Developer: Sonic Team/Sega Studios Japan
Release Date: November 17, 2006
The next-gen Sonic the Hedgehog was one of the few PS3 games that was playable on the show floor at 2006's final E3, and, well, I can't lie to you guys: it was terrible. The textures were blocky, the frame rate stuttered, and the controls were nightmarishly over-sensitive. That build of the game tended to be a nightmare of sending Sonic plummeting endlessly into bottomless pits, sort of like a 3D Sonic Rush.
As PS3 launch day draws nearer, Sony had a new demo build to display, and it was an almost shocking improvement. The controls were still a little floaty, but this was clearly meant to be part of the challenge. For the first time since Sonic entered 3D with the Dreamcast's Sonic Adventure, Sonic again moves like greased lightning and traverses some amazingly inspired levels, smashing up robots and snagging rings. While there is exploration as a game element, your path is still largely linear and challenging enough to remain interesting. It isn't easy to make sure Sonic grinds down the streams of pressurized water and leaps off the narrow rope bridges that dot a landscape that is otherwise nothing but deep, murderous water; but replaying the level until you succeed is incredible fun, as is exploring Sonic's abilities. Even when you've mastered him, then there's two other characters, Shadow and Silver, with their own powers and levels to master.
Sonic's demo level is still pretty much what was on display at E3, which helps show off the tremendous improvement in the controls. Sonic begins running down a series of narrow bridges. You must immediately master his two major forms of attack, the Sonic Spin and the crouching kick. The Spin works by tapping the jump button twice, causing Sonic to curl into a deadly ball surrounded by an energy shield and then home in on the enemy's location. Destroying enemies causing Sonic to gain some height and momentum, as in the 16-bit games, and you have to carefully control him with the left analog stick after a successful attack to make sure he doesn't plummet off the edge of the area. Tapping the jump button again and tapping the analog stick in the direction of a remaining enemy lets you combo together Sonic Spin attacks.
With quick enough reflexes and a little careful movement of the camera in mid-air, most enemies can be dispatched in quick succession. By spin-kicking enemies, you can stun them, or break open objects when you don't want to risk a Sonic Spin. Similar acrobatics define the rest of the adventuring in Sonic's level: you can leap onto grind rails to grab extra rings and find new areas, hit speed pads to send you hurtling across yawning chasms no other character could cross, bounce off of enemies with Sonic Spins to cross similarly hostile pits, and leap off ropes to set himself up for games of midair pinball. You save your progress through levels by hitting goalposts, with usually two or three per level, and levels end after you've completed the course. Your completion time and how many rings you've grabbed combine to earn you a ranking, which runs from D (the worst) to S (the best).
Shadow's level is actually the most interesting of the demo, probably owing to Shadow's wide range of abilities and how intuitive it is to use them. Shadow doesn't run at high speeds like Sonic himself, instead relying on what appear to be rocket-powered hover-skates. His top speed isn't as high as Sonic's, but he appears to be more difficult to control when cornering since his turn radius is much wider. Shadow stuns enemies with a move called the "Chaos Spear", an energy bolt that propels Shadow a little bit higher on impact. Then he can home in on enemies and grapple them to death with a dash-rush maneuver executed by using a double jump command, similar to the Sonic Spin. Shadow, however, actually loses altitude when killing enemies this way, and can only regain it by using Chaos Spears.
Watching Shadow grapple enemies so much larger than himself is really very spectacular, as he takes enemies down with acrobatic moves like headscissors take-downs. Aside from this, Shadow can hit speed pads and grind rails like Sonic, and has some other interesting abilities aside. He can always gain altitude with Chaos Spears, making him a more controllabe aerial combatant; he can freeze himself in mid-air, allowing you to reorient him for a mid-air dash-rush by adjusting the camera angle; and he can cling to the sides of walls and rebound-jump off of them. Progressing through Shadow's level involved figuring out how to crash through the stained-glass windows that dotted the various towers that covered the landscape, which frequently involved having to do counter-intuitive things like leaping off of grind rails in mid-grind and gain altitude by hitching a ride on a friendly eagle or a rebounding off of enemies.
Silver, the new character, is also the most frustrating. He's the slowest of the three hedgehogs and relies on his telekinetic powers to make progress. Unfortunately, the telekinesis is so unlike Shadow and Sonic's abilities that it's very hard to get used to. Silver can stun enemies with bolts of force, and then destroy them by using bursts of force to push them away or toward him. You can destroy boxes the same way, and pound the ground with telekinetic force to activate switches and bonus rings. His level involved very little of the acrobatic stunts that characterized Shadow and Sonic's levels, but the world was still full of bottomless pits that could kill a careless player. Silver's level is probably the one where you'll figure out the only thing that can kill you besides pit-drops in next gen Sonic the Hedgehog: getting hit by enemies so many times that you lose all your rings. His plodding pace means that enemies pose the most threat to him, and you'll have to quickly master his telekinetic powers if you want to survive.
The same day that PS3 Sonic drops, a version of this same game for the 360 goes on sale. This is really the biggest problem with Sonic the Hedgehog for the PS3: it flagrantly feels, and looks, like a 360 port. It doesn't use any of the special SixAxis movement features. The graphics look grainy and pixilated, with smeary textures, and this is certainly because they are not significantly upgraded from the 360's 720p. While Sonic the Hedgehog would certainly look and probably play very well on an Xbox 360, the PS3 game just doesn't look like it's up to the PS3's standards right now. This may be hard to appreciate if you still game in standard in definition, but there's a world of visual difference between 1080i and 720p.
You can simply eyeball it on a true HDTV: 1080i is more vibrant, sharper, and demands consistent high frame. Any imperfection in the graphics is magnified immensely. Even the 360's next gen visuals cannot stand up to what the console-exclusive PS3 titles manage, and its 720p is blurry and grainy next to the 1080i of a true PS3 game. When developers do lazy things like port 360 games to the PS3 without console specific enhancements, it is going to show. The games will seem ugly. Unfortunately, right now, Sonic the Hedgehog seems very ugly, and with only a month to go before launch it seems unlikely the visuals in the TGS2006 demo shown us are going to change. On the upside, the game is full of the kinds of great electronica that perfectly expresses the mood and drive of playing a high-speed Sonic title.
Sonic the Hedgehog feels, if not like a perfect return to form for the Sonic series, at the very least a drastic improvement over all of the previous 3D efforts. With this game, hit detection, control, and level design in the 3D Sonic titles has finally regained the level of inspiration that once made Sonic dethrone Mario as the system mascot supreme. Fans of the Sonic franchise are going to truly enjoy this game even if the Final Fantasy-esque plotline feels a little too goofy for them. The catch is that this is a game really best enjoyed on the 360, where you'll have rumble feedback in the controller and Xbox Live support. It does nothing to truly take advantage of the PS3's best features and full technological capabilities. As a PS3 title, it is nothing more than your typical launch wave game: a hastily thrown-together and poorly optimized port. This is not a game that adds luster to the system or its reputation in any way.
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