We've played Sonic 4: Episode II and here's what we discovered
Sega held a massive press day in London showcasing its upcoming download-only games. Sonic 4: Episode 2 was there in playable form. Is it better than Episode 1? Well let's take a look...
1) Tails can carry you through the sky or underwater at any time
Just press X (or Square on PS3) at any time while not standing on the ground and Sonic will high-five Tails (who instantly appears from wherever he may have been hiding) and the two will then fly or swim around for a short time. This is crucial for finding shortcuts or alternative routes.
2) There's a new dash attack
Are you used to holding down X and revving up like you did in Sonic Generations? Well, it's not quite the same here, but pressing X at any time while standing will call Tails to you. You'll then rev up together in a large ball of blue and orange, before dashing off at supersonic speed. It's an easy way to get around loops or up hills, though it can be tricky to control if you only want to use it for a short distance. You'll need if for tackling snow drifts, however your regular spin dash attack won't get through those.
3) There's 2-player co-op through the whole game
But apparently no two-player vs mode like the one found in Sonic 2. We wouldn't be surprised if there is one announced nearer to release, but currently the answer is 'no'. Still, Tails will find his way back onto the screen if he gets lost so there could be a lot of fun to be had here.
4) Red rings return
We found one single red ring while we played the demo (not pictured in these official shots as it's probably meant to be a secret). After dashing across the surface of the water in Sylvania Castle Zone (Sonic 3-style), a quick jump before you hit the wall at the end will allow you to hop off the surface and onto a platform. It's clearly a short-cut for speed-runs, but it's where you'll find the ring , which looks exactly like the ones hidden in Sonic Generations. What are they for? It's unknown right now, but at least finding them should add significant replay value to the game for future play-throughs.
5) Secrets are everywhere
In Sylvania Castle, if you run left at the start (for a surprisingly long time) you'll find a shiny extra life, perhaps in a nod to Bridge Zone Act 3 on Game Gear Sonic 1 (Geek Mode cancel). In this screenshot, flying upwards here also yields a hidden route. Also in this screen - see that sunlight? Rays from it filter through Tails' rotor blades in real-time, which looks rather beautiful.
6) You can control Sonic with the D-Pad or stick
Perhaps not a surprise, but the game does feel different depending on which you choose to use. The D-pad definitely feels more retro, which is probably what you'll want to use if you're a long-term Sonic fan. Incidentally, this boss fight wasn't in the demo we played, but you can see the marked increase in graphical quality over Episode I.
7) The screen has a zoom feature
This isn't activated manually, but the camera now pulls back to show you more of the level around you at certain points. Of course, doing this does lessen the sensation of speed, so the game soon switches back to its regular zoom setting, which is perhaps too close to Sonic to see far enough ahead of you. But that's the age-old Sonic problem, isn't it?
8) Sonic physically grabs air bubbles and shoves them in his mouth
One of the cutest animations the game has is the sub-aquatic air gulp. We're used to seeing Sonic open his mouth wide and breathe in air bubbles, but watching him push them into his mouth is a nice touch... even if it is physically improbable. But then, hedgehogs can actually swim anyway yet Sonic can't, so who cares about realism?
9) The mobile version is looking excellent
We tried the exact same demo on an Asus Android Tablet (but not this boss fight that wasn't in the demo, sadly) and we were impressed. The frame-rate may not be as silky smooth as the 360 version (especially while running behind those fancy waterfalls), but all of the graphic effects remain, including the rays of light filtering through gaps in the walls in the background. Should be great on a new iPad
10) The title screen is reminiscent of Sonic 2
Not just because Sonic and Tails are in it, but even the way the two emerge is familiar. Following old animation routines may be a nice nostalgic nod, but again it does leave us thinking this feels more like a tribute to the old games than a genuine, forward-thinking Sonic the Hedgehog 4.
11) The levels are relatively long
Even dashing through as quickly as we could on the Sylvania Castle stage, we only managed a 1'26"59. A minute and half without any major mistakes makes this level impressively lengthy. And that's before you take into account all the alternative routes.
12) The homing attack returns, only now some enemies can resist it
There are some hulking great badniks in White Park Zone. They resemble bears and have a vicious arm attack. You can home in on them easy enough, but it'll take three hits to see them off. They don't yield massive points bonuses either, which makes them an enemy you're probably better off avoiding.
13) The music is annoying
Perhaps the problem was that there were several demo pods all lined up in a noisy room, all playing the same music. But there's a section of the main melody in the White Park Zone that repeats slightly too often and started to drive us a little mad. Hopefully in isolation it will sound lovely. But the rest of the soundscape is familiar stuff all ring collects and jumping sounds that've been in the series since 1991.
14) Rolling is still not your fastest method of travel
We've long-since given up on the idea that Sonic's old physics can return in modern games. The movement in Sonic 4: Episode 2 does have slightly more inertia than its predecessor, but it still feels similar. As a result, as you're running down a slope, your best bet for acceleration is not to go into a ball as you would on Mega Drive, but instead to stay on your feet and let Sonic's legs bring the power. Disappointing, yes, especially as the recently re-released Sonic CD's slightly tweaked physics are an absolute joy. Still, that team-up move as seen here moves VERY quickly.
15) Surprisingly, these levels do not seem to have been designed for speed running
Sylvania Castle repeatedly pulls you up, requiring you to activate a Marble Garden-style spinning wheel switch or jump on a series of moving platforms. It's not a bad thing, but the way the levels were so cunningly designed for this in Sonic 4: Episode I is one of the biggest reasons we awarded it a 9. Episode 2 may have similar levels or other routes we haven't yet discovered, but it's a much more channeled experience from what we've seen in this demo.
So there you have it 15 things you didn't know about Sonic 4. Are we impressed? Yes. It looks significantly better than Episode 1, thanks to some beautiful scenery graphics and improved sense of depth. The lights on the trees in White Park Zone in particular make everything look very special. There doesn't seem to be anything majorly surprising to shake up the formula, which is a pity. But it looks much more inviting than its predecessor on first play, so should get a better reception when it's released later this year. More soon.