Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Game Review: SONIC THE HEDGEHOG

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SONIC THE HEDGEHOG
  • Publisher: Sega
  • Developer: Sonic Team
  • Release:
    • XBox 360: 14 November 2006
    • PlayStation 3: 30 January 2007
  • Genre: Third-Person Action
  • Players: 1-2
Okay, by now, if you're a repeat visitor of this blog (in which case WHY HAVE YOU NOT SUBSCRIBED YET), you may have noticed my running gag of mentioning the sad fate of the would-be video game Mega Man Legends 3.  Subsequently, if you haven't yet Liked the Facebook group GetMeOffTheMoon, the movement to revive development of Legends 3, you have no soul.  Now, I can't remember any specific links to this, but on said page I have also read about a (considerably smaller) movement to plead of Sega to make a Sonic Adventure 3. What if I told you we already have a Sonic Adventure 3?  And what if it was so bad you might disregard it and resume petitioning for a real Sonic Adventure sequel?  Such is the sad fate of 2006's SONIC THE HEDGEHOG for XBox 360 and PlayStation 3.  (NB: From here on in, I'm writing its title in capital letters to differentiate it from the Sega Genesis title, since PSN does the same.)

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Running from a killer whale.  Deja vu.
There is a plot to be had, in which a certain Princess Elise is kidnapped by Dr. Eggman (whoa, encroaching on Bowser's territory there), who seeks from her something called the Flames of Disaster.  Time travel is also involved.  But let's put that aside for the moment and examine the first levels of the game.  From an urban hub world (which by the way, is easy to get lost in with the little-to-no guidance you're given), you transfer to Wave Ocean, set on a beach, cliffs, and wooden walkways, capped off with a chase from a killer whale.  Sound familiar?  That's because this concept was copied directly from the first level of Sonic Adventure!  And multiple other settings, such as the snow world and the volcano, appear in Sonic's story in a similar order as their Adventure counterparts.  This being the case, I would totally not be surprised if Sonic Team revealed this to be an attempt at making an HD remake of Adventure.  Unfortunately, they left Adventure's (admittedly vast) room for error unimproved whilst fouling up in nearly every other conceivable aspect.

Like the Sonic Adventure duology, the single-player mode is broken up into three stories, each starring a different hedgehog.  Sonic gets one, Shadow another, and the third stars the newcomer Silver.  The majority of levels are no-frills 3D platforming, your objective being to reach the end of each level, somehow surviving every obstacle to come your way.  The levels feature your standard array of loops, spikes, dash pads, and checkpoints, as seen in Sonic Adventure.  It's too bad the control scheme and movement physics are still poorly-suited for a 3-D platformer.  Like for example, and for the record this problem has been around since Sonic Adventure, if you turn whilst running, your player character will not lose momentum.  As the Sonic franchise had yet to overcome its crippling addiction of adding new characters for each new outing, every so often you'll tag with characters like Tails, Knuckles, Rouge and Blaze, to clear passages as them and help out the main character.  They all have unique mechanics, i.e. Tails can fly and throw fake-ring bombs, but these tend to backfire.  For example, in the case of Tails, the flight controls are even more twitchy than those on foot, making landing on a precise spot a tense chore, and whilst you can aim projectiles, there's no cursor for doing so, adding an unwelcome and unnecessary bit of guesswork to the matter.  At least the Knuckles treasure hunts of Adventure/2 are a thing of the past.

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This format extends to all three campaigns, Sonic, Shadow and Silver, but with their own separate twists.  In some parts of Sonic's levels, you are "treated" to high-speed chase sequences, and I mean "treated" with the thickest sarcasm I can muster.  In these auto-running passages, Sonic must dodge all obstacles, from enemies to lowly rocks and trees, lest he take damage and lose either rings or a life.  This wouldn't be so bad, except the controls are so touchy that even keeping a straight course requires nerves of steel.  In a more sensible control scheme, pressing Left or Right on the joystick would make Sonic strafe in that direction whilst still facing the same way, but as it's implented here, turning left or right means literally turning your course left or right.  If you're on a walkway trying to collect some precious rings or a 1-up, but touching the guardrails on either side will hurt you, you can see why this would be a problem.  The Sonic Unleashed engine shows how this mechanic could be done right, so we can't say Sonic Team doesn't learn from their mistakes.
Silver the Hedgehog can control objects with telekinesis --
and break the physics engine doing so.
Meanwhile, Shadow can hop into armed vehicles when available (Dangit Sega, we're trying to forget Shadow The Hedgehog!).  Silver, being gifted with psychic powers, can maniplate objects with telekinesis, and throw them back at enemies and other targets.  You think I'd find that awesome, but my experiences controlling Silver have left me coloured unimpressed.  See, SONIC THE HEDGEHOG incorporates the Havok physics engine, made famous by Half-Life 2, a game I really liked.  But SONIC THE HEDGEHOG turns that asset into a liability, because collision detection is constantly on the fritz, and coupled with the stiff and unruly camera and the hyped-up control sensitivity, makes for unnecessarily challenging movement.    Whilst collision issues have been around since Adventure, what's new here is that there are all manner of physics glitches brought upon by the Havok engine, as implemented in this game.  One example has Sonic doing trip-attacks atop a crate, causing the box and Sonic to inexplicably rise up in the air.  See the video below for this and other examples.

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And now to discuss what is perhaps the game's most infamous iss--

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--ue.  You guessed it: the loading times.  It's not that each bout of loading is incredibly long -- most individual loads take but twenty seconds apiece on the PS3 version -- but that they are frequent and horribly inefficient.  For example, take the case of an early boss fight against Silver, which takes place in a section of one of the overworld towns.  The current state of investigations seems to indicate that when loading this fight, the entire town is sent over from the disc, despite the fight taking place in a relatively enclosed space the size of one city block.  Or take the numerous side-missions, triggered by speaking with people across the overworld.  Whilst only a handful are required to complete the story, they'll get on your nerves, and here's why:
  1. Talk to the person.
  2. 20 seconds of loading.
  3. Read a line or two of non-voiced text, vaguely describing your objective.
  4. 20 seconds of loading.
  5. Play the mission.
  6. 20 seconds of loading.
  7. Read a line of non-voiced text, confirming your success or failure.  If you won the mission, your results and rewards are also displayed.
  8. 20 seconds of loading.
  9. Return to the town.  If you failed the mission, repeat from step 1.
Are you wondering why there's so much loading before steps 3 and 7, if nothing much is happening?  Again, it is highly likely that the game is reloading the entire town during these steps, even though you're only waiting to read a line or two of text -- without even voice acting!  What they should've done is display these minuscule monologues on the loading screens, thus knocking out any excuses for reloading the world for a scene that only lasts for mere seconds.  But what do I know about big-budget game development?  I'm sure Sonic Team knows something I don't about how to go about these things, given the time and effort they spent on the project -- oh wait, they crammed to put it out for Christmas and the PlayStation 3 launch.  Let this be a lesson that cram schedules will get you nowhere.  It backfired for the Atari E.T., and it backfired here.

>>> NOW That's enough, this loading joke has gone on long enough.

SONIC THE HEDGEHOG is one of the most offensive video games I have yet played.  True, there are games out there that are quantifiably worse, not to mention intentionally offensive, but SONIC THE HEDGEHOG specifically offends my sensibilties as a gamer.  And it's not like there aren't good touches here and there, like the purchasable and upgradable Custom Actions.  And it's not like I don't want this to exist, I want it to be better.  I mean, just a few little tweaks here and there could've been applied to make the final product passable, perhaps even good.  First of all, trim all that fat off of the loading times.  Make a control scheme that doesn't feel like you're sliding on ice.  Give us a better indication of what to do next in the overworlds, or axe them completely.  Not to mention, throw in a metric butt-load of extra testing time.  ...Shoot, that's a lot of stuff to fix.  On second thought, just scrap the whole thing and give us Sonic Colors.

Control: 1 Chaos Emerald out of 5
Design: 2 Chaos Emeralds out of 5
Graphics: 3 Chaos Emeralds out of 5
Audio: 4 Chaos Emeralds out of 5
The Call: 25% (F)

NB: I should note that my experiences playing SONIC THE HEDGEHOG were based on the PlayStation 3 version, which followed the original release on XBox 360 by a couple of months.  Despite the extra time, the PS3 port is somehow worse.  Loading times are several seconds longer on the PS3 than the 360, and despite the eventual support for Trophies on PS3 games, the counterpart Achievements from the 360 version were never patched into the other one (and I know for a fact this has been done).  This is cause for concern on the matter of the collectable Silver Medallions.  These unlock nothing within the game itself, but find them all in the XBox 360 port, and you win an Achievement for it.  But without a corresponding Trophy, the Silver Medallions are worthless.

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