Writing a review about a Sonic the Hedgehog game these days is much more difficult than it used to be. Once upon a time critics could simply phone in a feature about SEGA?s mascot, opening with the now clichéd witticism about the Sonic series being ?past it?. Of course, those banging on about the spiny one being reduced to dirge have dismissed the serious upswing of quality that the games have had in the last three years.
Some, therefore, may be surprised to find that Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II
is as good as it is. I?m surprised, but for a completely different reason - at just how much Sonic Team has pushed the boat out in terms of improvements. You play with Tails in tow this time around, using teamwork moves to stop Dr. Eggman from activating his brand new Death Egg mk II.
And from the moment you start the adventure, Episode II
feels like a true successor to the Mega Drive classics. The opening sequence is reminiscent of the first scene in Sonic 3
, with Sonic and his foxy friend Tails touching down in the first level after a brief incident on the Tornado plane. There are similar short cutscenes that bring out the personality in the characters, while adding a suitable level of suspense when facing arch enemies Dr. Eggman and Metal Sonic.
Anyone who?s been incredibly vocal about the physics in Episode I
will immediately feel a positive difference in Sonic?s control this time around. Sonic?s inertia is perfect, with an almost instantaneous transition to his new running animation making players feel like they?re in control of the fastest thing alive without actually making the game too fast to handle. This was one of the tricks that the Mega Drive games handled beautifully, and it?s been replicated correctly here.
Momentum has been rebalanced, too. Spinning down a slope is no longer slower than running down it (which was a rather inexplicable thing for Episode I to have, really), and jumping while running allows Sonic to leap in a curve, rather than stopping dead in midair when the control stick was left idle.
Above all else, though, Episode I
was seen as a game almost entirely dependent on nostalgia and throw-backs. Every stage was a blatant ripoff of levels seen in past Sonic
games. While there are obvious references in Episode II
, Sonic Team has used a little bit more creativity to ensure that our experience with the blue blur isn?t treading entirely old ground.
Sylvania Castle Zone is clearly inspired by Sonic 2
?s Aquatic Ruins Zone, for example, but its original level design and gimmicks help make it feel more like an original stage in its own right. Others are interesting fusions of past stages - Oil Desert Zone smacks of Sandopolis and Oil Ocean. The environments for each are incredibly lush and feel much more populated than those seen in Episode I
SEGA is not only happy to reference its past in Episode II
, but also play on them with an incredible sense of humour. Your first encounter with Dr. Eggman leads you to think that you?re simply dealing with a simple rehash of a Mega Drive boss, but your expectations end up getting completely destroyed. And then, pain - as you struggle to figure out the weak spot of a series of creative new bosses.
The enemy grunts themselves are, like the levels they dwell in, a mixture of old and new - although some of the new animal-based badniks are pretty inspired. In one stage, you?re dunked in freezing cold water, to explore a treacherous labyrinth with limited air supply. One enemy resembles a seal, which launches a sonar beam that ends up freezing the water - and itself - around you.
These moments act as clever indications to use your team-based Sonic & Tails combination powers. There are three different ones - a mid-air flight move which allows Tails to pick Sonic up and carry him for a limited time; an underwater move that has Tails piloting his blue buddy underwater; and a ground-based attack which sees the pair roll into a ball and smash anything in their path.
While the use of these moves are optional a lot of the time, they are sometimes shoved down your throat somewhat, as you see big beaming hint panels all over the place almost screaming at you to use the combo powers handed to you. These moments of irritation are countered by moments of wonderful clarity - when you?re thrown off by an enemy or boss before slowly realising that you can use those skills to overcome them.
Of course, one of the benefits of having Tails follow you around performing combo moves is that it allows Episode II
to include a two-player co-op mode. The theory is that this would be the best way to play the game. Sadly, both players are restricted to one screen, whether you?re playing locally (which makes sense) or over an internet connection. The reason for this is sound - if Tails is a mile away from Sonic and the two players need to use combo powers, the whole idea falls apart.
It?s enjoyable enough - if you can find a game to join - and it beats the competitive racing modes that have come before. But it?s not quite there yet. Many people see Sonic the Hedgehog as a single-player experience, really, and that?s where the game truly shines. There?s even a bonus thrown in if you?ve purchased Episode I
- a selection of four Acts called Episode Metal, which chronicles the rise of Metal Sonic and his journey through some of the previous game?s four Zones. It?s not quite the epic lock-on technology that was present in Sonic 3 & Knuckles
, but it?s nice either way.
Ultimately, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode II
is the true 2D sequel we?ve been waiting for - physics and level design are absolutely faithful to the Mega Drive classics, while there?s a good bundle of fresh ideas that make it more than just a simple nostalgia trip. Remember a time when Sonic was good? Get this game. You won?t be disappointed.
Inspired level design and gimmicks
Sonic back in full 2D platforming glory
Great balance of nostalgia and originality
Dynamic camera can sometimes irritate
Sometimes combo powers are forced down your throat
A Sonic 3 & Knuckles
lock-on job would have amazed
SPOnG Score: 9/10