Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sonic Heroes

6.5 [Good]

Gameplay: 6
Graphics: 7
Music: 7
Sound: 5
Value: 7

Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sonic Team
Multiplayer: Offline versus
Console(s): GameCube, Xbox, PS2
Reviewed on: GameCube
ESRB Rating: E (Mild Fantasy Violence)
TGG Rating: E (Mild Fantasy Violence)

Good Points:

Vibrant graphics - Fun, speedy gameplay - Upbeat music - Classic Sonic style - Value-boosting ranking system

Not So Good Points:

Poor multiplayer - Cringe-inducing voice acting - Messed up bonus stages - Some of the theme songs are pretty dumb

After two stellar 3D platformers (Sonic Adventure 1 and 2) it's hard to play Sonic Heroes and not be disappointed. Depending on who you ask, it could be argued that Sonic Heroes is the game that started the series down the slippery slope of mediocrity. Nevertheless, if given a chance, Sonic Heroes proves to be a very well-made and fun platformer, filled with loops, rings, and springs that really gives it that Sonic flair. But not all is well in the land of speedy anthropomorphic rodents; a bevy of annoying voice acting, poor extra modes, and a number of other flaws wreak havoc with the player's good time. Can Sonic Heroes defeat its own shortcomings and come out stronger than ever? That is the question we ask ourselves.

If you've ever played either of the Sonic Adventures, you'll be more or less familiar with how Sonic Heroes is set up. Like the "speed stages" from those games, the goal is to dash through a level as fast as possible, leaping over pits, grabbing rings and capsules, and using Sonic's famed homing attack to reach seemingly inaccessible areas. The basic idea is still there, and it works roughly the same. The major new addition in Sonic Heroes is the ability to switch freely between your speed character and two others: a flying character, and a power character. A tap of the Y or X button will swap you to your character of choice in an instant, which makes changing characters on the fly a breeze. Each type plays rather differently, making it a bit of a tactical decision when deciding who is to take the lead. The speed characters can run faster than the others, as well as use the oh-so-helpful homing attack (along with a couple other nifty moves), which is great for straightaways and other such environments. The flying characters can (you guessed it) fly; for a limited amount of time they can easily knock fellow airborne objects out of the sky, making these guys a safe option to switch to when the terrain gets tricky. For some brute strength, the power characters come in handy, as they can smash through enemy shields and demolish all kinds of stuff with their powerful attacks, as well as glide through the air when necessary. When it comes down to it, the speed characters are the most fun to play, since the Sonic series is, in the end, all about that very thing: speed. However, the spur of the moment situations in which you have to swap between all your options to take down a group of enemies quickly can be fun and exciting, and the whole thing is handled very well.

All the characters are split into groups of three, forming four teams, which brings the grand total of playable characters to twelve, each team with their own story. Team Hero consists of Sonic himself; his two-tailed buddy Tails; and the hard-hitting treasure hunter Knuckles. Team Dark has the hedgehog who was previously thought to be dead, Shadow; the secret government agent bat Rouge; and a new renegade Eggman robot called Omega. Team Rose is built up of Sonic's self-proclaimed girlfriend Amy; the soft-spoken rabbit Cream; and everybody's favorite giant, purple cat, Big. Finally there is classic revival from the gone-and-mostly-forgotten game Knuckles Chaotix, called (appropriately) Team Chaotix. This team of detectives consists of Espio the ninja-like chameleon; Charmy the hyperactive bee; and Vector the bubblegum-chewing crocodile. Sound like a motley crew? Well, it is, and unfortunately these many, many characters try to be as annoying as possible at all times.

That's pretty much the entire story right there.

I'm not a big stickler for voice acting in games like this. Most Sonic games satisfy my need for decent lines and performances. Unfortunately, Sonic Heroes' voice acting is, to put it mildly, terrible. The lines, often subbing as a tutorial, are recited in robotic yet energetic tones, making the characters generic and annoying. To make matters worse, the characters like to chatter about all kinds of things during the levels, ensuring that you won't go too long without listening to Shadow tell you how to perform Thunder Shoot, or hearing Knuckles gleefully shout "Too cool!" This, unfortunately, is not only annoying, but more or less destroys the characters in the process. Everybody is very happy and super-duper into teamwork, and it's a bit disturbing to see the rough and hotheaded Knuckles suddenly become best buddies with his pals Sonic and Tails. The story doesn't do much to help matters, partially because there really isn't much of it after each team's opening cinematic. But that's okay, because a game like this doesn't really need a story, and the characters are irritating enough to make you thankful there isn't much there in the first place.

Instead of worrying about the plot, you will be traveling to a variety of vibrant locales themed after environments such as a beautiful seaside, a mind-bending haunted mansion, and even a city built like a giant pinball table. These stages are imaginative and well-designed, obviously created with the character-swapping gameplay in mind. The levels get very creative, fast, and interesting, and you'll probably find yourself being thankful for the variety it presents. All the teams end up going to the same levels, but each one puts a slightly different spin on it, making it worth your time to go through the different stories. As Sonic Adventure 2 so wonderfully established, you are graded at the end of a stage with a letter rank, which makes it a blast to go back and try and snag as many A ranks as possible. Sonic Heroes also includes an extra mission for each stage, tasking you with completing a more specific goal, upping the replay factor considerably. In classic Sonic fashion, you can also collect Chaos Emeralds within bonus stages. The only problem is that, despite crazy speed, great music, and a cool look... these stages are broken. The characters will get stuck on the cylinder-shaped tube they're running through, which makes it difficult and frustrating. Luckily, this is a small part of the game, and can be completed with a little effort so you can unlock the Super Secret Final Story Level.

If you're itching to challenge a friend to a multiplayer match, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that there are a multitude of multiplayer modes. Ha! Multitude of multiplayer modes! That's kind of funny-sounding. Anyway, the bad news is that they're all very poorly-made and boring. The framerate takes a hit in splitscreen, which severely hinders the fun. You can race on foot, or race in karts, or battle to the death, and do some other little games here and there. None of it is very exciting, so Sonic Heroes is best left to it's far superior single-player options.

Environments like these almost make up for the voice acting.

On the bright side of things, Sonic Heroes looks very nice. While the character models lack a bit of detail, the environments are colorful and fun to look at, with expansive backgrounds and an animated feel to them. The game is no graphics powerhouse, but its visuals are highly pleasant nonetheless. The music fares just as well, with catchy and fast paced tunes to keep you going through the perilous stages. Just as the levels have great variety, the music follows suit, succeeding in setting just the right mood for each stage. The theme songs for the teams are generally corny and sort of dumb, ranging from rock, to pop, to pop rock. There are two songs that stand out, though: Team Chaotix's theme and the rock song that plays during the final boss. I can't say what others might think about these pieces of music, but I happen to really like them. The sound effects stick to classic Sonic fare, which is not a bad thing.

Well, it was a bumpy ride, but apparently we made it through. Sonic Heroes may not live up to the Sonic Adventure name, but it manages to take a fun and well-made platformer to the table; the kind of game that nobody else is making. If you were a fan of the Sonic Adventure games, then definitely check this out, albeit with lower expectations. If you're newer to the Sonic scene, then this wouldn't be a terrible place to start (though there would certainly be better). And so the verdict is out: yes, Sonic Heroes' good points outweigh its bad points, and can be recommended with mild hesitation. Sonic Heroes may not be perfect, but it can be a heck of a lot of fun.

(NOTE: The screenshots were taken from the PC version of the game.)