There are popular franchises, there are long-running franchises, and then there are legendary franchises. Sonic is one of the very few names that falls into the latter category, and because of that, we tend to expect a great deal from every new installment. After all, we have so many great predecessors to compare it to, so when we get the next-gen version, we all start to salivate. The fleet-footed spiky blue hero is back, and with him, comes the lightning-fast and engrossing gameplay we've all come to know and love; only revamped, enhanced, and upgraded. It's Sonic the Hedgehog for the PS3, the lone January release for Sony's next-gen console (and just barely; it hit store shelves on January 31), and we just couldn't wait to dive in.
Everything starts off promising. We're greeted to a surprisingly well-crafted FMV, complete with a lovely girl who has a premonition of doom and holds a very important crystal. It's awfully pretty, and Sonic and Dr. Eggman are involved to make things even better, but then, we see the actual game…and we sigh in disappointment. It's a big letdown, as the bland and generic town you're running through is hardly impressive, and even the more colorful and intricately designed stages can't save the visuals in Sonic . There's a general blurriness and lack of detail going on, and although the enemies and characters are a bit more refined, the overall graphical presentation is completely unremarkable. It's simply not something we wanted to see from a supposed next-gen title.
The sound is marginally better, as there's a decent and invigorating soundtrack – although far too repetitive – and some solid sound effects and average voice acting. We still don't get the level of sound effect intensity we would've liked for what should've been an explosive platformer, though. Much like the graphics, they're simply not refined enough, and generally pale in comparison to previous Sonic installments. The soundtrack works, but while you'll be happy with it early on, you'll soon begin to lose interest in the decided lack of diversity, especially during the first couple of stages. Overall, the sound isn't anything to write home about, and tragically, it remains the best part of the game.
As soon as you begin to run around and experiment with your cocky and capable hero, you'll realize you don't have anywhere near the control you want…or need. His best move is what the game calls a "homing attack," where you hit X to jump and hit X again in mid-air to execute the maneuver. If there's an enemy or even a unique platform nearby, Sonic will automatically zip over there. In this way, you can stay airborne and easily take out multiple enemies as you rip them apart with blinding speed; you actually get a glimpse of it in the opening movie. Sonic can also use a foot sweep to take out enemies, and of course, he can fly around with the greatest of ease. Well, he can, you can't. You'll be lucky if you can even tell where he's going, let alone control him through the leap.
Why? Simple. The camera is terrible, and sits too low and behind Sonic, despite your best efforts to control it. You have some control over that erratic and frustrating camera angle, but it too quickly returns to that awful default, and during hectic action sequences, you'll vainly attempt to get a handle on things via manual camera control. Add in the all-too-loose control you have over Sonic himself, and you've got a highly irritating – although frequently comical – gameplay format. Far too often, you launch yourself into the stratosphere, only to find the camera is in front of Sonic, you can't see where you're headed, and even the slightest twitch of the analog can send him vaulting to his death.
And speaking of death, for a guy who can't swim, Sonic sure does spend a lot of time speeding around areas where there's a lot of water. The very first stage features a series of islands and…a lot of water. It's really a lot of fun to attempt survival while battling the camera and the wonky control, but at least the enemies rarely pose any real threat. Oh, and when the glitches start to kill you off, you'll likely just stop playing. We encountered several during only a few hours of play, and they were all really, really funny (despite the fact we had to die for each one). The first involved some sort of massive slowdown fiasco where Sonic appeared to be working his way through a large bowl of Jell-O. Then, speed inexplicably returned, and we shot over the edge of the lighthouse at maximum velocity. And as we said earlier, Sonic can't swim.
The second was when we were in control of Tails, Sonic's lil' flying buddy who signs on at the start to help out. Believe it or not, Tails suffers from worse control than Sonic, as his bomb attack frequently makes the camera go absolutely insane, and that flying/gliding ability is no fun, either. We start to explore behind a boulder, the camera amazingly switches to a couple killer whales leaping in and out of the water (which looked terrible, by the way), and it just sits there for a while. Tails is gone, control has disappeared, and we don't know what's happening. This goes on for about ten seconds, and then we're back at the last checkpoint with Sonic…apparently, we had died. Somehow.
But outside of the massive glitches, visual problems, random slowdown, poor control, and a mostly boring storyline, there are a few positives. No, really. The level design is inspired, there's a great deal of variety in your actions throughout each stage, and being able to purchase some very useful items along the way is a nice addition to the series. It's not just Tails; you'll also get a chance to play as Knuckles, Shadow the Hedgehog, and Silver (each with their own unique abilities, like Silver's Telekinesis for tossing heavy objects at foes). Furthermore, Blaze, Rouge, Amy, and E-123 Omega all make some neat cameos, so that will help to satisfy hardcore Sonic fans. But it would take the most ardent and diehard fan to complete this one; most normal gamers will likely give up after the first few stages. There are just too many obstacles to conquer, and unfortunately, none of them are intentional.
There are a few side-missions available in between stages. As you wander around the towns (there aren't many, and none are very special), you can talk to people and even perform a few mindless tasks for them. It can yield some rings and other semi-useful items and information, but that's about it. For the most part, the town areas are mostly a waste of time and only serve to interrupt the flow of the game. Then again, after working your way through the latest outrageously irritating stage, you might savor the option to relax a bit. The town idea would've worked extremely well had the developers done their jobs and made the stages appropriately fast and immersive, but unfortunately, that didn't happen.
The game has its highlights. Silver's first level really does kick ass (then everything goes downhill afterwards), Knuckles is entertaining for at least a little while, and there really is a great amount of gameplay diversity when it comes to exploration and objectives. There's some teamwork involved, there are always plenty of optional awards to find (those 1-Ups can be tricky), and many of the stages are created with a great deal of imagination and typical Sonic flair. It's just too bad the entire presentation is brought to its knees due to a poor gameplay foundation and extraordinarily mediocre technicals. We didn't expect "perfect" but we at least hoped for "good," and what we got was ‘virtually unplayable."
Sonic the Hedgehog retains none of its former quality, and while there have been too many below-average installments in the past, this one might be the worst. There are simply far too many major problems here to recommend this game for purchase, and in fact, unless you bleed Sonic blue, we can't even recommend a rent. If you're willing to withstand the constant onslaught of glaring issues regarding the control, you might be able to revel in some of those aforementioned highlights, but it won't last. In the end, you'll find yourself wishing for the good ol' 16-bit days, and if you have the Genesis and the first couple Sonic s or the Genesis Collection for the PS2, you'll want to pop it in and relive the glory days.