Thursday, January 26, 2012

Review: "Sonic Generations"

Apologies All Around
review for Sonic Generations (PC), 1- player platformer, out now

By admitting that I never played a Sonic the Hedgehog game until Sonic Generations, I basically forfeit my entire childhood. It's true, though. I've never played Sonic. I never even liked Sonic. I mean, I had respect for the originals, I think everyone sort of does; but as the franchise progressed I grew ever colder to both it and its fanbase. Sonic was just a character I could never groove with. I grew up with a Nintendo 64, playing Super Mario. My opinion towards Sonic the Hedgehog has been, for the longest time, "fuck Sonic, I'm playing Mario."

It turned out perhaps my childhood sense of superiority was one worth hanging onto. As the Super Mario platformers got better and better with core games in the franchise like Galaxy, Sonic platformers got worse and worse with games like Sonic Unleashed. SEGA - and, more importantly, Team Sonic - drove Sonic into the ground. Nintendo loses points for playing it safe with every main Mario release (four player co-op? Reach for the stars, Nintendo!), but SEGA just... lost it. Sonic fans themselves lost all reason to celebrate their beloved franchise.

It makes the release of Sonic Generations both perplexing and... pleasant. I've been interested in this game ever since generally rather cynical critics like Jim Sterling and TotalBiscuit said it wasn't just good "for a Sonic game"... but it was... good. Like, as a game, good. On paper, though, it sounds... utterly confusing. Generations is essentially Sonic the Hedgehog: 20th Anniversary, playing as a love letter/highlights reel/nostalgic throwback to the series at large. Only... the series doesn't have enough highlights to fill a highlights reel. This proves to be untrue... mostly. I'll get back to that in a bit.

I can sum up Sonic Generations thusly: "pleasant surprise". The game certainly looked bright enough and fun enough to be a varied platformer, but Sonic's track record doesn't do the game any favours. The cries of "it's actually good!" did, though, and piqued my interest enough that getting my hands on the game as a no-brainer. I was still expecting utter trite though. I'm utterly shocked, then, to report that the game is, as those with more qualifications and interest in these things than me have said, quite good. As a game. It's a good game!

This is helped a lot by the fact that the level progression is a grab bag mix of hits from Sonic's varied past. "Variety" is the key word here. There are nine main stages, each one crafted on, and inspired by, "classic" fan-favourite stages from Sonic's past (like Green Hill Zone, and Chemical Plant Zone, and umm that's all I know of); with large assortments of renditions (of the "challenge map" "extra mode" sort) - they're all visually unique and usually come with an attached gimmick of some kind. Combined with the gameplay's hella fast pace, it insures that Generations, if nothing else, never gets stale. There's always something new around the corner, the corners are always a few minutes away, and there's a lot of content. Varied, extensive gameplay: this is the first key element of my liking, instead of instinctively loathing, Sonic Generations.

Second element would be the platforming itself. There are two "acts" of each "zone" (oh boy I'm down with the Sonic lingo), the first of which playing as a classic side-scrolling 2D Sonic game, and the second playing like what I can only describe as a rollercoaster, with a staggering amount of momentum and speed in 3D-ish environments. I'm informed (after acquiring, for test purposes, a SEGA emulator and a few old Sonic roms) that the first acts play like the old Sonic games like Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic 2, and that the second acts play like the generally-considered-to-be-worse-than-those 3D Sonic games like Sonic Adventure and Sonic Unleashed. It is a surprise, then, that I actually almost preferred the 3D sections. Team Sonic has obviously learned quite a lot from their failures, because any control issues regarding Sonic's ludicrous speed are all but quenched. The sense of speed is never allowed to overpower the sense of control; the action flows very nicely from section to section in the second acts, and it all goes to amplify my previous "never a dull moment" sentiment.

These sections are rides, sure, but they're hell-as entertaining, and they're never overly linear; there are always multiple paths, different routes, interspersed through more "ride"-ish segments (like, say, sliding along a rail). The first acts are quite impressive too, mind; it plays much more like "classic" Sonic and I'm sure it'll be the sections of the game fans prefer the most. It controls just like old Sonic games do (though with my experience only a brief playthrough of Sonic 2 to double-check, you may not want to trust me on this), with an emphasis on careful planning followed by revving up Sonic into a little spinball, and then zooming your way quickly through the world until the next, more traditional, platforming section. It's entertaining, and the physics - the way Sonic gains momentum, the gravity defying spin-dashes, the sense of speed, the effects of the various jump-pads and such - are impeccably fine-tuned. But, well, I preferred the 3D segments. It just felt much more unique; after playing Super Mario Galaxy for so long, it was refreshing to see a take on platforming that involved going really fast instead of just clumsily jumping along floating platforms. And speed runs. This game will go so well with the speed running crowd. Everything is scored! Improving your run-throughs to perfection will take ages (probably, worth keeping in mind I suck)! It's a perfect design decision, that plays to Sonic's strengths, and I loves it, I do.

It isn't all roses. Team Sonic have done good here but it's obviously they're an... easily confused bunch. SEGA seems to have their paws all over this release considering it's basically the 20th Anniversary celebration for their mascot's series, but they didn't quite have enough members to hold down Team Sonic while they programmed in some really awful things. Some of the boss fights - the last one in particular - are absolutely dreadful. A lot of the challenge modes, too, are incredibly throwaway and trashy. But the worst part of Sonic Generations is the character.

That is to say, the character of Sonic the Hedgehog. The world design, level design, game progression, it's all fine. Held up by the solid and entertaining gameplay, it's brilliant, even. It spews colour and classic no-bullshit platforming fun. No, yeah, I mean Sonic the Hedgehog himself.

...look. I'm going to piss a lot of people off by saying this. (Others will nod their heads sagely in agreement.) But Sonic is not a good character. The plot of this game revolves around there being some sort of crisis with time and possibly reality itself, that essentially means that there are two Sonics. This isn't good. Classic Sonic... he's fine. He doesn't talk. He's still a douche, but he's a silent douche who never once utters the term "that's rad" or "wow!" or "cool, man!", "modern" Sonic is possibly the worst protagonist a videogame has ever had. As a mascot in a platformer, he works fine. But Sonic Team are intent on giving him cutscenes in which he talks. There's a reason Nintendo don't concern themselves with the plot in their Super Mario games - the reason is it'd probably end up like Sonic the Hedgehog has. It's a cheesy, downright crummy anti-parody that tries so hard to achieve a goal it's destined never to reach. This applies to all of Sonic's "friends", too. They're bad. Some of them even made me a little uncomfortable (Rouge the Bat, for example. I'm down with some crazy stuff, but knowing that someone is in all likelihood fapping off to her right now does not sit well with me considering it's essentially a kid's game). They all have to leave. Or be muted to the point where I can just ignore them. They're not good.

Well, alright. The villain Dr Robotnik, or Eggman... he was good. He's a mad scientist with a ridiculous mustache, who builds various crazy contraptions and gadgets, who speaks only in catchphrases like "I'll get you next time" and "if it weren't for that meddling hedgehog" without semblance of irony, and it's utterly captivating. Everything he said had me on the edge of my seat. He's so endearingly goofy! So yes, Sonic Team should probably keep using this dude (as if they'd stop). He reminds me of a Saturday morning cartoon bad guy. He's so great! Utterly hilarious and entertaining. I must harvest his brain for my... collection.

...look, the minor gripes in this game add up. The fact that the team felt they had to pay homage to even the unequivocally bad Sonic games like Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 and Sonic Unleashed means that often the game feels like it's good wholly by mistake. That's not a good sign! But, regardless, there's always a little thing that cleans away the bad ilk I feel towards various niggles of this game. Whether it be the occasional subversive tongue-in-cheek line of dialog that mocks the game behind its own back, to sly references only Sonic purists will understand, to the way you can pick and choose which challenges you need to progress (you need to complete two per zone), to the excellent remixes of classic Sonic tunes, fast rooting themselves inside my head like with all of you old-hat Sonic fans. Hell, the fact that the PC port doesn't make me want to weep tears of blood and eat to-be mother's unborn fetuses is worth celebrating all in itself...! The game drips with personality and dedication and... love. Passion. This game feels like it was made with love. By what is likely a bunch of retards, sure, but they've caught lightning in a bottle with Sonic Generations. It's not just a case of another Sonic game. This is a product that is joyful and inspiring; it's enthralling at every turn and I can do nothing but heartily recommend it.

Fans of Sonic the Hedgehog already own this. For non-fans like myself, or for people who only played the originals, this is very much a game worth picking up. Ignoring the Sonic franchise; it's a diverse, well-designed platformer with a ton of content that represents incredible value for money. A colourful, gorgeous and engrossing game, filled with joy and that very rare creative spark that you just don't expect from what's otherwise a dead franchise like Sonic the Hedgehog. I was pleasantly surprised, and subsequently blown away - I'm convinced you'll be too. Brilliant stuff.
You may have noticed I scored this using stars. I'm using stars now. Stars are cool.


  1. $30 bucks didn't go to waste it seems. :>