Release Date: November 15, 2005
Remember those old days when Sonic games were in 2D? When you and your friends would cluster around a television, desperately trying to get that Chaos Emerald? When there were no Chaos to carefully tend for or accidentally kick across the landscape, and when every level was a challenge to see if you could get so fast that the camera became unable to follow you and you'd get lost off screen? Those may have been the days, but Sega have clearly decided that the little blue chap needs to hang up his trainers for a while; in his place is his friend Shadow for their latest instalment in the venerable platform series that concentrates more on speed and style than item collection. But it's clear from the box alone that something's up - is this really a standard Sonic game? The main character, well… has a gun…
Thankfully, despite what you might expect, Shadow the Hedgehog is more of a standard Sonic game than it looks at first glance, but we'll get to that. From the moment the game is started, though, there's a distinctly different feel to the entire game. Most Sonic games are carefree, with jaunty, fast music and bright and cheery colors; here, however, we are "treated" to a hard rock soundtrack and lots of blacks and crimsons, and an introductory plot of the protagonist, first introduced in Sonic Adventure 2, standing on a hill looking moody and upset. This happens a lot; it is made very clear over the course of the game that Shadow is a complete antihero who Does His Own Thing and doesn't let anyone stop him and has an Attitude and an archetypal garage and hard rock soundtrack to go with it.
This sort of thing is rather par for the course; while it's true that we've had attitudes shoved down our throat by Sonic games in the past - Sonic is not innocent of this, nor even Amy or possibly even Big the Cat - the trouble is that it has never before been such a pre-packaged and frankly cringe-worthy one. It's clear that Shadow was designed to be "cool," in some kind of contemporary nod to currently fashionable "rapper style" and the recent predilection towards dark, angst-filled rebelliousness, but the hedgehog ends up being rude, obnoxious, and painfully boastful - even on the best character path.
I don't mean to harp on it so, but it's entirely impossible not to; not only is it unpleasant but it's so forced and over-the-top that it completely crosses the line into laughable cheesiness, which undermines the whole cool image and leaves the plot lacking and incoherent. That's without the added effect of atrocious voice acting, but we'll get to that too.
But, of course, none of us play any Sonic game for the plot, right? So how does it play, I hear you ask?
Thankfully, down at the core of the game, there's a standard Sonic experience to partake in. The holdovers from the previous games are all here; ridiculously fast platform action with loops, speed boosts, long jumps, sudden springs over large gaps. If you were just looking for a standard Sonic experience you could attempt to blast through every level as fast as possible and, on the whole, you'd succeed; in this capacity it's even a fairly satisfying experience. All of the levels are very long indeed - a first crack at each level could take upwards of ten minutes - and filled with numerous set pieces to help the level flow better or simply look cool. All standard Sonic fare, of course; running down buildings, along looping highways, something destroying the ground underneath you, rushing towards a gigantic cybernetic structure in the distance along an information superhighway data path (I did mention the plot gets a bit incoherent and improbable, right?), the point is that they're still there and help to make levels not quite so monotonous and - as a bonus - help to reassure the player that yes, this is a Sonic game.
If you just tear through the levels, though, you'll miss out on a lot. The basic idea is that, each level, Shadow will get both a good and an evil ally to run through the levels with, each of which has different objectives. Running with the right ally and completing the relevant objective will shift your general alignment - i.e., which story path you're playing through - in either the general direction of good or evil, while racing to the end of each level will generally net you a neutral path. As an example, the first level is set amidst a city where alien invaders have popped in to say hello - either you can pair up with Sonic to take out all of the aliens, or pair up with a strange alien eye to take out all of the human soldiers. Or, if you're of a middle-of-the-road stance or just can't be bothered to hunt them down, you can race to the end and finish the level without particularly caring what comes of the city.
Hunt them down? Oh, yes. Unlike previous games in the series, some objectives need a goodly amount of searching, and when your objectives revolve around you potentially hunting down the last of a group of 60 enemies it can get very, very easy to miss that last target. To combat this, each restart point throughout the level now doubles as a warp point, from which you can teleport to any other. To say the least, this is a little unusual for the series; where before the emphasis was on the best route you could make through the level while being unable to return, now that isn't an issue and it almost promotes an extremely leisurely pace - miss something? Well, just warp straight back and re-do the level until you get it!
It's a curious Catch-22; clearly a gamer couldn't be expected to get every single one of forty objectives on their first or even twentieth run through of a game without being able to backtrack, but this new feature renders the difficulty of the game nearly moot.
That is, if the game weren't already excruciatingly hard to begin with. Maybe I'm losing my touch, but this reviewer didn't expect to get a game over on the first level of a Sonic game. But that is exactly what happened. While the game has become less strict on rings - you don't always lose your whole stash, in another break from tradition - there are pitfalls everywhere, and to top this off the controls are more than a little twitchy. Just as Sonic could in the Adventure series, Shadow can home in on an enemy mid-jump to attack them, and then attack onwards to the next, and so on. The tracking is a little off, however, and it's all too easy to send yourself hurtling away from the enemies and down a random pit.
In a similar fashion it has become ever easier to simply accidentally miss something when going at full speed. While some locations are breathtaking - the cybernetic landscape mentioned earlier is a prime early-game example of the sort of wide-ranged panorama that falls into this category - graphics are very jerky and just a little blurred in most locations even when moving at a regular speed, and trying to play in a standard speed-run fashion will quickly lead to players simply not noticing the enemy or pitfall in their way before it's far too late and once again poor Shadow has died. In a game that relies upon co-ordination and speed, this sort of graphical defect is simply not on - having to slow to a crawl simply to get through a level safely rarely makes for a fun action game, let alone a fun Sonic game. This problem is only exacerbated by the color scheme, where locations seem to be subject to one of two rules - all the same color tone, or all violently contrasting colors. In both cases, at speed, details are quickly lost.
Astonishingly, the system that works best is arguably the new firearms system. While it would seem like heresy, the execution meshes very well with the Sonic style - guns are plentiful, quickly thrown away, and shooting at something has enough of an auto-targeting factor that it's smooth, fast, and blends easily with the speed-running side of the game. It may seem odd, and almost heretical, to suggest that a gun has any place in a Sonic game, and you would to some extent be correct - but the idea has been appropriately salvaged by being simple, easy to pick up, and ultimately a throwaway idea. There's no real need to resort to guns in such a game where a flying attack or two will take care of an enemy and probably bounce you upwards to a hidden platform anyway, but at the same time it's vaguely liberating - since you're almost forced to go slow anyway - to grab a gun and blast your way through a tricky bit.
The first ever trick you'll learn to help you get through the game, however, is the mute button. Aside from the entirely generic soundtrack - a great departure from previous Sonic games, and also a great shame - Shadow the Hedgehog features absolutely awful voice acting. Characters are either too squeaky or too out-of-place or simply saying the most idiotic stuff imaginable, and this is not helped by the massive amounts of speech in the middle of levels themselves, which are almost always either part of a vague tutorial or else completely worthless. Even then it can be hard to pick out exactly what to do from the audio cues given as each character speaks in a, uh… "distinctive" style.
Ultimately, one has to respect what Sega tried to do; breathe life into an old and well-worn series. The new ideas they've had work surprisingly well - sure, the hero has a gun, but it's a gun that works fluidly and effectively. The only problem is that the rest of the game has been dressed up in an attitude that really doesn't fit the franchise in the least, and then further marred by graphical inadequacy and unpleasant sound. If you're a die-hard Sonic fan you may well enjoy the conversion to a new and refreshing style, but be careful - a lot of old traditions have been stomped on this day.
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