Saturday, April 14, 2012

PAX East 2012: Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II

Of all the lines at Sega’s PAX East Booth, the line for Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II was one of the largest.  Fans of the blue hedgehog all wanted to try out his newest adventure, but at the same time, there was cautious optimism.  After the mixed response to Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I, Sega claims to have gone back and rebuilt the game’s physics to be closer to the Genesis Sonic titles, although not entirely so. We had a chance to try it out on the show floor, and there were definitely some improvements.

Check out the video here for an interview with Sega's Ken Balough! [Impressions after the break]

I got to try out the game's first zone, Sylvania Castle Zone, and immediately the graphics caught my attention.  Whereas the first episode was flatter and more "rendered," the characters, background, and everything else appeared to be fully modeled and lit using an improved graphics engine.  The game barely fluctuated its framerate, and the game looked altogether better than its first episode.

Sylvania Castle itself is a large moss-covered castle complete with the occasional flooded areas.  In my short playthrough, I rushed forward and made sure not to fall into the water and ensure my survival.  The blue hedgehog did take a while to accelerate, but once he got moving, he felt very close to his Genesis variant.  However, that did not stop a few issues from hitting me along the way; sometimes rolling in loops did not work as well as they should.  I was able to try out some of Tails' special cooperative abilities in the level, and for me it felt odd to call him over to me with the press of a button.  His lift is not as smooth as in the older games, but I imagine that was done to make it less useful in skipping whole areas of the level.

The Sega representative said that I got one of the fastest runs through the Zone, which I took with great pride.  However, being the fastest also meant getting the least time with the game.  Either way, it looks extremely improved over its predecessor, from my experience.

Seeing as Tony is the top-tier Sonic fanatic, I will let him divulge further on the game's mechanics.

The level I tired out was from the new snow level, White Park Zone. The act was filled with flowing snowdrifts on which Sonic rode a snowboard, as well as large snowballs that Sonic had to push in order to get further into the level. There was also a part of the stage that required Sonic and Tails to use their new Super Spin Dash move to roll though snow filled caverns, which reminded me of Sonic Colors’ Drill move. As one would expect, the level was also filled with various Baddniks including the returning Bubbles, a new spiked hermit crab that could only be hit at a certain angle, and a large Polar bear that took several hits to take out. These new enemies felt right at home with Sonic and required quick thinking in order to take them out without losing my rings.

In terms of level design, I was thrilled to see various branching paths throughout the act. Unlike the previous episode, this game rewards you for replaying acts and trying out new paths by hiding Red Rings in the levels, although I don’t know if they unlock anything like in Sonic Generations. While there were a few bottomless pits in the stage, I felt the level spent more time on solid ground. One thing I noticed was a balance between springs and platforming. While there were times when springs would launch me around the stage, at other times I was surprised by the lack of springs; I would actually need to jump up to the next platform without the assistance of springs. Hopefully this balance is maintained through out the game’s entirety.

Even though I only had a short time with this episode, I could feel the modifications made to the game’s physics engine. Rolling downhill felt much closer to how it should feel and Sonic’s jumps felt less floaty and more solid. The only real issue I found was how slow Sonic moves when he first starts walking. While it felt better than in Episode I, it still could use some adjusting. As for Tails’ assist moves, they were performed with the press of a button. Depending if you were in the air or on the ground, Tails would either grab Sonic helping him fly or the two would roll up into a ball to perform the Super Spin Dash move. The only issue I had with them was they stopped the action of the game to show their transformation, which I felt went a little long. Besides that, the assist powers did their job nicely.

The graphics have significantly improved from the pre-rendered graphics from the first episode. Now everything is rendered in 3d graphics with improved lighting effects that make the glowing park in the background all the more inviting. With everything in the game made with 3d graphics, Sonic, Tails, and the Baddniks actually felt like they were traveling through the winter wonderland rather than just walking on top of it.  As for the music, sadly the show floor was so noisy that I was unable to hear the game’s sound track, which I hope has gotten some new instruments instead of using the ones in Episode I.

Despite only playing one act of Sonic the Hedgehog Episode II, I have certainly felt the game was an improvement over the first episode. While I wish Sonic would move faster at the start, the other modifications, interesting level design, and new Baddniks have me excited to see what else this game has in store. I can’t wait to try it out when it hit download services later this year.

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