Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk
The introductions for Sonic games are as clichéd as those that exist for World World II shooters. In this first paragraph I by law must state that ever since the Needle Mouse entered the third dimension he has struggled to find his feet. On pain of death I must inform you that with every iteration Sega has promised that this version is the one to bring the fans back on board. And, finally, the contract states that I should conclude that once again they fail to deliver. Or at least I should, but with Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Sega have pretended the intervening sixteen years since number three never happened.
Gone are the countless superfluous trappings, from the 3D hub world to the multitude of “friends” Sonic has collected over the years. In their place is the more traditional 2D platforming associated with the blue rodent. So much so that the first zone, Splash Zone, is so reminiscent of Green Hill that you could be forgiven for being mistaken that you’d plugged your MegaDrive back in.
Each of the twelve levels, split into four zones, are equally filled with familiar, iconic Sonic structures. From the loop-the-loops the show off his pure speed, to the pinball bumpers that throw him around at neck wrenching regularity, you begin to realise just what was really lacking from Adventure and beyond. To garner such an experience from a fully open world is folly, as Sonic is all about pinging swiftly down a singular path and the illusion of freedom is wasted. Those that granted freedom then failed because they lacked the breakneck, choreographed pinballing that made the series famous.
One feature that persisted through the transition back to the flat plane is the homing attack. Targetting bumpers, enemies and powerups alike, when airborne, certain objects of interest will highlight and a second tap of the jump button will send you twirling towards them. Given the hectic nature of your level traversal, this can be a life saver as it pulls you out of a near-certain bottomless pit or turns a row of enemies into a potential set of stepping stones.
That’s the only thing to survive, however. Every aspect has been tailored to bring back memories of the 16-bit era, right down to a faux MIDI soundtrack. But even though Sonic 4 looks the part with a bright colour palette, classic enemies and a return to core values, it still contains a litany of issues. From Sonic’s soul-crushingly slow acceleration to the fact he appears as though he’s floating on top of the level rather than standing in it, niggle after niggle presented itself. Many sections adopt a “learn by death” approach that seems incredibly outdated, not helped by the homing attack that can easily trigger on unwanted occasions. All too often I either felt out of control as the levels flung me hither and thither or generally frustrated as the pace slowed down only to find out that Sonic is not built for precision platforming.
Almost as with Crackdown 2, you feel that the team responsible have made a good crack at creating a sequel, but they never had a grasp on the finer points that made the original such a success. It’s the difference between refining an existing product and attempting to mimic its qualities. There are mine carts, ball balancing, underwater mazes where bubbles need to be found to prevent drowning, and a dozen other tricks that prove that there is a spark in there, but it just fails to ignite.
Some have proclaimed this as a return to form, and it’s easy to see why. It is a return to what Sonic was; dispensing with Werehogs, human love interests, bi-tailed foxes, and that pesky sense of freedom. But for me it is too much of a return to what was safe and too little of a step forward, coming across as though it were a fan-made game where all the best bits of the series were packaged together with no innovation. However, after so many years in the wilderness can you blame Sega for playing safe?
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode One is the first step on the road to redemption, but with the forthcoming instalments I hope to see something more befitting Mario’s once great rival.