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Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2 review: Running in place


Searching for the proper metaphor for Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2, the best I can conjure is a glass of milk. There's nothing really wrong with it per se, but it's not exactly exciting either. It has some good qualities and is mildly refreshing, but when's the last you time you raved about a glass of milk?

Gallery: Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2 (5/15/12) | 18 Photos

In fairness, Episode 2 shows substantial improvements over its predecessor. For one, Sonic's character model no longer looks like it's been shellacked. The overt, bizarre shininess has been toned down a great deal, making him look much more like the beloved rodent we remember. The awful pre-rendered backgrounds have been abandoned as well, with very attractive polygonal settings taking their place – and doing a much better job of keeping up with the Blue Blur without dissolving into an indecipherable, blurry mess.

Sonic's best friend/groupie Tails rejoins the fray this time around and, just as he did back in the 90s, he actually adds a few interesting wrinkles to the formula. The duo can team up for a handful of cooperative maneuvers, with Tails making use of his iconic appendages as a propeller to fly through the air or glide through the water. The pair can also join together to form a spinning ball of death, mowing down enemies and bursting through obstacles in their path.

These sound like simple additions, but these abilities offer a deeper level of exploration in levels, allowing Sonic and Tails to reach higher places or go in different directions. Also, the helicopter ability in particular is great for saving Sonic from an unexpected fall into a bottomless pit. Tails also brings multiplayer back into the mix, allowing a second player to join in either online or off.

Unfortunately, these thoughtful new features aren't enough to elevate Sonic back to his 16-bit celebrity status. Levels offer a reasonable amount of exploration, though there's really no reward for doing so, apart from finding each level's hidden red ring (a collectible that seems to exist solely for the purpose of unlocking an achievement). Some power-ups seem oddly placed as well. There's nothing thrilling about popping open an invincibility power-up if there are no enemies nearby, for example. Sonic's homing attack returns; it's good for a few interesting connect-the-dots platforming moments, but ironically makes simpler tasks more difficult, especially when locking onto an unintended target.

Episode 2 also generally lacks the inventive locomotive gadgets that have been a trademark of the series. There is the occasional moment of cleverness, especially toward the end when Sonic runs along walls in the background, blasts out of energy cannons or hurtles through halls that reverse gravity and rotate the screen along every curve. Beyond that there isn't much: No swinging ropes, no ratchets and pulleys, no hang gliders, no massive bolts threaded by equally preposterous nuts.

Boss battles are inconsistent, with the Metal Sonic encounters being particularly off balance. In the first encounter with Sonic's doppelganger, a single misstep can result in instant death. In the second, what should be a thrilling battle atop Tails' iconic biplane essentially boils down to constantly running to the right and repeating the homing attack. Don't worry if Sonic gets hit, because there's an infinite supply of rings to keep him healthy. If you'd like to spice things up a bit, you can do what I did: Just dodge Metal Sonic's attacks and collect enough rings to earn an extra life – then kill him. (Side note: Robotnik boss battles are accompanied by terrible music that loops approximately every nine seconds.)

Special stages, thankfully, are planted firmly in the "good" column alongside Episode 2's other welcome additions. The stages are borrowed directly from Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and task Sonic and Tails with running through three-dimensional, twisty-turny tunnels and collecting enough rings to clear checkpoints. These levels are challenging, entertaining and even managed to add some interesting new elements to the classic structure. For example, a certain power-up stretches a band between Sonic and Tails, soaking up any rings it touches. Perhaps the best new feature is the ability to pause at any time and hit "retry," something that was impossible (and infuriating) in Sonic 2. Strangely, you can't retry a failed special stage from the main menu, only from within the stage itself.

Another oddity: Collecting every Chaos Emerald doesn't alter Episode 2's ending one bit. Upon first completing the game and watching the credits, I was told to try again after finding all the emeralds. After defeating Robotnik for the second time, the same ending played again, the credits rolled and ... nothing. For a game supposedly steeped in Sonic traditions, you'd think Sonic Team would get that one right.

In the end, it feels like Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2 is merely going through the motions (most of which involve spinning). As was intended, it's reminiscent of Sonic's best-remembered adventures, though it never manages to live up to them. Episode 2 makes improvements over its predecessor, with better visuals, useful co-op maneuvers and great special stages, but the inconsistent boss battles and uninspired level design keep it from recapturing Sonic's glory days.

This review is based on review code of the Xbox 360 version of Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2, provided by Sega.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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