We've debated, we've nit-picked, we've doom-mongered and we've prayed. But now it's come to the crunch. Time to actually go hands-on with Sonic the Hedgehog 4 and see if it really is a return to the brilliant, proper Sonic of our 2D childhoods.
It was a responsibility both exciting and terrifying, but one that I took on with gusto despite the many questions whirling through my mind. Would it be amazing? Would it be the final, disappointing death-knell for Sonic? Would Justin actually murder me for playing it before him?
There was only one way to find out. I played the first Act. I scrutinised. And I wrote down the things that I felt you should know about. And here, just below this sentence, are those things.
Above: Running through this corkscrew is about to feel juuust right
This is the simplest, but most important piece of knowledge I took from my hands-on. Sonic 4 feels like Sonic the Hedgehog 4. The next game after Sonic 3. Not a tribute. Not a reworking. The next game in the series. Yes, as Justin has gone to great pains to point out, Sonic’s jumping animation is a bit weird, but his handling is exactly as it should be. Jump height, inertia, tweakability, it all feels familar and welcoming. If you’ve played Sonic before, you’ll be right at home with the control mechanics straight away.
Worry not. While the lock-on homing attack was originally a device from the crappy 3D games to make the crappy 3D level navigation a bit less crappy, it works a treat in Sonic 4. In fact it actually makes the gameplay better. Rather than dumbing things down, it makes them even more hardcore.
Above: Homing attack enabled, ground unnecessary
Operating just like a double-jump, it opens up Sonic 4’s levels to even deeper exploration, a homing attack on a Badnik or distant in-game object being often the only way to reach the game’s more secret areas. And more importantly, it’s also the speed-runner’s friend, allowing Sonic to wipe out enemies faster and access previously unattainable, quicker routes through the levels, as well as quicker paths through immediately accessible areas.
Trust me, polishing homing attack reaction speeds is going to become a key element when the Sonic hardcore are looking to shave down their record times.
I’m not bashing the first three Sonic games here, but they’re not perfect. Sonic’s low-speed handling can be a bit awkward, accelerating on even a slight incline is a grind without a charged spin, and there are ultra-cheap, pop-up enemies aplenty, who exist only make things artificially hard and extend the games’ completion times by ambushing you with unavoidable deaths. But these days we just remember the good times, and edit all of that inconvenient stuff out of our memories.
But Sonic 4 now seems to have edited all of that stuff out of the games as well, tweaking the gameplay in subtle ways that mean you’ll finally be playing the Sonic games you remember rather than the ones they actually were. Thanks to much smoother animation and improved handling, Sonic is a responsive pleasure to control at any velocity. And he accelerates more rapidly up hills, meaning an end to those irritating old breaks in intertia when one mistake would see you crawling back and forth for weeks to regain momentum.
And best of all, the aforementioned homing attack actually seems to dispel much of old Sonic’s cheapness. Even if an enemy jumps you with only fractions of a second to spare, a quick mid-air stab of the jump button turns the tables immediately.
Having seen the set-up of the first Robotnik boss fight, we were worried that Sonic 4 might just be a bit too similar to the hedgehog hurling joys of old. Because basically, it looked exactly the same as Sonic 1's first boss fight, almost pixel-for-pixel.
Above: Robotnik will be here in a sec. He's just upgrading some stuff
But having now played it, we know that is not so. It starts out just like the classic swingy-ball-of-bright-orange-rib-cracking-death fight you remember from the end of the Greenhill Zone, but a few important things have been changed. First, Robotnik’s collision detection has been tweaked so that you can no longer use the old trick of hanging out in the top corner and repeatedly bouncing off his head for a three-second kill. You’re going to have to earn this one.
And just as you think you have, old concrete ‘tasche pulls the rug away by whipping out a brand new attack. By flipping violently towards Sonic, he whiplashes the ball and chain right over the top of his flying machine in an attempt to send the hedgehog the way of so many of his motorway roadkill brothers. It’s a fast and brutal shake-up of a classic battle, and should herald a whole load more twists and surprises throughout the rest of the game.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is being made with a lot of love. The little unnecessary touches show that off all the time. Like the way Sonic and Robotnik have recently been re-rendered in a slightly more cel-shaded style, which makes them feel a little more like the simpler sprites of old. And the fact that in Sonic's case, that very sprite pops up on the loading screen and as the 1-up icon, Bionic Commando: Rearmed-style.
Above: Anything Donkey Kong can do...
There’s also a great little effect where the music (which is pure 16-bit awesome) speeds up as Sonic accelerates, punctuating any speed-killing crash with a painful thump back to a lower tempo. Basically, it seems like Sonic the Hedgehog 4’s developers really, really do love it. Which is pleasing to see, because right now, we do too.
So what do you think? Do you have faith in the Hedgehog's return to form now that you've heard my findings? How hyped are you about Sonic 4? Or do Sonic's past transgressions mean that he's already dead to you, no matter how well this one turns out? Let me know in the comments, or staple your opinion to our community notice-boards on Facebook and Twitter.