The blue streak is back in the 'official' sequel we've been waiting 15 years for.
There comes a time in every hedgehog's life when he must hang up his running sneakers, put away that waggling finger and take a good, hard look at his past self. Sonic should have taken this advice many, many years along, but instead chundered along spewing out enough crap to make his glory days just a distinct, fading memory.
Sonic 4 is a direct sequel to Sonic 3 and Knuckles, a 15-year old game that many would suggest was the last, good Sonic title. This latest release attempts to play on your nostalgic side, throwing familiar levels, Badniks and boss battles your way, but this is all a front to disguise yet another hopeless Sonic experience. Sonic handles like your mum's old Punto, most of the game is simply rehashed from old games - and not in a 'it feels like 1994 again' way either - and it never feels like Sonic is trying to get anywhere in a hurry. This is not the 'real' Sonic sequel we were hoping for.
Star posts are back to trick you into thinking you might actually have some fun
Over four zones, Sonic runs, jumps, loop-de-loops, bashes and springs all over the place, usually in a left-to-right fashion. There are just over a dozen levels to play through, with boss battles at the end of each zone. If you've ever played a Sonic game, you'll know what to expect - collectible rings litter the worlds, while robotic baddies do their best to stop you in your tracks.
The first thought that crosses our minds is 'Oh dear Jebus, when did Sonic get so damn slow?'. This is partially due to his pitiful acceleration speed, but also a side-effect of Sonic's awful animations. As he begins to pick up speed, his animations instead give the impression that he's going for a leisurely stroll - it's only after hitting a boost or running down a hill that you really get a sense of speed.
It doesn't help that he feels like crap to control too. The main issue is momentum - jumping has been horribly ballsed up, and for the first hour at least you'll be jumping for platforms and missing them entirely. The best example is when firing yourself out of a cannon in the casino level - don't hold any direction, and Sonic will fly through the air for a second or two, before suddenly stopping in mid-air, before falling vertically downwards. There's no gradual decreases in altitude - just a sudden stop and drop - and it looks ridiculous.
Handling in a Sonic game is an essential ingredient that can make or break the entire game, and Sonic 4 definitely falls into the latter category. Here's another example - when Sonic rolls off a ledge, rather than staying in the ball as he should do, he throws his arms and legs out wide and falls in the least graceful way possible, ready to hurt himself on whatever Badniks lie below. That's the problem in a nutshell - controlling Sonic used to feel so effortless and graceful, and now it's as if you're coaxing an unruly rat around a maze.
Let's move on to level design. Every zone in Sonic 4 is inspired by an old Sonic game in name, visuals and layout. And by 'inspired', we actually mean 'old levels were taken apart and put back together again in a different order'. This would be perfectly reasonable, were it not for the utterly atrocious design. Badniks are placed in entirely unfair positions, ready for you to bounce from a spring and straight into their clutches, and it feels as though the entire level is constantly trying to slow you down. Certain levels will occasionally feel rather confusing too, and you'll reach an area and not have a clue where to go next.
Now and again, set pieces will feel cheap and lazy too - mainly those that are ripped pixel-for-pixel from an old Sonic game. For example, the 'falling down infinite waterfalls until you jump for a platform' section of the Lost Labyrinth zone is a carbon copy from 1994. It doesn't give a feeling of nostalgia - rather, it makes you wonder why SEGA didn't simply develop a remake of an old Sonic game instead of piecing together a new game from old parts.
Everything feels so familiar, yet so wrong
This is all nearly redeemed, however, thanks to a multipath system. The levels are huge, and you'll constantly spot different routes to take and secret paths for cutting across the world. Seeing areas that are just out of reach on the other side of a wall gives the impression that there are plenty of hidden extras to find, and adds plenty to the replay value.
The Sonic games never really had stories (although you could argue Sonic and Knuckles verged on one), but you still got the impression that progress was being made as Sonic powered his way through level after level. Sonic 4 destroys any hope of this set-up occurring, by opening up every single level from the very beginning and allowing you to tackle them in any order you choose. Where exactly is the reward if I can skip to any level I want from the get-go? It also makes lives completely pointless too - lose them all and, well... nothing happens, as you've still got all the levels unlocked.
The boss battles are separate, however, and every level in a zone must be completed before each Eggman showdown is available. Every boss in Sonic 4 is a rehash of an old Sonic boss, with a little bit extra tacked onto the end. This is the worse idea that Sonic Team could have had, as the old bits of each boss work to magnify how crap the new additions really are. Sonic 4 features some of the worse boss battles we have ever seen in a Sonic game by taking old ideas and breaking them with 'modern' ideas. The last boss in particular had us shaking ours heads in disbelief.
The Chaos Emeralds are back once again, and collecting them will be familiar territory. Collect enough rings during a level and a huge ring will be waiting for you at the end. Jump into it and you'll be transported to a special stage, inspired directly by those from the very first Sonic game. It's hilarious that, while back in 1991 we were deemed capable of figuring out that left and right rotate the world, we now need an explanation of how to play before starting. It shows just how clueless the latest Sonic Team are about the gamers playing their titles.
Our words have been loaded with venom up to now, so let's talk about what Sonic 4 does right. The later levels (or perhaps earlier, depending on the order you tackle them in) feature some interesting new ideas that add that little extra something to proceedings. On one particular level, Sonic carries a torch through dark passages, using it to light the way and open doors. The dreaded mine-cart sections are quite fun too, if a little pointless. The lock-on move first seen in 3D romp Sonic Adventure makes the cut and is a perfectly reasonable addition, adding an extra dimension to Sonic's air travel.
The music is also very Sonic, and could easily have been found in a Mega Drive title. Yet while there's no denying that it's definitely a Sonic ditty, there's nothing particular catchy available either - in fact, every tune sounds as if it was created by an incredibly bored sound engineer who wanted to get the job done and sign off as quickly as possible.
Old bosses are revived, then shat all over
And this is Sonic 4's problem in a nutshell - the game attempts to play on your nostalgic side, declaring 'SEGAAAAA!' at the start and bombarding you with old enemies, themes and boss battles, but this is all simply to mask the fact that there really is no fun to be found here whatsoever. Some gamers will enjoy Sonic 4 simply because it has Sonic in it, but take the blue rodent out and they'd be singing a very different tune indeed.
SONIC THE HEDGEHOG 4: EPISODE 1 VERDICT
Sonic 4 is an utter mess of a game, cobbled together in a manner that puts the entire franchise to shame. It feels sluggish, broken and lazy, but at least it only lasts a couple of hours! This is exactly the opposite of what we were hoping for, and not worthy of its name.
TOP GAME MOMENT
The rare moments in which the game allows you to reach full speed and pelt along.