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The slowest parts of Sonic Boom might also be the best

S. Prell, @SamPrell

Poor Sonic. Ever since transitioning to 3D, our dear blue hedgehog has stumbled. His games find only so-so levels of success, and there's even a meme named after the cycle of hype and disappointment that each new title generates. And it's all because he's too fast.

Focusing on speed worked in the days of the Sega Genesis – days when players only had to worry about going left, right, up and down. With the addition of another dimension however, too much speed makes Sonic difficult to control. The assumption, of course, is that making Sonic slow would strip him of his defining asset.

Yet Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric developer Big Red Button Entertainment has done just that, and in an ironic twist, the slowest parts of the game may end up being the best.

Gallery: Sonic Boom (3DS, Wii U) - PAX screenshots | 13 Photos

The Wii U Sonic Boom demo I played at PAX Prime was broken up into three parts: an underground laboratory full of 3D platforming challenges, a boss fight and a twisting pathway reminiscent of classic stages, where speed was pivotal. I was told that the final game would similarly be broken up so that Sonic and pals would explore a hub city before sprinting through the wilderness on their way to a level where the action would slow down and turn the game into a 3D platformer.

Fighting my way through waves of robot enemies felt strange at first. Although the famous spin attack is part of Sonic's repertoire, I found myself most often resorting to combos of punching and kicking. Alternatively, if I switched control to Amy Rose, my combos were defined by hammer swinging.

I couldn't help but notice Sonic's relatively slow movement speed as well. While certainly energetic and popping with lively animations, Sonic and Amy felt no faster than Jak, Daxter, Ratchet or Clank. Combined with their jump height – which, like movement speed, felt hamstrung – and the aforementioned shift in combat controls, it was hard to recognize this as a Sonic game at all. Or it would have been, if not for the iconic and well-known heroes.

This is a good thing. While I wasn't blown away by the idea of a villainous laboratory full of robots, I appreciated the feel of controllable movement and the alternate paths offered throughout. If I got tired of using Sonic's homing attack to cross dangerous gaps, I could switch to Amy and use her hammer and gymnastic skills to swing and balance my way around an obstacle.

There were also several items hidden throughout the level, some of which were only accessible by one character or another. If such hidden items and the branching paths result in level playthroughs that feel significantly different, I could easily see completionists coming back multiple times to find and collect everything.

Unfortunately, I can't say the same for the boss fight that was offered. In this particular battle, I had to avoid missiles fired by Eggman (or Dr. Robotnik if you prefer) as robots spawned inside a relatively small circular arena. Once dodged, the missiles would lie dormant, waiting for me to pick them up and throw them back at the giant mech that had fired them.

The only problem was, the targeting system in Sonic Boom was atrocious, and I often found myself flinging missiles at the smaller robots instead of the bigger threat, despite the fact that when I let the missile loose, a targeting reticle was hovering over Eggman and not the minions I wound up attacking.

I thought I could solve this problem by clearing the minions, but they never seemed to stop coming. The tediousness of fighting these constructs combined with lack of control over the camera left a bitter taste in my mouth, so I moved on to the more traditional Sonic level where characters raced along a three-lane path full of launchpads and loop-de-loops.

Again, I felt the incompatibility of Sonic's trademark speed with 3D movement. When he and his friends were curving over the landscape at breakneck speeds, it became difficult to tell exactly where they were in relation to the many perils in their way, and I quickly grew frustrated over not knowing which way to tilt my thumb. It's possible a tutorial or some other in-game instructions can fix this, as I was told later that pressing the Wii U GamePad's bumpers would have helped me in shifting left and right quickly.

I found myself surprised. I had previously thought that, like many previous Sonic game gimmicks (lookin' at you, Werehog levels in Sonic Unleashed) I would be turned off by Boom's new gameplay style and would enjoy the more traditional "speed through as fast as you can" style levels. Instead, the opposite was true.

Sonic doesn't gotta go fast to be fun.

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