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In 1991, Sonic Team reportedly spent six months working on Green Hill zone alone, just to make sure the first levels of Sega's flagship game were perfect. I highly suspect the same is true of the Modern Sonic version of Green Hill in Sonic Generations. It is the perfect Sonic level. However, it's been widely available for free as a demo on XBLA and PSN for weeks now. Can the rest of the game really stand up to this barnstorming precedent? Well let's take a look…
Above: Here it is, folks - the 3D Sonic level you always wanted. Perfect? I'd say... yes
For once, Sonic Team seems to have listened to its fans. There are only two playable characters in the whole game – and they're both Sonic. Proper Sonic. No werehogs or stupid swords. No Big the Cat or E-102 Gamma – just the fastest feet and the sharpest spikes in gaming, doing what they do best: Running extremely fast and dealing spinny death to any fiendish robotic creation that stands in their way.
The time-bending plot is clearly just a vehicle to get 'classic' Sonic and 'modern' Sonic to star in the same game, so it's not like the story is likely to be hailed as a classic work of fiction. That said, it continues the tradition started by Sonic Colors of having cut-scenes that are worth watching, with funny scripting and new, knowing nods to past games which are fun to watch out for.
Above: Aww, look at the cheeky little chappy. Can we keep him? Huh? Huh? Can we?
I've got to say, though, classic Sonic steals every scene he's in – further proof if ever it were needed that some characters are just better when they don't speak. His character has a sweetness and strength, all told through body language and facial animations instead of the traditional awful dialogue.
I sincerely hope current head of Sonic Team Iizuka-san realises the strength of this character and reverses his decision not to make another game with him in. This is the Sonic we love.
Sonic Generations is big on rankings. After each main level, you're graded on your finishing time and score, with an 'S' possible rank if you do it all reasonably well without dying once. But once the main acts are done (of which there are a total of 18), challenge missions open up, dotted around the hub world as gates. You have to complete a few of these to progress to the next area, but there are many more optional challenges.
Above: Once completed, ring the golden bell and collect the musical note to unlock new music
Each gate has two challenges (one for each Sonic), and each of these is graded like the main stages. Going through them to get an 'S' grade on each one is fiendishly addictive and takes a loooong time - I've just done it, about two weeks after receiving the game. The sheer volume of content on offer is amazing, but these missions are undeniably the 'filler' that would otherwise have seen you control a slower character. You still only play as Sonic, mind, despite the appearances of a few familiar faces. How refreshing it is to say that?
Some of the levels are so different in the challenge missions, they really are like traditional 'Act 2's. They even feature nods to classic moments that don't appear in the main levels, like the pinball bumpers of Spring Yard Zone, the elemental shields from Sonic 3 and even the old end-of-act cages full of animals. But, conversely, some of them are something-and-nothing, and a few even feel cheap and tacked-on.
Above: Some challenges are distinctly low-quality compared to the main game. Others (like this one with giant badniks) are brilliant. Less really would have been more
However, the challenges highlight the game engine's biggest shortcoming – the control. I think by now we can all agree that 3D Sonic is never going to control as well as 3D Mario, simply because he moves too quickly. Ironically, it's the low-speed control that's weakest, seeing Sonic struggle with the simplest of small jumps, falling short of easy platforms and dropping out of the sky when his inertia abandons him mid-jump.
If that sounds annoying, it is. But where other Sonic games look broken as a result, Generations rarely looks mega-messy when you're doing it wrong. And I'd even go so far as to say Modern Sonic's side-scrolling sections actually feel more authentic than Classic Sonic's. Weird.
Above: Grind rail, stunt rings... but that jump is the right height. No, I'm serious
For the Sonic connoisseur (or 'fussy old bastard'), the physics are not 100% authentic for either character. Despite the name, Classic Sonic only ever really feels right when you've got the running boots on. At normal speed, the young hog is a little sluggish to pick up speed from standing, especially when you're jumping between moving platforms. Plus he feels like he's affected by gravity a little too much.
Modern Sonic actually feels more like 16-bit Sonic as his jump is higher, but of course he has the homing attack and Rush-style dash. Neither of them behave like old Sonic over hills or round loops and neither would last five seconds in the boss fight of Sonic 1's labyrinth zone.
Of course, if you've never played a Sonic game made before 1999, you'll likely champion this as the best Sonic game ever and accept the characters' movement as simply 'how it is'. And I must stress, when it's all moving at full speed, the game doesn't need any excuses. Anyone looking at it when it's going at full tilt would have to agree that it's simply spectacular. Check out this run through Green Hill here to see what I mean. Warning – it may melt your face.
My actual speedrun record so far is a 1:39.47, but that uses the drift move in an unattractive, scenery-rubbing fashion, which makes the game look less awesome than it actually is. I'm sure things will get even faster with more exploits as soon as the world gets its hands on the final game. Why? Because you can't go as quickly in the demo as you can in the final game. If you're eagle-eyed, you might have noticed there's a little icon at the start of the video when 'Go' appears on the screen.
Above: Did you notice this? Wondered why you didn't see it in the demo?
Well, this is a new 'skills' system. After each stage, you're given points based on your performance, which can be spent on abilities in a shop in the hub world. Each skill has an ability point cost, and seeing as Sonic only has 100 points, you can only equip a few at a time. Some are really useful, like making dropped rings stay on the screen for ten seconds before disappearing, while others like the one final extra life that kicks in when you hit zero are pretty pointless (continues are infinite). However, you can save up to five different sets, which makes speedrun success a little more personal.
I can't emphasise enough just how slick the main levels are. Perhaps Crisis City is too reminiscent of Sonic's lowest low, but that aside, level design here is of the highest order. The new Chemical Plant seems to get more fun with every play, perhaps due to the way it flows better when you're hitting the shortcuts right. City Escape and Speed Highway are both superb, and Seaside Hill from Sonic Heroes is a non-stop thrill ride – possibly my favourite level after Green Hill. Even the mega-hard Planet Wisp has grown on me with repeat plays, probably because I'm no longer dying every few steps now.
Above: Seaside Hill is an absolute blast, full of secret routes and awe-inspiring set-pieces
There are five red rings hidden in each act, which means every level has significant replay value. Going back through the game to hunt them all out just goes to show how brilliantly-constructed the levels are, with hidden routes requiring seriously sharp eyes and reflexes to uncover. Sky Sanctuary wasn't a favourite of mine at preview stage, but now I've seen all the routes it has to offer, I positively adore it.
I understand memorising levels isn't everyone's cup of tea, but while it undeniably aids success here, I'd still say that 90% of the special routes in the game can be found first time if you're quick enough on the jump button when you see a hoop or a platform appearing above you. And with so many little shortcuts strewn throughout the levels, there's a constant feeling of success once you start doing things well.
The game is undoubtedly at its best when you're doing what it wants you to do - but conversely, at its worst when you're not. As a case in point, Speed Highway is amazing, but can require too much understanding of the game's rules and controls for novice players, resulting in many deaths and a distinct lack of 'fun' as a result.
But when you've got jump, dash, boost, ground pound, lightspeed dash, roll, rev up, corner drift and slide all readily available at any time for Modern Sonic, you can't just keep mashing buttons and expect it to do what you want.
Above: You may well look confused, Classic Sonic. You're gonna have to deal with all of this, one day
When you're playing it right, it's clear that Sonic Generations has been designed with an abundance of care and patience that's been lacking in Sonic games for too long. Of course, it helps that it has 20 years' worth of ideas to cherry pick from and augment, but it's got plenty enough original ideas too.
One thing that did disappoint me, however, was the last boss. I won't spoil anything for you, but with mobile tutorial Omochao switched off, it took me four goes to work out exactly what I was supposed to be doing, and even when I did, it seemed very haphazard. And just before the fight's over, the game gives you another new controller command to use, explaining how to use it (even with Omochao switched off) while you're supposed to be fighting. It's a pity, because the Death Egg, Silver and Metal Sonic bosses are good. Not so much the Shadow one, but… well, it's Shadow, isn't it?
Above: Fortunately, Shadow left his gun at home. That would've really spoiled the party
Sonic fans are the hardest bunch to please in all of gaming. If Generations still makes you sad, despite the speed, spectacle, beauty and fan-service, I suggest forgetting all about 3D Sonic games and sticking to the 16-bit originals. As we revealed (and I couldn't tell you at preview stage), the original Sonic The Hedgehog is in the game, unlockable after about an hour's play if you save up your points for a Mega Drive controller. You don't get anything for completing it, but it's still a great game.
Above: You can't lose the borders. But you can play in 1:1 pixel ratio by hitting L1. It's tiny
But when you put the past to one side and look at the new game in isolation, there are essentially two games on show here - and I don't mean the classic/modern divide. The first is the one that stumbles on the things that Mario does so well. The attractive yet haphazard experience ridden with missed platforms, unexpected deaths and awkward low-speed movement in 3D space.
Then there's the other game. The one that's cruising by on the grind rail above it all, pulling tricks through bonus hoops with stars in its wake, locking onto secret ziplines and waiting for the split second where Sonic completes an aerial somersault to face the next platform before boosting away for another S grade. The one that's everything fans have wanted for so long. You can guess which one I've been playing.
Above: Look, it's Show-off the Hedgehog! Pushing L+R in the air pulls the Sonic Adventure pose
The finesse and subtlety of the moveset reward practice and close attention. So once you're past clumsily tripping up on low-speed hazards (which won't take long), the game flows like water.
Sonic Team once complained that the action stages take too long to develop because all that painstakingly-rendered scenery flashes by in seconds. That's why the Werehog was put into Sonic Unleashed – to slow it down and pad it out. Well, looking back through my save file, totting up my times for finishing the main levels (excluding challenges and even boss fights), there's over 80 minutes of non-repeating, 'premium' gameplay in here. That's longer than any of the old games take to finish and it's 50 times more spectacular. Not to mention I've been caning the game for a couple of weeks now and I'm still not bored with any of the main stages.
Above: You won't find a more thorough review of Sonic Generations anywhere. Fact
To be honest, if the main stages were all the game had to offer, I'd be happier with it. But the game has literally talked itself out of a '9' from me, as the side challenges rely too heavily on the weakest aspects of the game. You could ask 'how can extra content bring the score down?', but there are hours and hours of these things – some of which are compulsory. And when you have to play them to unlock the best skills, you can't just pretend they're not there. They are there, and they're 7/10 stuff. Still addictive and entertaining (and incredibly challenging if you insist on getting an S grade in every one), but mechanically dubious.
If Sonic Team had just spent their time on tightening up the low-speed control in the main levels rather than churning out some 90 levels of 'filler' content, this would be magnificent. As it is, it's 'merely' the best Sonic game since Sonic 2. That means it's better than Sonic 3, and therefore damn essential for anyone with even the slightest interest in the hog.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1?
Yes. OK, so the scores are the wrong way around, I know that, but I still maintain
that Sonic 4 is exceptional value for money and deserved its 9 at the time. It's also more direct in what it gives you. That said, Sonic Generations blows
it out of the water in every single respect. Better fan service, better
graphics, better audio… better everything.
Super Mario Galaxy 2? No. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the
best 3D platform game ever made and, while Generations rivals it in
terms of variety (again, thanks to taking the best bits from 20 years of
content), Super Mario Galaxy 2 contains no filler whatsoever, and its
post-game Green Star Challenge is far better than Generations' patchy
Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection? Yes. Even though the
16-bit retro-fest has just as much nostalgia and contains all three
classic original Sonic games, Generations brings the retro love into the
modern era with an incredible realisation of the old-school worlds. By
all means, play through the originals to get in the mood for the new
game, but it's time to accept gaming has moved on.
RTFA! Sorry, what I actually mean is: This is easily the best Sonic game since the hog's Sonic 2 glory days. Surprisingly, modern Sonic's levels are the more impressive and fun and, while low-speed control is still clumsy, the wealth of quality action scenes cherry-picked from the past two decades make the overwhelming majority of Sonic Generations an absolute blast.
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