You probably played the Sonic Generations demo and think you know exactly how good the game's going to be. Well, forget it - that demo is old. The game has taken visible strides forward and a fresh hands-on with a near complete version shows that there's way more to the game than initial impressions suggested. Bucketloads of fan-pleasing content and the slickest 3D Sonic platforming since... Sonic Jam. Yes, from 1998. We've also got hands-on impressions of a dramatically improved 3DS version too, so there's loads to tell you about. Take a seat - oh, but mind the spikes.
Let's start with the 'big' version, in this case running on PS3. Taking the pad, it's immediately apparent that my biggest complaint has already been fixed – Sonic's jump height now seems slightly higher than it was in the demo, making it not only more authentic, but easier too. Take a look at this exclusive gameplay video - you'll notice that the jump Sonic makes at 0:44 would have fallen short in the old demo, yet here it makes it to the platform. It's details like this that make all the difference to hardcore Sonic fans.
But, improved though it is, you've seen Green Hill Zone lots already. But where the demo stopped after one level, I was treated to hands-on time with Sky Sanctuary, Chemical Plant, Speed Highway, City Escape and a Death Egg boss level, not to mention the hub world and mission challenges.
The game's plot is told through deliciously self-referential cut-scenes. Sonic eats chilli dogs while holding Amy at arms length literally with his whole hand over her face as she runs on the spot trying to get to him. But just as it's getting all cosy, a vortex opens up in the space/time continuum and all of Sonic's buddies (which include some Chaotix members) get sucked into it. Some cynics would likely be happy to leave the game there, having solved the most irksome problem of the past 19 years, but they'd be missing out on some gorgeous gameplay, so let's carry on.
The hub world is devoid of colour to begin with, featuring themed areas based on old levels from Sonic's past. Sonic goes round filling them in with colour and saving his friends. Tails is rescued first, which brings up a neat little exchange where Sonic says Green Hill Zone 'looks familiar' and Tails says 'not to me'. More lolz.
Above: Of course, Tails would recognise this level. Who wouldn't?
The mission modes work like they did when replaying levels in Sonic Adventure, only now they're separate and can take wildly different routes, even making some parts look like a traditional 'Act 2, they're so different. I tried a 'doppelganger race', where Classic Sonic and Modern Sonic square off against each other in a dash through a previously cleared level. It works well, especially when you trigger a collapsing platform and watch your hapless competitor fall straight through it.
The hub world is used to access these challenges, rewarding you with keys that you have to collect (easier said than done as they fly around the hub) and when you've got enough, you can access a boss area.
The boss I saw was a reimagining of the boss fight from the end of Sonic 2. Robotnik's giant mech is now in full 3D and you have to dodge his attacks while triggering switches to spawn bombs. Make his attack miss you and hit the bomb and you get the chance to land a hit on his big shiny head. It looks great and there's a very cute animation where Sonic hits the mech on the bum with a spin attack. It's quite literally how we all wanted to kick Robotnik's ass back in the day.
The old 2D levels have made a good leap into 3D - the demo alone showed us that. But what's more interesting is how the already 3D Dreamcast levels have been updated.
Some sections are virtually identical to the old ones (only looking nicer), but set-pieces are mixed around and re-ordered, plus given some extra surprises. For instance, the GUN truck that threatened to squash Sonic (and did indeed flatten Big the Cat) in Sonic Adventure 2 now features added spinning blades that try to slice you into hog fillets. It's thrilling stuff.
Above: The blades are yet to be deployed here, but it's already exciting to play
Similarly, Speed Highway (the first level ever shown off when Sonic Adventure was announced in 1998) features familiar sections like the dash down the side of the building and the helicopter, plus that wonderful hill at the beginning, it's just that they're slightly rejigged to make them feel fresh. Example? Using the bumpers on the pad to quick-step left and right on the wall run, like in Sonic Unleashed.
Some ideas are entirely new, like a skateboard bit (which you can glimpse in the 'Dreamcast era' trailer), where Sonic is in side-scrolling mode and pulling off ollies like Tony Hawk. Also, while the familiar music returns, to my ears it sounds like it's been re-recorded, with familiar vocals but new inflections. It could just be a remaster or a different take from the original recordings, but they sound much clearer. And there's a classic and modern version of each track (something that works particularly well on the 3DS game, but we'll get to that shortly).
We moved on to Sky Sanctuary, which features transparent sections of flooring and fluffy cloud platforms to bounce on. Oh, but don't take my word for it - check out our second exclusive video:
Sky Sanctuary is perhaps the least intuitive of all the levels we've seen so far, with a couple of Sonic Colors-esque moments of clumsiness. But I'm pleased to say it wasn't a recurring theme through the other levels I played. The pacing is superb and, for the first time in ages, the game doesn't look crap if you don't know where you're supposed to be going. Sure, you'll make mistakes, but the game won't look broken now because of it.
There is even hope for the more awkward bits that are still in there. If by some chance you were lucky enough to try the 'Modern Sonic' version of Green Hill Zone (at E3 or Summer of Sonic, for instance), you might have tripped up on a few obstacles near the end of the act. Well, they're gone now. The levels are being worked on even now to ensure they flow as well as they possibly can - and that's (hopefully) going to be the making of this game.
Sega is working very hard to get this one right. Everything about Generations is clearly aimed at pleasing long-term fans of the series and the game is full of surprises - even more surprises than we've seen so far. Let's just say that while playing, there were a few moments when I chanced upon some things I definitely wasn't supposed to see yet...
No, I can't give you a clue. Really, my lips are sealed on pain of spiky death. So let me tell you instead about the 3DS version...