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Friday, May 6, 2011

Review: Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 (Xbox 360)

After nearly 15 years of waiting, Sega has released the fourth entry in Sonic the hedgehog’s original 2D platform series. The game has been divided into multiple parts, but the premier episode is finally in the hands of gamers and available for all major download services.

The story is just as straightforward as the originals, continuing where Sonic & Knuckles left off. After destroying the mighty Death Egg, Sonic decides to take a break from constantly thwarting Dr. Ivo Robotnik’s ambitions. Little does he know that Dr. Robotnik is already back in action, utilizing various revisions of his deadliest machines from previous entries in the series. It is Sonic’s duty to pull the plug on the doctor’s doomsday dreams.

Run little fella, run
 
Longtime fans will know exactly what the gameplay entails. Run through levels at blistering paces, fight off enemies in typical platformer fashion, collect rings, and nab the occasional power-up. Sonic can jump to defeat enemies, ricochet from spring to spring, and interact with the environment in various ways. He can also perform a spindash, a maneuver that allows him to curl up for a temporary speed boost. If Sonic takes a hit from an enemy, though, he’ll lose all the rings he’s carrying and he’ll want to grab them quickly—lest he be attacked again and lose a life. Sonic has a special new ability added to his arsenal in Sonic 4: the homing attack. When you’re close enough to an object or an enemy, you can press the jump button twice to auto-target them. It is useful for connecting attacks and solving mid-level puzzles.

The “revamped” gameplay is going to have players divided, since vital elements of the classics have been meddled with. Everything from Sonic’s running mechanics and the ability of his spindash to his very own jump has been altered. No longer can you spindash out of tight spots by building up speed between walls, you have to slowly build up speed by running. Sonic has also been given a new move, the homing attack, which was predominant in his 3D outings. This move makes the game undeniably easier and is a necessity to exploration and completion of the stages.

The blue blur is not the only thing to undergo alterations - horrendous level designs are a new addition and cause the action to slow to a crawl at times. Lost Labyrinth Zone Act 2 is the most frustrating level I have played in a 2D Sonic game (in terms of design), featuring a ridiculous mid-level torch puzzle. Each zone suffers from a tremendous lack of creativity, since every one of these concepts has been done to death in Sonic games. Furthermore, not all of the stages were sufficiently play-tested before release. There are four zones with three levels each, plus a boss battle. Each level lasts only about 3-4 minutes max, so the game relies heavily on replay value. The bosses themselves are little more than rehashes of old foes with new tricks, so do not get your hopes up. Collecting all the chaos emeralds provides some incentive to keep playing. The prevalent dilemma with the bonus stages is the fact that you must replay a stage multiple times just to get a shot at a chaos emerald, and it quickly becomes tedious.

It looks pretty
 
The difficulty level has been significantly reduced in comparison to the previous games, making it more accessible to those who are less passionate about video games. Not only are the levels themselves easier (when they are not fatally flawed, at least), the amount of lives that Sonic obtains is astonishing. By the end of the first zone I had more than 20 lives, and that number just kept soaring. Furthermore, because your progress is saved whenever you beat a level, there’s no longer a need to care about dying. In the worst case scenario, you’ll have to invest a few extra minutes in a level.

Sonic 4 has undergone a massive overhaul in terms of graphics. Say farewell to those old 16-bit sprites and welcome 2.5D graphics, which are reminiscent of New Super Mario Bros. The modern-day Sonic replaces the hedgehog’s classic look, which will please some and enrage others. The biggest issue in the visual department is that Sonic’s running animation is awkward and appears sluggish despite his fast pace. Some might be disappointed by the art direction itself, but it should not a deal-breaker.

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 relies far too heavily on nostalgia and muddles around with ingredients in the formula that had no legitimate reason to be changed. Instead of feeling like a sequel, it is essentially a bizarre mishmash of Sonic’s first two outings…only with half the difficulty, dubiously altered physics, a homing attack, and vastly improved graphics. The game can be fun at certain points, and these points are what make the game warrant a recommendation. Newcomers to gaming might enjoy the game for its simplicity and lack of challenge, but occasional tight spots in poorly designed levels and the steep $US15 price point make it tough to recommend to them. It would be much wiser to wait until the future episodes, instead of gambling on this rollercoaster.


-Clark A 


Review: Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 (Xbox 360)
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