When I reviewed Sonic Unleashed for the Xbox 360, one of the things I most lamented was the fact that there seemed to be a good game hidden within. It was just blocked by annoying medal collecting, an inconsistent difficulty curve, and the omnipresent werehog levels that you had to sit through in order to enjoy the game. If they had just cut out all of the pointless and unenjoyable elements, Sonic Unleashed could have been a good game. Sonic Colors seems to be almost a direct response to that comment, and while it's for the Wii instead of the 360, it seems like it may be the game that people were hoping for from Sonic Unleashed.
The first thing we were told about Sonic Colors is that it isn't the usual Sonic plot. Sega has gone out of its way to make the game amusing for players of all ages. Part of how they've done this is by hiring Ken Pontac and Warren Graff to work on the script for the Wii version. They've worked in a number of different shows, including "Lazytown" and "Happy Tree Friends." Sega fans however, will know them better as working on MadWorld. It's a strange choice, but it should lead to something that sits better with Western audiences.
The basic plot is pretty simple and reminiscent of Super Mario Galaxy. The evil Dr. Eggman wants to create an interstellar amusement park dedicated to his own glory. In order to do this, he has kidnapped Wisps, a species of super-powered interstellar creatures, and used their power to chain together a series of planets, turning each into a section of his amusement park. Sonic the Hedgehog, as a heroic sort of fellow, sets off to save the day. Old-school Sonic fans will be glad to hear that, with the exception of a cameo by Tails, this is mostly a Sonic solo adventure, and the game seems dedicated to being about the blue hedgehog as much as possible.
In many ways, Sonic Colors is a sequel to the PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 version of Sonic Unleashed. The basic mechanics, abilities, enemies and gimmicks are almost identical. Sonic retains most of his powers, including the ability to boost by collecting rings, grind on rails, slide under obstacles and homing attack from enemy to enemy. What we got to play of the game felt very similar, even when modified for the Wii controller. The motion control element of the Wii isn't used for Sonic's basic skill set. The analog stick controls the blue hedgehog while the A button jumps, B dashes and Z slides. The only odd bit is how drifting is done, which involves turning the Nunchuk from side to side, but it's surprisingly smooth when compared to the 360/PS3's version of drifting, so this is an improvement. While Sonic Colors is a pseudo-sequel to Sonic Unleashed, it should be clarified that this only applies to the daytime levels of Unleashed. There isn't a single sign of werehog in the levels we saw, and the producers promised us that it was a solo Sonic adventure.
The big new gimmick in Sonic Colors are the Wisps, who are small, oddly shaped creatures that come in a variety of colors. They basically take the place of the cute animal characters that Sonic had to rescue in older games, but with a more useful twist. Once a certain kind of Wisp has been rescued, they'll begin appearing in stages, sort of like the caps in Super Mario 64. Once a Wisp has appeared in the stage, Sonic can grab it as a power-up in certain locations. The Wisp doesn't have to be activated right away but sits in Sonic's inventory until you shake the Wiimote. At that point, Sonic takes on a new color and a new power. During our demo, the two powers that we saw were the Yellow Drill and the Cyan Laser.
As expected, the Yellow Drill turns Sonic into a yellow drill. If there is dirt or a dirt-like substance below him, he can drill through it to take shortcuts through the level. It's sort of like Super Mario Galaxy 2's Drill Mario, but whereas Mario bursts right through the ground, Sonic can control his direction, so you can find multiple paths. Most of the dirt paths that we encountered had more than one exit, and there were a few hidden secrets to boot. The Yellow Drill only lasts until you leave the ground, so once you're out, Sonic reverts to normal. It's a surprisingly good idea for a power-up, and unlike a lot of Sonic's unusual new powers, it doesn't take away from his speed. It simply gives you a new way to get through the level, without requiring you to slow down or deal with awkward mechanics. We're also told that the drill will work underwater, allowing Sonic to speed through those segments like a propeller.
The second power-up, the Cyan Laser, is more straightforward. When activated, time slows down and Sonic becomes a glowing cyan blur. You aim a line from him to a nearby point, and Sonic instantly blasts to that point, destroying anything and everything in between. It's a great way to smash through large crowds of foes without having to waste the time to attack all of them. The real fun comes if you can find ways to focus or reflect the laser, which can bounce off solid objects like walls, allowing you to reflect and find paths you normally couldn't in the game's 2-D sections. You can also find crystals for more complex reflections to uncover hidden areas. Occasionally, you'll see wires poking out from walls; targeting them will send Laser Sonic into the wire and out the other end for a quick and easy shortcut. When compared to the drill, the laser power-up is the one you want to save. Wasting it on a small group of enemies could lose you the chance to skip a large section of the stage later on.
We're told that there will be significantly more Wisps than just these two, but it's a well-guarded secret for the moment. As far as gimmicks go, these are the best in quite some time and feel right at home in the Sonic universe, as opposed to feeling slow and out of place, like the Werehog or Caliburn. They simply add new ways to progress through the levels, and we're told that this philosophy extends to the remaining Wisps. They're not designed to add new kinds of gameplay, but they expand upon speed and platforming, which are Sonic's forte.
We saw two of the game's worlds: Tropical Beach and Sweet Mountain. Tropical Beach is basically the tutorial level, so it instructs you on how to play the game and introduces some gameplay mechanics. For the demo, the drill and laser Wisps were unlocked, and we used them to uncover a few different ways through the stage. The level design is solid and reminiscent of Sonic Unleashed, although with fewer instant death pits and more forgiving mechanics. The gameplay switches from 2-D to 3-D at a moment's notice, and a lot of the basic gameplay skills from Unleashed also transferred over. This includes the Quick Time Event (QTE) sequences, although these seem notably simpler. One simply involves pounding the A button over and over to avoid an oncoming missile.
The second level, Sweet Mountain, is a giant world made out of treats and candy. It looks a lot more like a Super Mario level than anything I've ever seen in a Sonic game, but it gives the level a lot of charm and atmosphere. Thanks to the cake-like ground, there are plenty of chances to use the drill and find new paths. The levels are divided into two acts and a boss fight, much like the older Sonic games.
For the purposes of the demo, the boss is the same for both stages: a giant sentient robot Ferris Wheel who is eager to crush Sonic into pieces. Defeating him can be done in a few different ways. The easiest is to gather up momentum by running around the edge of the wheel, dodging the beast's claws and then jumping on a series of rotating platforms in order to hit him with a homing attack. The second involves finding a Cyan Wisp, which means we can use the laser attack to blast through the wheel's weak point. It's a pretty easy fight, but it's also pretty well designed for a first boss and fits the amusement park theme well.
Sonic Colors is shaping up surprisingly well. From the four acts that we were able to play, the best way to describe it is Sonic Unleashed, but with the bad parts trimmed off. The basic mechanics are solid and well put together, and it seems to be everything that Sonic Unleashed's day levels could have been. The best part is that the Wisps seem to be a good gameplay mechanic that enhances the gameplay, as opposed to being a tacked-on element. Even the story line sounds interesting, which is something I hadn't expected to say about a Sonic game anytime soon. The Wii controls seem intelligently designed, and that should also prevent the problems that plagued Sonic and the Secret Rings and Sonic and the Black Knight. Believe it or not, Sonic Colors is shaping up to be one of the best Sonic games in years. If it can maintain the level of quality we saw in the E3 demo, it will probably be the best 3-D Sonic game, period.
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