Say what you will about his bumpy history and some of his forgettable fare (his self-titled Xbox 360 debut comes to mind), but Sonic the Hedgehog has been on a much more positive run as of late. Sonic Colors ended up being better than expected over on the Wii, and last year, Sega successfully combined elements of his past with platforming skills of the present with the engaging Sonic Generations — even if the 3DS version wasn’t entirely up to snuff. Now, for 2012, the blue wonder returns to wrap up his Sonic the Hedgehog 4 saga with a sequel — and not just any sequel.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2 addresses all the quirks that made the first game such a headache, mainly the physics. While the game featured top-notch stage design and the kind of 2-D-style graphics that were worthy of the Sonic saga, the controls just felt a bit off, whether it came to trying to run up hills or wondering why you went a little too out of control going down them. Something just didn’t click. But this time around, we can honestly say it does from the two levels we tried during Sega’s Digital Day event at the Game Developers Conference.
The levels we tried out were actually quite good. The first is the Sylvania Castle Zone, and it really brings back memories of the traditional Sonic stage design; there's foliage growing out of stone objects and plenty of perils littered among your track as you roll through it. The first thing we noticed about this level was how the stage background integrated with the forefront in stunning 3D. It’s all an effort by Sega to make this look like the best 2D Sonic game to date, by cheating a slight bit with the 3D. Hey, we don’t mind. What’s more, the game runs fantastically at a fever pitch, bringing back the series’ beloved “blast processing” feature. We’re all for that.
Then came the second stage, White Park Zone, and this is even more enjoyable thanks to the inclusion of huge snowballs that you have to outrun (or outthink, like stopping on a nearby platform and ducking as it rolls past) and snow-covered enemies that need to be put down. This stage featured everything from a traditional wintery village straight out of The Nightmare Before Christmas to light-covered trees sitting in the foreground. It’s just too bad we don’t have the option to explore this place more, but hey, it’s a Sonic game, we’ve got a world to save from Dr. Robotnik.
We’ve explained how the gameplay has improved, and it really has. The physics feel a lot more natural this time around, like the classic Sonic games on the Genesis that inspired this sequel to begin with. We were able to roll up and down hills without a problem, run through underwater chasms while looking for air bubbles and fling through loops like a shot. It’s a traditional feeling we’re glad is returning.
And get this — Tails has returned. Instead of being an annoyance like in most games (here, he doesn’t speak — whew!), he actually helps Sonic by teaming up with him for special attacks. One has him lifting up Sonic over higher platforms by acting as a temporary helicopter; the next has him rolling in a huge ball, which can knock down walls, exposing hidden paths. Finally, the apprentice does some good here, rather than whining about how Sonic keeps getting into trouble. That’s the way it should be.
Overall, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2 looks to wrap up the saga in style, and that’s just the way we like it. Everything just feels and looks better here, and more stages will be included that really brings out the best in the Blue Wonder. Look for a full review when this sequel hits Xbox Live and PlayStation Network this summer.