Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Sonic Colors

7.5 - [Great]

Gameplay: 7
Visuals: 9
Music: 8
Sound: 7
Value: 7

Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sonic Team
Multiplayer: Co-op
Console(s): Wii, DS
Reviewed on: DS
ESRB rating: E (Cartoon Violence)
BMR rating: E (Cartoon Violence)

Good points:

Wild sense of speed - Improved controls - Rad soundtrack - Colorful visuals - Humorous writing - Highly replayable - Exciting level design

Not so good points:

Kind of lame theme song - Broken ranking system - Power-ups can grow tiring

Sonic Colors is a game that caught me by surprise. While the general public's collective eyes were trained on the long-awaited Sonic 4, this inconspicuous title sneaked its way onto the Wii without much fuss. The fact that it acts as a successor of sorts to the generally disliked Sonic Unleashed didn't bolster hopes. It is surprising and altogether heartening, then, that Sonic Colors is a big surprise in a very good way. To use a less-than-clever but still relevant analogy, it's as if Sonic Team took the pallete from their past efforts, picking only the best colors and brushes to paint a vivid picture that acts as a glowing example of the series done right. That's not to say Sonic Colors is without fault, however, for it sports a small collection of irritations and a large, stupid oversight that hurts replayabilty. But despite these superficial smudges, the image remains intact and highly entertaining. In fact, this is the purest 3D Sonic game since... well... ever.

The game launches you right into the thick of a crazy level without any exposition whatsoever. Those hoping for a break from the questionable stories seen in previous games might be disappointed to find that Sonic Colors does, after some initial high-paced running to set the mood, include a narrative. Upon completing the stage, it is revealed that Dr. Eggman has reportedly reformed and is the owner and creator of a massive interstellar amusement park for the good of all. Sonic, of course, doesn't for a moment fall for this bunch of shenanigans and convinces his buddy Tails that the mad doctor has to go down. Predictably, the seasoned hedgehog was right: Eggman is using an innocent alien race known as the Wisps to power his newest contraption of evil and malice. That's the entire plot and cast, aside from a couple goofy robots and an effectively mute Wisp, which proves to be the perfect size for a story that works as a compliment to the gameplay rather than a hindrance. The new voice cast does a great job at livening up the cutscenes with fitting voices, and the writing is surprisingly fun and amusing. A few self-acknowledging jabs at the series and some legitimately funny jokes make this a Sonic tale that doesn't take itself too seriously. It's cheesy, yes; but it's cheesy in a way that works.

It's a good thing that Baldy McNosehair (as Sonic and Tails have coined the diabolical doctor) put so much effort into designing his villainous theme park, because it did wonders for level design. Six vibrant worlds think outside the box to deliver some exhilarating speed and clever platforming. You won't find the average Green Hill equivalent, ice world with a snowboarding sequence, or gear-obsessed metal fortress here: Sonic Colors does a good job at bringing the hedgehog to lands unexplored. You'll visit towering mountains of delicious food that provide some sweet loop-de-loops through donuts, a brilliantly-lit fleet of neon-colored ships as they travel through hyperspace, and a submerged Japanese temple with schools of fish swimming between the pillars just to name a few. Stage selects reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. 3's map screen highlights the generous scoop of levels each world contains, displaying helpful information pertaining to ranks, scores, and objects collected for each one. Some are short and almost mini-game-like challenges, others focus on a particular gameplay element, and others still mix everything together for full-length levels. This wholesome amount of variety is a welcome addition, but still presents plenty of the core Sonic action that everyone's here for.

So that's where he gets all that caffeine! 

The game plays very similarly to Sonic Unleashed: both behind-the-back sequences with full 3D control and traditional 2D controls fluidly meld together to create the best of both worlds. Everything feels much tighter this time around, making it a ton of fun to blast through the levels at top speed. The 3D parts require a decent amount of finesse to keep from ramming into objects or flying off a ledge altogether, but the responsive quick steps will stop you from losing control during the blindingly fast and extra dangerous sections. Some areas will have you sliding around tight turns and others give you more direct control, but it all boils down to the same gameplay elements. At times slippery, there are certainly moments of mild frustration that lead to a lost lfie, but nothing that a little overcorrection can't fix. The 2D portions usually deal with more platforming-related trials and offer a classic sidescrolling bent to the action; they're often employed when complex, multi-layered stages take charge. Both are enjoyable and necessary parts of a whole, and the two styles of play often blur together so seamlessly that it's hard to even notice the change.

Despite their perspective differences, both modes share the same essence. Sonic can now double jump, which takes some getting used to but ultimately does a lot for precision. The sliding move and homing attack also return, both of which assist in chaining together combos and resisting gravity and friction alike. Maintaining your boost meter by grabbing capsules of friendly aliens will go a long way to keeping you zipping straight up walls and flying down rails at an impressive velocity, and it's undeniably thrilling to keep moving without skipping a beat. Sonic is a ridiculously speedy rodent and the stages take full advantage of this fact. Ramps and enemies are placed in just the right manner to allow a skilled player to blow through a stage by taking all the best tricks and shortcuts. The first way through can be a bumpy ride, for level memorization is key to success, but it's the practice and results of said practice that make it so rewarding to finally nail a stage start to finish. Sonic Colors knows when to slow things down, though; mindlessly pushing forward won't do you any favors. Spikes and pits will trip you up if you're not looking where you're going, and it's oftentimes advantageous to stop and examine your surroundings to find a better route for your next run. This installment in the series boasts commendable pacing and great controls, which is an impressive feat considering the delicate balance between slowing Sonic down too much and, alternatively, letting him blindly dash in a straight line to victory. A Wii remote and nunchuck combo, a single remote, a classic controller, and a GameCube controller can all be used to play the game, and they all work fine (though I wasn't able to personally test the classic controller setup). I found myself gravitating to the nunchuck setting since it's easier to boost and jump simultaneously, but it's surprisingly playable with the other controllers.

The primary new feature of Sonic Colors is the power-up mechanic. Excluding the previously mentioned white Wisps that fill the boost meter, there are seven different colored Wisps that each possess their own special properties. Yellow turns Sonic into an earth-digging drill, cyan bounces him off walls and through robots as a laser, pink morphs him into a spinning blade of spikes that can latch onto walls, blue turns special tokens into platforms of cubes (and vice versa), green floats him through the air to reach high places and nab rings, orange sends him high into the air as a rocket, and purple transforms him into a raging beast that devours everything in sight. These power-ups can be used to access secret passages, blow through large groups of enemies, and generally interact with the world however you see fit. As you unlock more of the powers you'll be able to revisit old levels and put them to good use where previously nothing could be done. I sometimes found myself wishing that I could just keep moving instead of fiddling around with a spiky pink bowling ball (especially since the controls can be a mite finicky every now and then), but they're a nice addition to break up the action and add a bit of depth to the familiar running and jumping. It's a shame that shaking the Wii remote is required to activate them (that is, if you're using one of the Wii remote control schemes), though. It's a functional mechanic, if somewhat pointless and unresponsive, but the game could have done without any motion controls whatsoever. Yet the seemingly innocent alien pals contribute a far more irritating error to the game, and much as the drill power delves deep into the earth, it digs the replay an unfortunate grave.

Grab those rings, hit the springs, get to the end of the stage... you know the drill. PUN!

That might have been a tad on the dramatic side of things, but the designers seem to have overlooked an import aspect of their ranking system. As is custom in recent Sonic games, a grade is handed out for each level's performance, ranging from the unbearably lousy E to the coveted S. Three elements factor into the rank: the time it took you to complete the stage, the number of rings you obtained and finished with, and the overall score from beating up robots, grinding, and general things like that. The problem lies within the power-ups, as simply remaining in one of the forms continuously racks up score. This might not be a problem if some of the Wisp capsules didn't respawn, but that isn't the case. Therefore it becomes all too easy to spam the heck out of the power-ups, resulting in an S rank for turning around in circles and wasting time. There's a cap for score and time, which does help to an extent, but some stages are hurt by this cheap exploitation. Naturally this doesn't effect actual level design, but completionists or those looking for a challenge will be disappointed in a system that doesn't care too much about how skillful you are at charging through a given level. Luckily there are plenty of other things to do in Baldy McNosehair's wonderful world of impractically built amusement park rides, leaving behind the poor ranking system to contemplate its mistakes.

Five red coins are hidden in each level, and using wit and Wisps to find them is a simple concept that does a remarkable amount for replayability. It's also a good excuse to further scour each stage for the very best paths, which makes speed runs all the more satisfying. A challenge mode tasks you with completing the entire game, level after level, in one go. Your total time and score will be uploaded to the leaderboards for all to see, which isn't a bad option if you feel like sinking a lot of time into the game at once. Dr. Eggman has a game of his own cooked up for those yearning for even more to do in the form of an arcade-style Sonic Simulator, putting the player in control of a robot version of Sonic. Your custom Mii's head can replace Sonic's if you so desire, but honestly, that looks really weird. Collecting special rings from stages unlocks more levels in the simulator, and beating those earns you Chaos Emeralds. Can you guess what happens when you manage to gather all seven of the fabled jewels? If not, you probably haven't played a Sonic game before. A friend can join the fun in the form of a second Sonic-bot (or a disturbing, disgruntled, one-eyed Mii, in my case), but doing so isn't especially exciting, and the fellow player usually ends up getting in the way. The surreal, digital landscapes of the simulator are comprised of boxy platforms and sparse runways, creating an uncomplicated obstacle course. The whole atmosphere is kind of neat, including touches like arcade-cabinet-style artwork for the menu and MIDI versions of all the regular level songs. All things considered, it's a fun distraction, if not a little dull here and there.

The visuals that light up Eggman's fun-filled fair, however, are anything but dull. The game lives up to its name by presenting a colorful display of artistically and technically proficient graphics. Sonic and the other characters are animated well, and the speedy hedgehog's eyes are admirably reflective. But it's hard to pay attention to the blue blur when magnificent, otherworldly scenery is whizzing by, which tends to happen a lot in Sonic Colors. The rate of speed can be intense at times, but the frame rate stubbornly refuses to dip against all but the most hectic scenarios. Huge vistas full of detail and bright colors grace the first stage's surroundings, drawing attention to the spinning ferris wheels, flying cars, burning tiki torches, and absolutely enormous outer-space view of planet Earth. To continue the interstellar trend, at one point during the previously mentioned space fleet level the camera continues to pull back until Sonic is nothing more than a tiny dot on the screen, kicking up rainbow-colored sparks from the hull of a ginormous spaceship, all the while slipping in and out of a warp gate. It would be a lie to say that the game consistently manages to look this awesome, and an HD TV will reveal a certain amount of jagged lines here and there, but Sonic Colors is definitely one of the more impressive-looking Wii games out there.

Enjoy the view. In the actual game, you'll be halfway across the space station in the blink of an eye.

The sound design doesn't disappoint either. A smattering of well-known dings and boings from the Library of Old Sonic Sound Effects are at work here, but the new ones do the job, too. The voice acting and writing is a step up (or perhaps several very large steps up) from the past performances, with Eggman stealing the show as usual. Baldy McNosehair will occasionally make unexpectedly hilarious announcements over the park's PA system ("Remember, this ride is not safe for children twelve and under or over thirteen. This ride is also not safe for thirteen-year-olds."), but it's a pity that the volume is often too low to hear them properly. The music is joyous, fast-paced, and all around rad. Energetic guitar riffs and blissful synths can often be heard, but the tunes also venture into calming map screens and Sonic-Adventure-esque rock. The carefree powerpop theme song doesn't capture the excellence of the rest of the music (despite its admittedly endearing qualities), but the orchestrated version has appropriate grandeur and awesomeness. It's comes as no surprise that yet another Sonic game boasts an amazing soundtrack, but that doesn't take away the fact that Sonic Colors sounds as good as it looks.

And so this roller-coaster of a review finally comes to a close. There were plenty of ups and a few downs (the ranking system was especially terrifying), but nobody died and I certainly enjoyed myself. I'm also pleased to say that this Sonic game is fun, fast, funny, sharp, well-designed, and beautiful. It is delightfully devoid of anti-hero hedgehog clones with guns, stupid-big casts of unneeded characters, and glitches that haunt the souls of those who encounter them. It's not the very best platformer you'll find on the Wii (Super Mario Galaxy posing the main competition), but it's close to the top of the list. This is how Sonic the Hedgehog is meant to be played, so let's cross our fingers and hope that Sega continues to launch the beloved mascot into a future brighter than the extraterrestrial power-ups themselves.

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