Saturday, 16 June 2012

Sonic 4 Episode II: A Good Game, Not A Classic

It seems to me that at least somebody at Sonic Team must understand what makes the classic Sonic games... well, classic. This is quite event in recent rerelease of Sonic CD, with the new “retro” engine put together not by a member of Sonic Team but a talented individual known as The Taxman. The sense of speed, theme of momentum and overall feel of being “a living pinball” that made the original games so groundbreaking is so perfectly captured in this version that it feels like not just an enhanced port, but rather the definitive version of CD.
So why is absolutely none of this present in either episode of Sonic 4? It has been noted elsewhere that, as the game has been developed by Dimps, the game engine is, in essence, the engine from Sonic Rush (2005, Nintendo DS) without the “boost” feature. The defining feature of that game was the introduction of the boost. That feature is what made the engine work and the game fun. Removing it, then, doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.
Anyways... while the feel of the game is crucial in my opinion, there are a lot of nice things to be said about the game. So let’s get them out of the way.
Visually, the game looks fantastic. The new graphical engine looks way nicer than the one in Episode I, the 3D character models and the more detailed environments breathing a whole new life into the world of Sonic 4. There is plenty of colour, fluidity and detail in the characters and backgrounds alike, and I am comfortable in saying that this particular aspect of the classics is truly captured and continued here. Like the first episode, certain level themes are borrowed from the classic games, but it is far less blatant here and overall it feels a lot less like a “tribute” game than the first did.
The soundtrack seems to be a polarising aspect. Some people quite like it, others seem to truly hate it. The truth is, it does sound just like a Genesis/Mega Drive soundtrack, which must have been what they were going for. Whether this appeals to your tastes or not is obviously subjective. Personally, I quite like it and I find myself enjoying quite a few of the tunes - highlights being the Special Stage theme (which cleverly incorporates the map theme) and Metal Sonic’s new boss theme. However, I have no idea what they were thinking when they decided to axe the perfectly fine and oddly appropriate boss theme from the first episode and keep only the pinch theme. This theme works fantastically well to my ears - as a pinch theme. Problem is, it’s about 10 seconds long. The bosses in this game take several minutes to defeat. Sooooo... yah. You’d think they might have learned from annoying the hell out of people with it in E.G.G. Station from the first episode. Apparently not! Unless they deliberately want to annoy us some more for complaining about it in the first place... 
But anyway. Now for the most crucial aspect - how does the gameplay feel? Well... I guess on one hand you could say that this game engine works perfectly fine. If you consider the engine of the first episode to be “broken”, you will most likely consider this one “fixed”. You won’t find yourself indefinitely sticking to walls and ceilings or stopping dead in your tracks the instant you let go of the controller. But unlike the modern games (and, now that I think about it... the classics), it is still surprisingly difficult to get Sonic up to any decent speed in a short period of time. The classic “spin dash” is... not at all as useful for this as it should be. A number of times I would charge it up and hammer the button a few times excitedly for more power, as you could in the classics, and... well, it just doesn’t work. Mind you, this would explain why they shove springs and speed boosters everywhere...
Now you might be thinking this is just the “Genesis kid” in me talking, and you would have a point - but then, why is this the case here when Sonic Team have shown that they are perfectly capable of producing a gameplay engine reminiscent of the classic games (see Sonic Generations, that came out last year) with these issues virtually absent? 
The answer is simple - Sonic Team dug themselves a hole with the first episode. Even if they understood what was wrong with it, they couldn’t very well make the next episode feel totally different... otherwise, it just wouldn’t make sense. Clearly a very decent attempt has been made to fix what was wrong with the first episode without straying too far from the groundwork laid by that title - just a shame it kind of pales in comparison to the classics. 
Despite everything, at least there are signs that Sonic Team are learning from their mistakes at last. You never know, Sonic 5 could one day become a reality and be what Sonic 4 should have been. However, as it stands, is this game worth paying £9.99 for? 
...well, it’s enjoyable enough, but apart from being kind of short, it just doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. This is a perfect example of game being tremendously overhyped because of it’s title and series history - had this been treated as a little spin-off (no pun intended) downloadable title I doubt that people would care anywhere near as much about it’s shortcomings. That said, it’s still decently fun - and owners of both episodes on the same system will be rewarded with “lock-on” content (mind you, it’s nothing big), so all in all this is not to be passed up by true fans. For the more casual follower, I would suggest - nay, insist - opting for the downloadable rerelease of Sonic CD instead. It’s a far superior product at a fraction of this price.

In Summary:

+ Lovely Graphics
+ Improved Physics
+ Authentic-sounding Genesis style soundtrack (if you like that kind of thing)
+ Bonus “lock-on” content available for owners of Episode I
- Overpriced and overhyped for what it is
- “Pinball” feel of the classics still not perfectly recreated
- Still borrows a little too heavily from the level themes of the classic titles

JiM-X’s Xtreme Nitpicks: still no one-button spin-dash from Generations or Super Peelout from CD? Come on, guys, these were awesome features that deserve to be used in more than one game!!
My Rating: 3/5