Game journalists seem to have some kind of condition that forces them to start every article about Sonic the Hedgehog with some pithy remark on the dubious quality of recent games in the series. Iím not going to do that. In fact, we may never have to do that again - Sonic Generations is a 20th Anniversary remaster of the most iconic stages in blue blur history, and if itís as good as what Iím seeing here then we can pretend that Crisis City in Sonic 2006 never existed.
If youíve not been keeping up, this is a one-off celebration of all things Sonic - and with the franchise spinning two totally different gameplay styles over the years, this means youíll be playing as 3D Modern Sonic and 2D Classic Sonic in the same game. Our athletic up-to-date hero meets with his retro, dumpy (and silent!) counterpart when some kind of time paradox merges their worlds together.
Although Dr. Robotnik/Eggman is relishing in the chaos, itís not actually him thatís behind the chronological meddling - some dark shadowy (easy, calm down, I donít mean in the post-apocalyptic sense) creature is the real culprit, and the blue duo have to work together and fix things.
And so you begin your journey on a whitewashed 2D plane, trotting between a selection of stages from the last 20 years of blast processing. Now, I know a lot of fans (myself included) donít like hub worlds an awful lot, but this one is pleasant and understated - its sole purpose being to carry the infrequent story cutscenes and to give players the opportunity to tackle themed challenges beyond the main stage. More on that later.
Allowing people to play as Classic Sonic is both a blessing and a curse for SEGA, as past misgivings with Sonic 4 will allow nit-pickers to micro-analyse every facet of the mechanics to ensure that gameplay is pixel perfect. Having played several stages, I donít think thereís anything for even the most uptight fan to worry about. Lessons have been learned - jumps have been fixed, running up curves follows a law of gravity and bopping badniks doesnít result in the same bounce height.
Now that weíve got that out of the way, Iíll tell you what you do have to worry about - silky smooth controls and a satisfying level design that works with a dynamic camera to give the feeling that youíre not just navigating a 2D space. This truly represents classic Mega Drive play as you remember it in Sonic 2 onwards - with multiple routes and areas to explore that will allow you to mill around as well as speed run.
Modern Sonic has had a bad rep for a good long while too, but darting through re-interpretations of past stages in 3D is actually quite exhilarating and, dare I say it, fun. It should come as no surprise however - if youíve been paying any sort of attention over the last year, youíll have noticed that Sonic Colours on the Wii has provided the perfect template for the boost-happy hedgehog to thrive.
Level design in 3D is multi-tiered, thank God, with multiple failsafes if you decide to try and blast through the entire stage without thinking. This process, dubbed Ďboost to winí by sneering fans, doesnít apply here - progression is less about remembering when to press the jump button and more of a combination of careful platforming elements strung together with third-person speed segments.
More exciting than getting a handle on your favourite version of Sonic is actually seeing these retro stages from the perspective of a totally new Ďhog. Itís brilliant to be playing as Classic Sonic in Green Hill Zone once again with up-to-date graphics, but breathtaking for hardcore fans to see those loop-de-loops, piranha fish and cavernous ravines represented in a fresh way as Modern Sonic. While Modern Sonicís City Escape blends iconic areas and scenes from Sonic Adventure 2 with a more open landscape and multiple routes, itís Classic Sonicís 2D race against the GUN truck and tricks on the 1990s style skateboard that really impress.
And the levels that the public have yet to see in detail contain a lot more pleasant memories and surprises. Chemical Plant will see Modern Sonic race along precarious criss-crossing platforms while factories explode around you, grinding on broken platforms before flinging himself down a chasm dotted with blue toxic waste.
In Speed Highway, classic Sonic is slung down a gravity-defying road that impressively translates the multiple roads seen in the Dreamcast original on a 2D plane. Running inside a hotel and down the inside stairs before crashing below and whizzing yourself around a conveyor belt contraption, upside down and into a rocket.
All the while a thumping remix brings a toe-tapping synthesised rhythm to the original soundtrack, coupled with nostalgic Mega Drive drum beats. Chemical Plantís rock-heavy re-interpretation in the modern stage excellently carves a new tempo for the stage, and Sky Sanctuary still sounds heavenly no matter which version youíre listening to.
Each of the eras - Mega Drive, Dreamcast and Modern - contain a rather large and menacing boss to take down. For the 16-bit series, this is the iconic Death Egg Robot from Sonic the Hedgehog 2. You take on this fearsome foe as Classic Sonic, and the start of the battle is similar in style to how you remember. After knocking him back and avoiding his slingshot arms for a while, the stage completely changes to give Eggman the advantage.
Dodging his arms and running around a circular arena, you have to activate switches and lead the Robot to punch bombs so that you may have an opportunity to smack it on the head. Even though itís the first major boss you encounter, itís difficult to time your attacks and defeat the metal bugger - just like it was in the Mega Drive original.
Inbetween these stages, youíll get the opportunity to play optional missions. There are five missions for both Classic and Modern Sonic in each zone, and will mix up the core stage in some form. Other characters will take an active role in helping you out, but for now we only know of Tailsí involvement in these levels. A mission called ĎWay Past Fastí sees you race against the Tornado plane, piloted by the two-tailed fox.
Other missions include Doppelganger races, against another Sonic, and a mission called ĎLook Out Belowí which challenges you to complete a remixed Green Hill Zone stage with breakable platforms. In each of these, the main elements of the core stage remains the same, but enemy placements will change and you may even explore completely different looking areas than you would in the main level.
Completing missions will not only allow you to progress the story, but also offer collectibles in the form of artwork and music tracks. The fanservice that SEGA has crammed into this anniversary title is simply astonishing, and goes way beyond just plopping Classic and Modern Sonic in the same game. Youíll have fun recognising all the remixed tunes in the mission stages - I wonít spoil any (save for Super Sonic Racing), but their scope goes beyond the original stage in which they represent.
is heading for a 4th November release on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 - and itís looking like the hedgehog is truly back on form. Keep a very close eye on this one, blue blur fans - your patience will be rewarded.