GAME NAME: Sonic Generations
DEVELOPER(S): Sonic Team
PLATFORM(S): Nintendo 3DS, PC, PS3, Xbox 360
RELEASE DATE(S): November 4, 2011
After 20 years in the gaming industry, Sega and the Sonic Team have built up a massive collection of landscapes, games and stories, and it seems as though they still have a way to go as we test Sonic Generations.
Sonic is a relic from the 90s, a video game hero perfectly designed for the market of the time which had a taste for both gaming and style. During the noughties, the beloved blue hedgehog has become more reminiscent of a bad joke. A gaming hero who repeatedly attempts to find some form of existence in a 3D world that no longer needs him. Fans follow and attempt to keep any dying hopes alive, despite all of the bad business deals and marketing nightmares. If Sega are out to make a perfect tribute to the game series, they should definitely look to their fans for the correct depiction, but this isn’t what Sonic Generations have done. Instead it is about nostalgia and a development team who, after countless ifs and buts, finally seems to have gained control of their own laborious game engine.
It’s sonic the hedgehog’s birthday. All of his friends have gathered for the festivities to celebrate with cake and chilli dogs when, suddenly, a dark figure appears to interrupt the happy occasion by tearing space and time apart. Sonic and his friends immediately disperse in a flurry of activity. This all leads to Sonic meeting his younger self, the classic Sonic the Hedgehog from the Sega Mega Drive era. Together they go on a journey through 20 years of Sonic history, trying to bring order to the cosmos and save Sonic’s friends from the mysterious dark threat.
I already had expectations about the story of Sonic Generations, not because of any negative attitude towards the game remakes but rather because it is written by Ken Pontac and Warren Graff, who have both previously impressed with the script for Sonic Colours, but they are best known for the dramatic web series Happy Tree Friends. Unfortunately it does not seem that the Sonic Team has given them more than a single A4 page to work with, which of course results in a story that is both thin and unresolved. they have, luckily, managed to squeeze in some really nice references to the game series, but don’t count on seeing the epic writing style of everyone’s favourite violence filled web series in the game.
Although Sega is trying to market Sonic Generations as a composite work of the blue hedgehog’s career, the game is not exactly a towering monument to one the biggest game icons of our time. Sonic Generations can be thought of as a greatest hit album brought out a few years after a band’s popularity has died. But! And it is an important “but”, despite all of the nostalgia and build up, Sonic Generations is still a good Sonic game. It is far from great; it has plenty of problems and awful design. But it’s still a good Sonic game, and nothing can change that.
After Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) came out and proved to be the worst Sonic game of all time and the platform genre’s Daikatana, the Sonic Team chose to try to rebuild their franchise. In addition to Sonic the Hedgehog being an unfinished, illogical and abominable game, the biggest problem was that Sonic fans were divided into two camps that could not be reconciled: those who preferred the old Sonic of the Mega Drive era and those who primarily preferred the new and more modern Sonic. Whether this is true or is pure projection from the Sonic marketing team can be discussed. Personally I just think that the fans would rather have a good Sonic game, whether it is in 2D or 3D is actually less important.
Regardless, the Sonic Team chose to develop what was called The Hedgehog Engine, which has been designed to combine 2D and 3D gameplay in Sonic games, and thus unite the “incompatible” camps of Sonic fans. Sonic Generations is the third game that uses the Hedgehog Engine, and it can be commented on in two ways.
Firstly, Sonic Team finally gained control of their own engine. They are no longer groping in the dark as they were in Sonic Unleashed, they have realised both the engine’s advantages and limitations. The level design is varied, creative and transforms the nostalgia of rolling lanes and Chemical Plant Zones in ways which are more relevant to the market of today. The unjust character death cases as well as the trial-and-error structure has been thrown out in favour of the level-based tracks that still reward the skilled and dedicated players without letting everyone else fall into certain death. The challenge lies instead in trying to find the quickest way to the goal, which is more appropriate in the Sonic context.
Secondly, it is clear than ever that Sonic Generation’s Hedgehog Engine is a dead end and the Sonic Team is close to ending its reign. The graphics engine is apparently only held together by a little duct tape in the form of visual treats such as loops, fireworks and almost self-rendering gameplay. I’ll try to express myself as clearly as possible here: The Hedgehog Engine is a kind of tunnel vision from the Sonic Team themselves, where the most important aspect in the development has been to get Sonic’s speed to work in both 2D and 3D perspective, rather than to build an interesting and functional gaming system that can later be improved and used in games around the world. It should possibly take a hint from the Super Mario series, where there are clear rules for what applies and works within the game environment. In Sonic Generations there is no game continuity. A gameplay rule may suddenly disappear and return again later in different parts of the level.
This may have been an effective strategy if the transition between the two states was not so poorly implemented. Instead, the Sonic Team tries to hide these transitions with all sorts of visually bizarre elements in the form of explosions, robots and killer whales, to lull you with illusion rather than exposing the game’s shortcomings. This is, however, not very unusual with extended series, we have seen similar issues with Uncharted. The main difference being that a game like uncharted allows the player to ignore the self-playing parts of the game whereas they remain painfully obvious in the Hedgehog Engine in Sonic Generations.
For example, in the classic Sonic games, we became enthralled with something known as pinball physics. This refers to the physics as applied to Sonic when he is moving or jumping. This programming code set the rules for gameplay. In Sonic Generations this physics theory has returned, after having been strangely absent in Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1, and as far as I can see it has been reintegrated flawlessly. The trouble seems to arise in order to allow for the self-playing sequences in Sonic Generations. This makes for a disjointed experience as the user is not always aware of what rules govern play. The gamer will initially use the Havok physics engine to build momentum into a ramp and later the ramp appears to be automated this new set of rules means that suddenly Sonic will run by himself. This point may sound like a small one, when you read about it, but it runs through the entire gaming experience with Sonic Generations like an unfortunate scratch on a vinyl record, it will never be the same once the glitch is picked up.
That said, this is Sonic Generation’s most complete utilization of the game engine, and it is admittedly fun to play from start to finish. The gameplay is uneven but sufficiently entertaining that you’re willing to forgive the faults, for the most part, anyway.
I think that the Sonic Team has gained new confidence after the unexpected success of Sonic Colours for the Wii. Sonic Generations is a sufficient game, not quite as good as colours, but also not a complete embarrassment. Switching between the two different Sonics creates variety, and makes the game feel fresh, though it is obvious that the new Sonic Team did not quite know what to make of the old Sonic. He gets much less exposure than the modern Sonic, and he is sadly in the background in terms of story and gameplay. The Sonic Team has developed some really nice levels for him limited only by the awkward game engine.
The modern Sonic is where the game shines, and it’s not surprising since the current Sonic Team has worked with the formula for a long time now. that being said, the new sonic is not perfect by any means – the gameplay is buggy and even if you play for hours, there will still be a point in each level which leaves you gobsmacked. This may be caused by a beautifully composed nostalgic inspiration or a classic track that has an unexpected twist. The Bosses in the game are decent, though it’s quite disappointing that they can only be played with one of the two hedgehogs.
My biggest problem with Sonic Generations is this; it fluctuates from being very generous to very stingy. Each level comes with countless varied scenes, hard modes and other elements which extend game time significantly. Simultaneously, there are only a handful of levels in the game, and all of these levels are reminiscent of an old relic that has been polished and tweaked a bit. It is also difficult not to lose your temper entirely when Sonic’s first and most iconic decade represent only a pathetic third of the game while the rest of it seems to be devoted to old tracks from Sonic’s 3D games. It feels like a strange choice to have made and illustrates that the new Sonic Team (Sonic Adventures onwards) do not really want to accept that people prefer the old games.
Interest audio-visual in Sonic Generations is alternately ugly and beautiful. Ugly when committing Hara-kiri on tracks like Speed? Highway. Beautiful when you run through the game lobby and the music alternates between contemporary pieces from the modern Sonic and pixel scented versions of the classic Sonic. Overall frames are more often right than wrong. The sense of momentum is strong, with graphics that are beautifully blurred and music which is tempered by air friction. Unfortunately it often happens that Sonic is lost in the game’s colourful backgrounds, which creates some confusion.
My whole experience of Sonic Generations fluctuates exactly like this review back and forth with every hour I spent with the game. When I’m in the Generation ‘memorabilia room I can hear a divinely beautiful string arrangement of Door Into Summer from the half-forgotten Sega 32X game Knuckles Chaotix, this is just before I start to cry for joy in front of the television. This is an overplayed game built on ancient remains.
The result is that Sonic Generations feels somewhat like a half-hearted tribute to Sonic’s 20 year career. On the other hand, it is precisely the celebration, Sonic deserves. Equal parts good and evil. Ten years and ten terrible. The principal factor is that you’re having fun with the game. And I’ve had a lot of fun. From start to finish. I just hope that this will be the last we see of the Hedgehog Engine, and that the Sonic Team that built Sonic Generations haven’t given sonic a death sentence. So in the future we hope that they may turn a new leaf and write a completely new story for the world’s fastest hedgehog.