Sonic the Hedgehog fans have had it rough for the past ten years or so. They’ve watched in horror as their blue hero suffered more and more in every release, being turned into into a “werehog” and even making out with a human girl in a frighteningly furry display. Seriously, it’s been ugly. Even Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1, which was supposed to be Sonic returning to his roots, was a complete flop.
You see, many people, Sega most of all, forgot that Sonic was never about just going fast. The old Sonic games were great because they combined speed with solid platforming and creative level design that encouraged exploration. More recent entries completely lost sight of that winning combination, but Sega has decided it’s finally time to make up for past mistakes. Simply put, Sonic Generations is the game we’ve been waiting a decade for – read on to find out why.
Rather than opening the game with a cutscene to provide some back story, you are immediately tossed into Act 1 of Green Hill Zone. This was a particularly wise decision, as the familiar sights and sounds (the music is a faithful rendition of the original Green Hill Zone theme song), combined with the feel of classic Sonic, ensure that people will get drawn in nice and early. “Yes! This is what Sonic should feel like!”, will likely be the first words out of your mouth.
Once you finish Green Hill Zone’s opening act, the narrative – for better or worse – begins. Sonic and pals are enjoying a picnic, minding their own business when, for reasons unknown, the sky rips open. Out of the tear comes a shapeless, black…thing, that manages to kidnap Sonic and friends, transporting them to a desolate, colorless world. Your goal, ultimately, is to restore color to the world, save your friends, and repair the time-space continuum. Oh yeah, did I mention time travel is the explanation for Classic Sonic and Modern Sonic being in the same game?
Okay, so clearly the storyline isn’t Sonic Generations’ greatest strength – that honor rests with the gameplay and level design. The game’s hub world is something like its own level, complete with obstacles and nooks and crannies to explore. It’s split into three eras – Classic, Dreamcast, and Modern – each containing three stages based on past Sonic games and a boss stage. Wait, only nine levels and three bosses? Surely that seems a paltry offering, right? Fortunately, the ability to swap between Classic and Modern Sonic at will doubles the amount of playable levels.
Each level has got two acts – Act 1 is Classic Sonic’s turf, and the levels are played entirely on a 2D plane. Act 2 is the domain of Modern Sonic, and those levels tend to be a combination of 2D and 3D gameplay. The interesting thing about this mechanic is that when you’re playing as one Sonic or the other, you can actually see both Act 1 and Act 2 intersecting with one another. You might be playing Chemical Plant Zone, Act 2, and get a glimpse of where you were moments earlier in Act 1 off in the distance. The effect is pretty neat and it serves to create a feeling of cohesion throughout the game.
Not only are the levels different when you switch between Acts, but Sonic’s respective abilities also differ. Classic Sonic plays, well, like Classic Sonic. He can jump and he can spin dash, and that’s it. You’ll occasionally encounter other gameplay elements like a skateboard or rails to grind on, but by and large, Classic Sonic feels exactly the way he ought to. Modern Sonic, on the other hand, has got a whole host of abilities, including his signature air-dash, a speed boost, a light-speed dash, ground pound, and even air combos.
The various Acts are designed to cater to each Sonic’s specific abilities. Act 1 tends to be a little bit slower and easier to navigate, and generally features less abstract obstacles. Act 2 is typically much larger and faster, and mixes things up in a number of ways. For example, playing City Escape, Act 1 (a level based on Sonic Adventure 2), you’ll see a runaway truck in the background that repeatedly smashes its way through the level. Act 2, however, is a heart-pounding, downhill chase in which you desperately try to escape the same killer truck that was smashing about in the background in Act 1.
As I mentioned earlier, the reason this all works as well as it does, rather than coming off as unfocused, is balance. Each level manages to emphasize speed, platforming and exploration, without ever really sacrificing one for any of the others. Every act has got multiple paths to the finish line, and reaching them all is really quite a challenge. You’re encouraged to explore thanks to the addition of Red Star Rings, as there are 10 of them hidden within each act – five in Act 1 and another five in Act 2. Collecting them unlocks things like artwork, music and character models, so completionists will have plenty of reason to stick around and replay various stages.
Another reason the game works so well is that playing as Modern Sonic finally feels good. Every 3D Sonic game since (and including) Sonic Adventure has had terrible camera control issues and levels full of stops and pitfalls. The camera issue has been remedied by simply eliminating player control entirely. The angles are now fixed, and they do a pretty good job of keeping your line of sight clear. Also, while Act 2 stages do still tend to have a number of pitfalls scattered about, they are, at least, clearly marked, and the levels are designed in such a way that they can generally be avoided. Your failures will generally be your own, not the result of bad level design.
Generations also adds extra depth in an rather unexpected way. Each time you finish an Act, you’ll gain points that can be spent at a shop. With said points, you’ll buy skills that can be equipped to Sonic for various game-changing effects, such as better stopping ability, better movement while underwater, making rings last for 10 seconds before disappearing, etc. You’ve even got five separate loadouts with which to equip these skills, so you can tailor your abilities to suit specific levels. If ever there was a place I least expected Modern Warfare’s influence, it’s a Sonic game. Somehow, though, it works, and it’s a surprisingly thoughtful addition to the game.
Outside of the main acts, Generations contains a number of other activities to keep you busy. Each Era contains a host of bonus stages that appear once you’ve completed all of the main Acts there. There are a total of 90 of them in the game (45 Classic, 45 Modern), so they increase the game’s length significantly. However, the levels are something of a mixed bag. Some are pretty straight-forward and fun, tasking you with something simple such as racing through the level to beat a ghost Sonic to the finish line, or freeing a certain number of animals along the way. Others, like teaming up with Knuckles to dig for buried treasure, or racing against Amy on a strange, spinning platform, are not as well conceived or exciting.
The bonus stages are mostly optional, thankfully, though you will need to play at least one per world in order to progress. See, in order to unlock the boss stage for each Era, you need three keys. Beating a bonus stage in each area gives you one of those keys, at which point, you can move onto the boss. Obviously, it is necessary to defeat the bosses in order to move on, but unfortunately, the boss fights happen to be Sonic Generations’ biggest weakness.
It’s not that these fights are downright bad or even particularly difficult, but it is usually painfully unclear as to what you’re supposed to actually be doing in order to defeat the boss. For example, you fight the first boss as Classic Sonic – it’s a big robot engineered by Dr. Robotnik, and it swings its giant hammer arms at you. There are switches all around the level that you must step on, which cause bombs to pop out of the ground. You must then get the boss to slam his fist into said bomb – simple enough until you realize that the bombs themselves aren’t actually dealing damaging. Instead, the bombs merely stun the boss, giving you an opening to jump on its arm, roll your way towards its head, and attack it there. The issue is not that the fights are more complex than they appear, it’s that there is usually little or no indication of how to actually win.
Fortunately, Rival Battles fare better than the big boss fights do. Each Era contains one of Sonic’s hedgehog nemeses – Metal Sonic, Shadow the Hedgehog, and Silver the Hedgehog – who are each holding onto a Chaos Emerald. These battle races are fast, fun, challenging, and much more straight forward than the big boss fights. The race with Metal Sonic in particular will bring a nostalgic smile to your face as you blaze down the highway attempting to smash him out of the air. He also happens to be the only reference to Sonic CD to be found in Generations, as there are no actual levels based on that particular entry in the franchise.
On the presentational side of things, Sonic Generations mostly gets pretty high marks. The game has a crisp and clean style to it, and each Act manages to evoke the spirit of the game from which it’s based. It’s not all completely smooth, however, and you’ll definitely notice the framerate dropping every now and then. It’s nothing game breaking, but when things start getting really hectic, you will see it.
The music and sound effects, likewise, are mostly good. The Act 1 music, particularly Green Hill Zone and Chemical Plant Zone, are fantastic, with other songs ranging from good, to pretty annoying. Music based on the more recent Sonic games is as poppy and grating now as it was then. Fortunately, you can unlock other tunes by completing bonus stages, which will allow you to select different music at the start of any Act. It’s a huge relief when this is the alternative.
It’s been a long time coming, Sonic fans, but you can breathe a sigh of relief. This game is good. Really good. Though the boss fights are lacking, some of the music is bad, and the game is relatively short (completing a playthrough without really replaying levels or searching for secrets only takes about 5 hours), it does everything else right. I keep stressing the balance of speed, platforming and exploration because that’s what always made Sonic games great in the past, and it’s exactly what makes Generations great now. For the first time in a long time, I’m hopeful for Sonic’s future.
Sonic Generations was released on November 1st, 2011 for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. Review based on the Xbox 360 version.