One wonders how many Sonic fans and detractors were made twenty years ago when the original Green Hill Zone blast-processed its way onto their screens. Sonic the Hedgehog was certainly a game that flashed its knickers in its opening moments: showcasing the speed of its engine, its gameplay and the potential beauty of its levels. In fact, whilst the subsequent levels offered a far more thoughtful platforming experience, they had nothing like the same visual flair. The Green Hill Zone is Sonic in many minds, for better or worse.
So here we are again, judging a brand new Sonic game on our experiences in the Green Hill Zone, thanks to a newly released demo of Sonic Generations available on PSN and Xbox Live. The demo offers two acts, the first a side-scrolling adventure with ‘classic Sonic’ on his home turf. The second in the unique, often divisive (often literally) on-rails style of ‘modern Sonic’. And how does it fare? This game that is determined to show what happens when two halves collide has left me initially ambivalent, though definitely enthusiastic.
The ‘modern Sonic’ act is where I’m inclined to start in explaining this. Firstly, because this is the fresher part of the demo, the ‘classic Sonic’ act briefly available to downloaders in the Summer. Secondly, because I’m not sure I have quite as much to say on it: This new, breakneck speed Sonic has been refined and refined to the point where it’s at the most accomplished expression of its concept. It’s just that it’s a matter of impassioned debate whether that gameplay concept ever could have been anything more than merely ‘good’. Here, the fact that we’re looking at the Green Hill Zone doesn’t help matters, as we’re presented with the ‘modern Sonic’ at its most basic.
And the Green Hill ‘modern Sonic’ is a very basic Sonic indeed: a cinematic sprint through a twisting, turning maze that is nonetheless incredibly linear. Player input feels for the most part like you’re playing a three-minute long quick time event. Yet, in context I’m willing to forgive it. With two modes of Sonic available, there’s every chance that these levels will be a welcome bit of variety, and the complexity and challenge is bound to increase as the game goes on. Furthermore, the fully-3D Green Hill Zone doesn’t just look great, it’s an interesting reinterpretation of the original. And even if it’s a fly-by tour that you’re taking through the level, it’ll still be exciting to get a different perspective on each level.
The ‘classic Sonic’ Green Hill is promising, but I can’t claim to be entirely won over yet either. My first issue is that, this simply doesn’t feel exactly like ‘classic Sonic’ to me. He just feels too ‘sticky’ on surfaces: when running, he enters a spin too slowly, and if you press left after running up a ramp or getting sprung upwards, he’ll start moving a fair bit later. Maybe this is too nuanced for anyone who doesn’t know Yuji Naka’s birthdate because of the Sonic 2 level select code, but it seems to me that if you’re going to do ‘classic Sonic’, you may as well do it with 100% accuracy. Besides, the later behaviour seems to reflect a lack of back-tracking and exploration that I’m hoping is again simply down to the Green Hill Zone being the showcase here: though there a multiple paths through the level, it feels very flat.
Visually the ‘classic’ mode offers up another fantastically realised version of the zone. My one concern is that in certain areas, the sheer amount of detail and the speed of the game make it honestly quite hard to track what’s going on. The framerate is reputedly capped at 30fps and whilst I’m never usually sensitive to such things, I think it’s noticeable. Something that didn’t bother me for the entire length of the zone, but something that could become ugly as the game wears on.
Aurally, the demo offers up nice, reinterpreted versions of the classic Green Hill tune – and no, that doesn’t mean a vocal track that makes a point of rhyming ‘fly’ and ‘sky’. You’ll even find the original Sonic the Hedgehog theme tune on the title screen. The sound effects are punchy and appropriate and there is also a little voice acting in the game, via a tutorial Chao in the demo. Personally, I’m fine with the voice-work itself, but the instructions the game doles out in classic mode are the stuff of parody (specifically, this one).
Offering a short blast of two very different gamestyles, the Sonic Generations demo shows off a promising game with a bunch of issues I can see myself getting used to, but I’m concerned are going to affect the end product. As the intro to this aimed to get across, the cons (and arguably, the pros) of the Sonic experience are always that little bit more pronounced in the first level than in other franchises. And the nuggets of gold to be found in this demo’s tiny stream may be glimpses of the rich vein at the source…
Sonic Generations will be released on November 4th on 360, PS3 and PC. A version exclusively featuring side-scrolling platforming and a different selection of zones will be released for the Nintendo 3DS. The PS3 demo was played for the purposes of this first impressions article.