Sunday 12 February 2012

Sonic Generations

The Title Screen

GameViewSonic Generations GameView

Sonic Generations is the latest platformer in the Sonic franchise (there is no continuous story). Developed by Sonic Team and released in 2011, it is available on PlayStation, Xbox and PC (Steampowered). The game features a single player campaign, and an online 'scoreboard comparison' mode.

The First Thing
I was quickly impressed by the originality and potential of the core concept. Characters in a franchise naturally change over the years, both in gameplay and visually. Drawing attention to this change provides not just an excuse nostalgic gaming, but has great potential to feature an innovative approach only possible in a long running franchise..

The Plot
At Sonic's birthday party (celebrating the 20th anniversary of Sonic games), a mysterious creature called 'The Time Eater' appears and captures all of his friends. Knocked unconscious during the attack, Sonic awakens to find himself in a world without time. He meets a past version of himself and together they must correct the damage that has been done to the timeline; rescuing friends and returning locations to their proper place.

Modern-Sonic and Past-Sonic

The story never feels like it was meant to be taken seriously and is just a shallow framework to explain why Sonic is meeting his past self and revisiting previous games. Giving meaning to the events is nice, but after the initial explanation, any further plot exploration felt unnecessary. Occasional cutscenes loosely explain plot progression, but I would say this game was never about the story.

The Game
At the core of the game is the two versions of Sonic, each with a different style. Past-Sonic has a strong focus on the 2D side-scrolling platforming of the original games and Modern-Sonic represents what the character has become and has a faster 3D and 2D style seen in the recent games.

Every reused zone has two acts; one for each version of Sonic. Effort has been put into keeping a consistent feel to each zone, whilst providing a different gameplay experience. The two characters are distinct but both still feel like 'Sonic'. There are no other playable characters, despite the 'Sonic Friends' making occasional appearances. The 2D white world functions as a level, and character, selection hub.

 Past-Sonic, and Modern-Sonic, levels for the classic Green Hill Zone

Story progression is easiest explained like this:
  1. Complete the three available zones (6 levels).
  2. Complete one challenge per zone to allow access to the zone's 'boss key'. 
  3. Three keys opens the door to the boss. Once defeated, three new zones appear. Repeat steps 1-3 again for new area.
  4. Sonic Generations has a total of 9 zones, 4 boss fights, 90 challenges and 3 Chaos Emerald challenges. All Chaos Emeralds are needed to unlock the final boss.
Challenges involve playing smaller levels under certain conditions; limited time, limited rings, race against someone, etc. With 90 challenges and multiple paths inside the regular levels, Sonic Generations is not just about getting to the end of the plot (which only took me 4 and a half hours). A scoreboard at the end of each level encourages repeat tries to unlock items, gain extra points for the upgrade system, or just be the "best you can be".

The game uses the traditional Sonic 'life' system; returning you to a checkpoint on death and restarting the level on 0 lives. The platforming can be very unforgiving at times, but new features and visual elements have been added to help less experienced players (the overly helpful fairy companion can be turned off). All levels are presented in the same high graphical quality, regardless of the original game. The older levels especially give the impression of being carefully reconstructed, rather than lazily reused. Music has also been remastered into modern renditions, but the original music can be unlocked and selected to play instead.

Classic Sonic platforming 

My preference for platforming is to use a gamepad, and the controls are mostly fine. Past-Sonic has the simple control set from his era, but Modern-Sonic can occasionally handle clumsily; particularly in high speed 3D sections that require turning. The gamepad controller can not be rebound, but the keyboard can. The graphics options are quite substantial for a Sonic game and cover the standard options PC gamers expect.

Wrap Up & Negatives
Travelling fast is iconic to the Sonic franchise but occasionally I felt visually uncomfortable due to the high quality graphics passing by so quickly. The high speed sections are generally well implemented, but can make any slower gameplay feel uninteresting. Because both playable characters are the same character, it can sometimes be disorientating switching between the gameplay styles.

I did not find the difficulty a negative, but some people might. Mistakes can be heavily punished and may become frustrating. However, the final boss fight is a prime example of an encounter that is hard due to poor design, not intentional challenge - which annoyed me, and left a bitter taste at the end of the story. The white space hub is also oddly designed. I can understand the appeal of using platforming, but it does not feel intuitive.

The character and level selection 'menu'

The upgrade system seems completely unnecessary and a waste of development time. Instead of upgrades I would rather more collectibles or other Sonic memorabilia was provided - especially as this is an anniversary game.

I experienced noticeable frame rate drops once or twice in 1680x1050 (16:10) resolution, but less noticeably in 1600x900 (16:9), so I played in that and usually got a steady 60 FPS. The PC version does not include the unlockable Sega Genesis "Sonic the Hedgehog" emulation found in Xbox and PlayStation 3 - which is disappointing.

I did mostly enjoy this game - I have not played a Sonic game since Sonic 3D (and to this day Sonic 3 & Knuckles is still one of my favourite games). The modern 3D sections were alright, but I only enjoyed them if I was required not to turn, due to the slippery controls.

This game is one step closer to something I have been waiting for: a modern release in the older style of Sonic. The new 2D levels are fun and I hope the generally positive reception Sonic Generations and Sonic Colours is receiving will encourage the release of a 2D Sonic platformer for current gaming technology. For it to be a success, they need to learn from the mistakes made in this game, and from Nintendo's recent good releases : Super Mario Bros Wii, Kirby's Epic Yarn and Donkey Kong Country Returns

If you consider yourself a Sonic fan, you should play this game. But if you truly despise the direction Sonic games have taken in the last decade ... then perhaps only get it on sale. It is a good all-around platformer with an emphasis on speed not found in many games.

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