from the start is a great idea and invites a change of scenery whenever you complete an act. It's a simple modification that sits well with the old Sonic structure. The new special stages -- the tilting, kaleidoscopic mazes from Sonic 1 -- benefit from another sensible change. Now, you spin the level around as Sonic tumbles through it.

I also like a couple of unique gimmicks throughout Sonic 4 which are, like the best platforming gimmicks, decipherable within seconds. (Sometime it's nice to play a game that doesn't beat you over the head with a tutorial!) One interesting level has you exploring the dark by torchlight, igniting fuses on explosives to clear the way. Another has Sonic running atop a giant gear which takes him past exploding stars and preying mantis robots. Wait, no ... that's pretty much just Metropolis Zone from Sonic 2, isn't it?

Every single boss in Sonic 4 is lifted from an earlier game and given a twist. What this usually means is that you'll defeat the first phase simply through recognition and recollection alone, and then have to avoid a cheap addition to Eggman's arsenal. The worst offender is the protracted final boss, which recycles and then ruins a classic battle from Sonic 2, just before killing you unexpectedly in its death throes. If you're trying to convince me that you can still make good, new Sonic games, this is a lousy strategy.

That strategy is almost as weak as making Sonic 4: Episode 1 an unsatisfying mishmash of remake and homage. It's a brief, underwhelming and unchallenging experience that never really gets up to speed as a sequel -- never mind a particularly good platformer. Perhaps Sonic fans should just celebrate the small victory that is an above-average Sonic outing, hoping nobody sees us licking our plates.

This review is based on final Xbox 360 code provided by Seeeeeeegaaaaaaa.

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