Pre-E3 2011: Sonic Generations – hands-on preview

For twenty years, Sega’s beloved fleet-footed hedgehog has raced through consoles in a string of hits and bizarre missteps. However, despite how many times he’s made love to human women or morphed into were-hogs, we still love Sonic no matter how many times we’ve sworn him off for good. Like an abusive relationship, we know there’s some good in him. We know that deep down, there’s a great Sonic game that will have us telling our friends they were so wrong about him. He’s just misunderstood. He’s changed. You don’t know him like we do.

And it’s happening again! Celebrating Sonic’s 20th anniversary this Holiday 2011, Sega’s re-re-inventing our blue friend with Sonic Generations, an action platformer that mixes the best of Sonic’s history in both 2D and 3D stages. Here’s the skinny: each stage is a redesigned/re-imaginging of Sonic’s past levels from the Genesis, Dreamcast and modern era. The stages are broken down into acts – one where you’ll get to play in 2Das they did inthe halcyon Genesis days – and one that’s 3D, reminiscent of Sonic Unleashed or Sonic Colors.

In our demo version, we were only allowed to play a re-imagined Green Hill Zone, complete with remixed theme and pudgy Sonic from the early 90s. Gameplay is well…classic. Rings, enemies, speed boosts, tunnels, corkscrews, platforming… it felt like a 2D Sonic game. The stage we played felt a little longer than one we’d find in the recent Sonic 4: Episode 1. Also, the physics and platforming felt a little tighter than Sonic 4 as well. Players may remember the uncanny ability to stroll up a curved ledge defying all matters of gravity. None of that here!

Classic Sonic rewards speed and quick reflexes. There are different pathways for you to take like in the originals. However, it doesn’t hurt to slow down and explore a bit of the other sections for secrets or extra rings. Just keep in mind that missing the corkscrew sections just plummet you to another way to beat the stage. In our case, we traversed more cave sections and collected far less rings than we would have if we stayed topside. At the end of each stage, you’re awarded a score based on how well you did and how fast you make it through the section.

Act 2 brings about 3D – or Modern – Sonic, the skinnier version we’ve spent the last 10 plusyears with. This Sonic is played from behind his back as he just barrels down the same stage, this time from a different viewpoint. Instead of spin attacks, you’ll have speed boots and the usual homing attacks. The homing attacks can be chained together to enable you to reach higher areas. 3D Sonic also swings the camera around for times when Sonic just bounces into the foreground and off pillars. Sometimes it swings in front of you, like during a particularly grinding section that featured a giant robotic fish trying to chomp down on you.

If you’ve played any of the last few Sonic games, you’ll know how this controls. Sometimes you’ll have a split-second to tap Circle and dive under a rock or to tap L1 and dodge enemies. Usually these hazards come up too quickly to notice and the button prompt at the bottom of the screen was too small for us to pay any attention. You can replay these stages to better your score and rank, so all isn’t lost.

Another element of the 3D sectionwe want to mention are the portions that actually swing the camera around for a 2D look. Yes, sometimes in the “modern” Sonic levels, you’ll do some 2D platforming. Besides the fact that this breaks the speedymomentum, Modern Sonic feels a little odd this way. Remember how Modern Sonic always felt a little “skate-y?” Almost certainly a product of the 3D engine, Modern Sonic controls a little floaty. Basically, it’s a little jarring to play as Classic Sonic – which has more precise control – and then have that juxtaposed a level later with Modern Sonic platforming. The controls aren’t cut from the same cloth and it feels like two engines were mashed together. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, just odd feeling. Hopefully, Modern Sonic’s controls can be adjusted a little before the final release. It’s not a crazy-big deal, but it is noticeable.

And after 2D and 3D stages comes a boss stage, right? Sadly, Sega wasn’t ready to spill the beans on any of the bosses or how they would play. We don’t know if you get to choose either a 2D or 3D boss, or if both are available for any given stage. We also don’t know just how many re-imagined levels are in the game. And if this is Sonic’s 20th birthday party, shouldn’t all of his friends return? Where’s Shadow, Knuckles, Tails, Silver, that human chick he kissed, Big the Cat? There’s nary a Cream the Rabbit on hand at press time. We should know once E3 is underway if that’ll always be the case. Check back in the coming weeks for more on Sonic’s birthday celebration.

May 18, 2011

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