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PAX Preview: Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2 Hands-On

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I find myself in an interesting position here. Sonic the Hedgehog: Episode 1 was a game I really, really disliked. I thought its level design, physics, and animations were so bad that I declared I’d never play another Sonic game. Then Sonic Generations came along last October, and its 2D sections looked and felt exactly like a Sonic game should. My faith had been restored at least partially. With that in mind, and promises of revamped physics, improved graphics, and level design, I sat down to play Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2.

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The demo on display at the Sega booth featured two stages – Sylvania Castle and White Park Zone. I began with Sylvania Castle, which is basically a large ruin overgrown with lush jungle foliage. Right off the bat, Episode 2 is noticeably better looking than Episode 1, though not as good as Generations. Sylvania Castle was fairly straight forward, though there were a couple of sections where I had to stop and spin dash on a switch to lower a wall. The level also appeared to have quite a few branching paths, encouraging repeated playthroughs and exploration.

The second level, White Park Zone, took place at some sort of carnival on a snowy landscape. It came complete with deadly gaps, avalanches, and the requisite branching paths to keep you coming back. In general, these two levels seemed to display quite a bit more care and thought than the levels from Episode 1. I can only hope we won’t see a repeat of that god awful Temple zone, in which you needed to carry around a torch in the dark.

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Gameplay-wise, Episode 2 also feels better than Episode 1 did – unfortunately, that still isn’t saying a whole lot. The physics engine has been entirely revamped, and it shows. No longer can you just casually saunter up a steep hill without having to build momentum first, but something still feels off about it. There was noticeable latency in button presses, causing an ever so slight delay in your jumps – just enough to screw you up where it counts. Also, Sonic’s signature spin dash maneuver feels disappointingly slow, and doesn’t build the kind of speed on its own that it should. You’ve also got the homing attack from latter Sonic games, and that generally works well enough.

Episode 2 also features the return of Miles “Tails” Powers, everyone’s favorite two-tailed flying fox. The game can be played cooperatively, but when you’re playing alone, Sonic can still interact with Tails in a couple of ways. Pressing the square button while standing causes Sonic and Tails to grab onto each other and form a sort of super spin dash that can plow through nearly anything. More useful, however, is the fact that Sonic can also grab onto Tails in the air, allowing you to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. It works pretty well and doesn’t feel intrusive.

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2 is clearly an improvement over its predecessor, but it’s just as clear that the game still needs some work. The physics can stand to be tweaked some more, and the button latency really needs to be resolved before launch. In any case, I’ll be keeping my eyes on it and hoping that it is not the unmitigated disaster of Episode 1.

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