Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Impressions: Sonic Generations Demo, 360, PS3

Sonic is a mascot somewhat ill-served by the company that created him. The problems that have faced Sonic are manifold – a lack of consistent direction as his ‘tent-pole’ games oscillate from one style and approach to another, a saturation of poor quality titles across the genres (why exactly does a supersonic hedgehog require a hoverboard?) and a misunderstanding of what made the original Mega Drive Sonic games appealing in the first place.
That being the case, it seemed that videogaming fandom as a whole breathed a collective sigh of relief with the release of both the 2D love-letter to Mega Drive gamers that was Sonic 4: Episode 1 and the well-reviewed Sonic Colours that toyed with alternating perspectives from third-person to side-scrolling.

So with a seemingly upwards curve in quality, you could be forgiven for actually allowing your hopes to lift a little with the imminent Sonic Generations, whose demo has just been released for download on the Xbox 360 and PS3. Certainly, the game’s concept sounds promising – a game that commemorates the 20th anniversary of Sonic by spanning his entire oeuvre, revisiting key moments and presenting them in both the classic 2D side-scrolling mode of old and the 3D third-person perspective associated with modern Sonic. Indeed, Sega have described the game as featuring three distinct Sonics – Classic, Dreamcast and Modern. This raises the fascinating possibility of, for example, playing the classic games’ Green Hill Zone in a third-person perspective or Sonic Adventure 2’s corker of an opening level, City Escape, in side-scrolling 2D.

This leads us to the key question of this piece – why, in a time-limited demo, would you choose to demonstrate a high-concept all-encompassing game with a single 2D side-scrolling Green Hill Zone level? Although there are some very positive things to say about this level, it seems a strange way to sell your game to gamers, by presenting them with something not very far removed from what they’ve seen a dozen times before.

So, what is there to say about the level presented? Visually it is impressive, the background detail is spectacular and presents the Green Hill Zone as a huge, living, breathing space. The twists and turns alter the perspective slightly as you’re running giving you glimpses of the frankly gorgeous vistas coming literally around the next bend.

As well as stellar visual design, the game plays much like Sonic of old – more so than even Sonic 4: Episode 1. Whereas that game merged newer innovations such as the homing attack to the classic style of the Mega Drive games, here the gameplay is firmly rooted in the classic.

However, there is a single, critical flaw that severely inhibits enjoyment of the demo. The level of detail and motion makes picking out Sonic and his movements, in the 2D level presented at least, extremely difficult. Difficult to the point that, at times, I found it incredibly difficult to identify what was even happening on screen. With the level of visual and audio presentation of such a high quality, it seems impossible to imagine that such a crucial flaw could be overlooked. I would suspect my own setup of being the guilty party but, having tested other HD games on the Xbox through the HDMI cable to a Full-HD television, the problem seems unique to Sonic Generations.

A feature presented in the demo that I haven’t tested is the option to use Stereoscopic 3D. The Stereoscopic 3D works with any 3DTV and achieves the 3D effect by splitting the screen into two distinct halves, this is a less effective way of achieving the effect than that employed by the PS3 which rapidly alternates the images of the two perspectives. Much like watching a 3D film in 2D, there are clearly moments in Sonic Generations designed to make the most of the 3D capabilities and there’s the very real possibility that viewing the game in 3D would solve the problem of the action of the game being difficult to identify as it would “open” the space up, so to speak.

Sega has a lot to lose if Sonic Generations proves to be another sterling example of the “Sonic Cycle”. In the concept and aesthetic design there is promise, and it would have been fantastic to have explored the innovative time-hopping concept more closely in the demo. Unfortunately the difficulty in actually identifying where Sonic is and what is happening in this side-scrolling level could prove to be a critical flaw if not rectified – and this would be a disappointment beyond even a poor game. The reason for this is because here there is potential for Sega to actually deliver what gamers have been yearning for, an enjoyable and groundbreaking Sonic game, one that’s not just looking back but forward also, a Sonic game that doesn’t feel as though it’s still playing catch-up with its more-successful moustachioed rival. 

The Sonic Generations Demo is available for download now from Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network.

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