PAX East 2012: Hands-On with Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II
The long and winding road that the blue blur has followed in his many years past relevance has been one fraught with turbulence and perpetual disappointment; each successive game bearing the Sonic the Hedgehog moniker was more disheartening than the last, but then, seemingly out of nowhere, Sega bestowed unto us Sonic Generations. Suddenly, everything was a peace once more.
Sonic Generations has come, gone, and traveled far into our rear-view mirror now and has left everyone with a longing to know what awaits the iconic mascot. Surely, after taking a trip down memory lane, Sega won’t revert to the days of the Sonic Cycle and churn out a hodgepodge of shovelware with the hedgehog’s name stapled to the cover. The announcement that this year’s Sonic title would be a sequel to Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I fittingly entitled Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II did little to ease concerns that history was bound to repeat itself; after all, Episode I was supposed to be the beacon that would shine the light for the blue blur to find his way back to competence, but even that was a failure. When I saw Episode II tucked away at PAX East, I knew that I was confronting a moment in which I would discover the ultimate direction that Sonic would follow for years to come.
To my surprise and delight, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II appears to continue upon the trend established last year of Sega publishing excellent games in tribute to their legendary hero. Where Episode I struggled to conjure up the nostalgic vibes of yesteryear, Episode II succeeds in ways that I didn’t know were possible in this era of modern gaming.
The most important aspect preserved in Episode II is that genuine feel that only a Sonic the Hedgehog game on the Sega Genesis has been able to produce; every step, hop, and spin dash feels in tune and provides for an experience that plays as smooth as a finely pressed shirt taken freshly from an ironing board. Much of the complaints that surfaced around Episode I came in response that, despite all efforts to the contrary, Sonic’s movements felt out of touch with the motion meant to be preserved by the fourth game in the original lineage. Its physics felt more in line with what players had seen in Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 as opposed to Sonic the Hedgehog 2 or any legitimately quality title in the franchise. Episode II couldn’t possibly be more different in execution, and, for that reason alone, it is that much more acceptable as an heir to the blue blur’s premier throne.
Potent level design was yet another quality sorely missed in Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I that finds solace in its sequel. In the last game, stages were copied (almost verbatim) from the first, and coincidentally worst, Sonic the Hedgehog title. Bosses, too, resembled almost identically the confrontations laid before the player in 1991. Such is not the case in Episode II; the two zones displayed on the show floor, one with a more wetlands vibe to it and the other an exciting down-hill romp in the snow, take hints from the original games without plagiarizing their likeness. Splash Hill Zone might appear similar to Aquatic Ruin Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog 2, but it does enough that it differentiates itself and feels like a fresh jaunt for series veterans. Just the same, White Park Zone hearkens back to the legendary Ice Cap Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog 3 without applying the proverbial CTRL + C, CTRL + V treatment. Truthfully, neither of these stages is so excellent that they could replace any of the top tier outings from the original games, but they do feel as if they at least belong in the same conversation.
Episode II is not be taken completely as a Sega Genesis experience, though, and that message comes through with the introduction of special powers. By simply pressing one button, players engage in a series of context-sensitive power ups that help to traverse the title’s diverse terrain. The ability shown of in the show floor demo was one that had Sonic and Tails joining together in the shape of a saw blade to aid in chopping through large blocks of ice that lay about the environment in White Park Zone. This particular capability didn’t feel outstanding or even all that necessary; truth be told, it felt like an unnecessary addition made in respect to bestowing upon the game some modern credibility. Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II doesn’t need to fall in line with the tropes of modern gameplay, and I hope that the special powers seen in this build of the game remain kept to a minimum level of usage in the full release as they did here.
Of course, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II does find itself conforming to another trope of modern games: high-definition graphics. In their last showing in Episode I, the visuals were sharp but underwhelming. These seem to have more in common with Sonic Generation as it applies to character models and environmental detail. The game certainly won’t blow you away with its fidelity but it will, at the very least, remind you that it is a capable member of the current-generation software library.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II is surprising but it is far from perfect; while most of the game feels as if its in line with the expectations of a blue blur homage, some of it feels as if it still wants to be considered among the likes of more modern games such as Sonic Heroes and Sonic Unleashed. For every five moments spent hopping and bopping around the vibrant scenery, there is one moment spent bashing against an enemy’s robotic skull until it explodes. That said, 5:1 is a far better ratio than has been seen in most title outside of Sonic Generations, and that is enough for me to find reason for excitement in this latest attempt to recapture the golden years of the Sega Genesis. Episode II isn’t perfect, but it offers a promising new direction for the franchise in the wake of Sonic Generations, its major momentum swerve of a product.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II will be available for Android, iOS devices, PC, Playstation 3, and Xbox 360 on May 15.