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It's rare that we play preview code with the aim of simply having fun with a game. We're usually too busy taking notes and trying to make sure we've not missed anything. However, with our hands-on preview of Sonic Generations already posted by Mr Patterson, the pressure was off when Sega visited our UK office. After the obligatory demo for fellow journos from the various magazines, I was left with the Sega rep to actually have some fun with it. The challenge? Speedrunning, of course!
Speedrunning is an important part of any Sonic game. The reason I awarded Sonic 4: Episode 1 such a high score was because after you'd finished the enjoyable levels and collected all the emeralds, the replay value offered by the speedrun leaderboards turned it into a completely different game. Sonic Generations knows this and has some key features up its sleeve that make that speedrun experience even better.
But of course, there are the two different styles of play in Sonic Generations, each requiring completely different skills. Let's start with…
The gangly-legged, green-eyed Sonic's Green Hill Zone is spectacular. I don't want to retread too much ground here, but it really looks rather special. The dash button that was first used in Sonic Rush is here in full effect, warping the screen as you shoot forward at huge velocities. In speedrunners' hands, it's invaluable.
Firstly it means even the slightest mistake can be brushed off with a quick tap of the X button, getting Sonic back to sound barrier-bothering speed instantly. Secondly, it acts as a combo gauge because you need to keep it filled by collecting rings and destroying badniks as you go – otherwise you'll end up with a boostless Sonic, which is rather sad.
Above: The floating bonus hoops to pass through are still present in Modern Sonic's levels (low centre)
The side-on Modern Sonic gameplay is actually a lot better than I expected, as I was never a massive fan of Sonic Unleashed's 2D sections. The movement of Sonic at low speeds is smooth and solid, with a good sense of inertia. Learning when to press B to slide under obstacles might be more of a test of memory than reflexes, but giving you dashing, sliding and jumping to think about makes the 'perfect run' a complex but achievable goal.
Compared to other first levels in Sonic games, Modern Sonic's act is actually quite long. My first go was completed in just under three minutes, and I was going for speed. While there are few genuine alternative routes through Modern Sonic's more linear level, staying high up is definitely your primary goal.
Above: Apologies for the same screenshots - Sega hasn't released any new ones for a while
There are a few sections where Sonic is travelling quickly to the right, jumping between grind rails and consecutive platforms each lower than the next. The idea is to avoid plummeting down into the bottom of the route. The chances of death from the bottom of the screen are minimal, but meeting a time-sapping wall with a spring back to your left are genuine 'curse, pause, retry' moments.
Everything you do here is graded when you finish the act, with time, rings and hits taken into consideration before you're given a letter rank. There's even a bonus if you make it through unscathed. Interestingly, getting hit doesn't lose all of your rings – it just affects your score at the end of the level. It's perhaps a little too reliable on the perfect route to make the game look its most flowing, but that's been true of modern Sonic since Sonic Adventure 2.
But you're probably aware of Unleashed-style Sonic. What about the new version of Old Sonic?
This is extremely promising. After all those nasty things I said about Sonic 4's visual style and how good the recent fan projects have been, Generations finally gets it right. The music, the colours, the sense of mystery… it's all here in superb style. I'm getting to the speedrun bit, but just have to tell you about the little details, like the animation of the badniks that's worthy of a CG movie, or the ear-kissing diagetic noise that accompanies the lower half of the level.
That's right – get down into the caves and everything sounds different. You can hear what sounds like wild bird calls echoing around the rock walls, perfectly complementing the light filtering through the lush, iconic Green Hill trees. It's really rather wonderful.
But the little details also seem to be married to the gameplay – especially in terms of speedrunning. For instance, the leaping fish near the start of the level are black silhouettes as they leap up, before flipping round as they fall.
It's only when they are in this second stage that they hit you as you run by, which again allows the speedrunner to zoom on through, while the more methodical gamer will have the chance to enjoy destroying them.
It just means you won't have your first few steps as new 'old' Sonic spoiled by death.
Above: Sure, that was crap and you'll have to restart, but ain't it worth it to see the badniks' fine animation?
Obviously, it's a celebration of the old game and several key elements of the original Green Hill Act 1's stage layout have been reproduced here. The motobug at the start, the first platform with the 10 Rings monitor, items hidden in trees… there's even the S-bend pipe with the ramp at the end, throwing you into the air where a veil of rings waits to be collected.
However, while the main route through the level is understandably simplistic for gamers to take in the magnificent sights and sounds, a couple more plays reveal the speedrunner's best friend. Shortcuts – and plenty of 'em.
Above: This still from the trailer shows you one shortcut. Use the Buzz Bomber as a stepping stone. It's hard!
Most of them are signposted if you're quick enough to react. We were playing on the biggest TV in the building (80in, I believe) which sounds great, but it's not the best way to see what's coming at you. But once the shortcuts have been spotted, it's not too hard getting into them every time.
Some of them are classic Sonic – Chemical Plant Zone in Sonic 2 featured a left-facing spring in your path that most players will hit and there's one in new Green Hill Zone too. There's a perfectly enjoyable route if you hit it and fall through the floor that had collapsed behind you, but if you see it fast enough (or more likely remember it's there), you can jump over it and save yourself a load of time.
One thing the new game offers speedrunners over Sonic 4 is split times that come up on the screen as you pass checkpoints. There were always key moments in Sonic 4's speedrun where you'd look at the clock to see if you were up or not, but these precise splits make it all that much easier and official.
Above: In the game itself, checkpoints bring up split times on the screen showing you how well you're doing
I got the Old Sonic first act down to 1m23s before we had to call it a day. It's going to get down below 1m, but I seriously doubt we'll be getting near that 30s barrier this time. But then again, I thought that about Sonic 4 and the leaderboards (and YouTube) say otherwise.
There were other things in the demo that intrigued me. For instance, there are five special red rings to collect in the Old Sonic stage, which currently don't trigger anything. Also, there was no hint of a bonus stage, which I seriously hope a) is going to be put in soon and b) is a remake of the pipe run from Sonic 2. We had the Sonic 1 rotating maze in Sonic 4, so it makes sense to expect it.
Sonic's movement reminded me a lot of Sonic Colors'. His jump is surprisingly shallow, making some platforming sections that should have been easy actually rather tricky. Also, rolling into a ball and hitting a spring doesn't carry inertia like it used to – running into said spring and staying on your feet to run up walls is the way to get up them.
Above: 'Old' Sonic's jump can only just make it up to that platform with the spring. It feels a tad too shallow
Finally, while you can crouch and press jump repeatedly to rev up like you could from Sonic 2 onwards, X now does this on its own, revving you to top speed straight away. It's also used to smash through boulders, complete with a button prompt. It's at odds with the rest of the authenticity of movement and is likely an inclusion for casual-gamers - the original Sonic 1's near-invisible weak walls that you could run up to and roll through were too much for many novices. But again, for speedrunners, the X button helps as a quick-reset to get you back up to speed after a coming to a halt.
It's already loads of fun and looking sublime, despite its early, unfinished state. I can't wait to see which other levels will be included from Sonic's vast back catalogue. In fact, I just can't wait to play it again. It's nailed the visuals, the speed, the platforming challenge and the nostalgia factor. But, crucially, it feels like a new Sonic game, like this is the real Sonic 4. In fact, it does make you wonder why Sonic 4 was made at all, but hey ho. Suffice to say, this is the one to watch. I daren't believe it can fully recapture the magic of the 16-bit classics but, based on this evidence, it's going to be damn close.
23 May, 2011