Hands on with Sonic The Hedgehog 4 Episode 1

News Ryan Lambie 10 Sep 2010 - 13:31

The blue blur is back in a new 2D outing, Sonic The Hedgehog 4. But after so many sub-par series entries, is it finally a return to form for Sega’s mascot? Ryan had a chance to give it a try...

Time hasn’t been particularly kind to Sonic The Hedgehog. Once a hip, trendy young thing with cool trailers and an irrepressible turn of speed, his crown began to slip after the release of Sonic And Knuckles. 2006’s Sonic The Hedgehog was rightly derided, and while 2008’s Sonic Unleashed was better, its grim Werehog levels were an ill-advised inclusion.

Not all the numerous Sonic games that have appeared since 1994 have been terrible, of course - Sonic Adventure took the character into fully-fledged 3D with admirable skill - but the 2D platformer is arguably the famous blue mammal’s natural habitat.

Which brings us to the much anticipated Sonic The Hedgehog 4, which sweeps aside every other series entry of the last sixteen years, and takes the hedgehog back to his old-school roots with a platform game that uses current generation technology to recreate an experience that brightened many a childhood afternoon.

What’s immediately obvious, after mere seconds of play, is just how hard Sega has worked to make Sonic 4 feel like the classic 16-bit games of old. The first area, Splash Hill, is nigh-on identical to the original Sonic’s Green Hill zone, and filled with lush palm trees and the chequerboard cliffs that made the 1991 classic so recognisable. It has all the style and colour of the original game, but with greater depth and high-def detail.

The biggest relief, meanwhile, is the handling of Sonic himself. The way he moves from a trot, to a canter, and finally to an all-out sprint is just as you’d expect, and dashing madly through the levels’ loops and jumps is as much a pleasure as it was almost twenty years ago.

There have been some accusations of dumbing down levelled at Sonic 4’s lock-on system, which allows the character to automatically curl into a ball and perform a spin attack on an enemy with a tap of a button. In reality, it’s far from a concession to casual players, and actually makes the game faster and more interesting to play, and chaining together a succession of spin attacks often allows you to cross chasms or reach otherwise inaccessibly high platforms.

What we played was classic Sonic, but with subtle new additions. The old games’ numerous twists, loop-de-loops and pinball bumpers are joined by new obstacles and features, such as rope swings, speed ramps and aerial runways.

But what’s most notable about Sonic 4 is what is missing - no distracting and annoying side characters, no frustrating 3D, and best of all, no Werehogs.

Instead, it’s a straight sprint from left to right, filled with rings to collect and Badnik enemies to smash. It’s the game that fans of the first three Sonic games have been awaiting for years, in short.

Splash Hill concludes, predictably enough, with a boss battle against Robotnik, and he too has a few new tricks up his sleeve, with a more complicated attack pattern that changes just as you think it’s about to settle into a familiar groove.

There were fears, when videos were leaked of Sonic 4’s gameplay  earlier this year, that the game may not turn out as well as everyone had hoped. Footage showing Sonic rattling around in a minecart looked worryingly below par, and Sega promptly removed the release date from summer to winter 2010 while they made alterations, which included a considerable reduction of the minecart sequence.

For us, while our time with Sonic 4 was brief - we played through Splash Hill and a small portion of Labyrinth zone - we can safely say that it’s a more than worthy sequel to its 2D predecessors, and it’s good to see the blue blur in a game worthy of his name.

Sonic The Hedgehog 4 is due for release on PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade, WiiWare and iPhone this winter.

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