Sonic Heroes (GameCube) review
"There is always one who is the fast one, another who flies, and a third who packs a powerful punch that can break blocks and the like. Though each team has a different plot, the way they approach the stages varies only slightly. Whether it's Knuckles or Big the Cat punching blocks, the feeling is not much different. The real sense of variety instead comes from the number of ways you can approach a given area."
Before long, the people at Sega are likely to just throw in the towel and give up on keeping the general gaming public happy at all. Failing that, they may at least decide that Sonic is doomed to live out his days as a mascot known more for his former glory than his current triumphs. I say this not because I hate Sega, or Sonic. Instead, I say it because after playing Sonic Heroes, I came to the realization that no matter how hard Sega has tried recently to please its fans, it just hasn't been able to bring everything together in a way that brings the famous hedgehog to the top of the 3D platformer heap.
When Sonic Adventure hit the Dreamcast, I was amazed by how good it looked. Sonic really looked like he belonged in three dimensions, with a vibrant world full of enemies and challenges. The store demo was enough to make me buy a Dreamcast and the game, though I'd not previously had much of an inclination to support any of Sega's platforms. Then I played the game, and I realized that the brilliantly-designed 'levels' were massacred by a large 'hub' in between. Half the game was brilliant, half a chore.
Fans asked then that Sega focus on what made Sonic so cool: his speed. The response was Sonic Adventure 2, a game with numerous high-speed levels and barely a hub to speak of. It also was flawed, however, in that the stages suffered from tedious goals that made even Big the Cat sit up and take note (if you caught that reference, chances are you're a Sonic fan and perhaps know where I'm headed with this).
Years have passed without a new title from Sonic... until Sonic Heroes. Sega has been promising that this time, they'll get things right. We had assurances the speed would be back in full force. I'm happy to report that at least in that regard, Sonic Team has succeeded more than I ever could have expected. In fact, they fixed just about everything that was wrong with the Sonic Adventure games. The problem is, that doesn't mean Sonic Heroes is the near-perfect game some were expecting. It's just a huge improvement from what we've seen recently.
As the preceding paragraphs have hopefully made obvious, I'm not a big fan of the hub pioneered in Sonic Adventure for the Dreamcast. I felt it slowed things down and represented all the exploration of Super Mario 64 but without the fun. This time around, there is no hub whatsoever, and barely a pause from one level to the next. That's not the only thing Sega got right, though; they also left the stupid objectives of Sonic Adventure 2 at the door. The result is that with few exceptions, there's never been a greater sense of speed in a 3D Sonic title. It starts from the get-go, and it seldom lets up for more than twenty or thirty seconds at a time. In short, it feels like one of the old Genesis classics.
Part of this is the appearance of the levels. While you will notice huge influences from the first Sonic Adventure title, from the way the platforms and trees are constructed to the subtle touches such as killer whales, there are just as many reminders of the earlier games. The speckled brown bands return, for example, as do the casino stages. You'll even get to bounce around inside a giant pinball machine and play the slots, and the execution is much better than I ever would have expected.
Music is another reminder of how little some things have changed. The same basic sound is here, but some of the music and lyrics are new. I'm afraid I've never been a real fan of the music this franchise offers, and that's not changed here. But it does sound familiar, and there's some comfort in that.
Something I found a little less comforting, however, was the size of the levels. On paper, it seems like a good idea. Gamers like everything bigger and better, right? Certainly. The problem is that the levels are too large for their own good. Admittedly, I suck. However, I'm willing to bet I'm no worse than about half this title's potential audience, and I found that many of the areas took upward of ten minutes to complete, even with me rushing.
While that might not seem so bad, consider this: your team only has a limited number of lives to use on a given area. Die all your lives and you get to continue at the area you left off, with only three lives. So, suppose you're seven minutes into a stage and suddenly you hit a run of bad lock. Your team members all fall into a hole... three times. Well, it's back to the start of the stage for you! Despite terrific level design, there's nothing that really makes this easy to take. Many of the later areas have small segments where it's nothing to lose three lives just trying to get the feel of things, and in such cases the massive environments are more a frustration than a blessing.
Personally, I would prefer smaller areas. The levels in Sonic Adventure felt just about perfect, meaning the ones in Sonic Heroes start to drag. Even though you're constantly busy with something new, from bouncing around on springs to riding in vehicles to gliding over sparkling ocean waters below, there's still a pervading sense of redundancy. In some cases, I found myself wondering if somehow I'd worked in a circle and arrived back at the beginning of an area. Then I realized I hadn't, that things just looked too similar.
Of course, there's a silver lining to every dark rain cloud. In the case of Sonic Heroes, the good news is that the game just feels downright enormous. Even when things are at their worst and I'm numbly racing through the same loops for the fifth or sixth time after a bout with a rising lava pit or whatever, I'm usually having a close approximation of fun. A big part of this is the new 'gimmick' that Sega implemented, the team element.
Think of every character we've seen in past Sonic games, from Big the Cat to Amy to Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles. They're all back, and you can play as all of them. The difference is that you don't just pick one character and run with him or her. Instead, you pick a team. There are four different teams in the game, each comprised of three specific characters that compliment one another admirably. There is always one who is the fast one, another who flies, and a third who packs a powerful punch that can break blocks and the like. Though each team has a different plot, the way they approach the stages varies only slightly. Whether it's Knuckles or Big the Cat punching blocks, the feeling is not much different. The real sense of variety instead comes from the number of ways you can approach a given area.
At any time, you get to control whichever party member suits your fancy. Suppose Team Sonic is approaching a series of ledges hanging over a channel of water, descending to a sandy beach on the opposite side. A fall here can be fatal, and there are enemies hovering in the area. Now, Sonic knows he can use his homing dive to bounce from one enemy to the next and get over to the beach, but that's risky if he messes up. Knuckles can of course leap over the platforms, but again, there's a lot of risk. Meanwhile, Tails can probably glide most of the way, and maybe even if he falls, he can recover enough to reach the safety of the beaches. The game often presents such choices (though they're usually a fair amount more complex than the example I cited), and there's never really a restriction as to how you should tackle the situation. Colors usually hint at which character will have the most success, but it's really up to the player.
There's more that separates the characters than just their appearance and physical attributes, however. Each has a special combination move that affects the rest of the team. If you come to a huge fan, for example, it's time to put Knuckles in the lead so the three of you can join hands and ride air drafts to higher portions of the stage. If there's a pole to scale, Sonic has a nice spin move (also easily used on tough opponents) that will get you all to the top. Progression through stages often relies on the player's ability to best utilize the strengths of each team member.
As far as the teams themselves, some are better than others. The easiest team for a new player will be Amy and friends (the game even includes a tutorial in that mode). Meanwhile, Sonic's team is a nice starting point for most players, and the Dark and Chaotix teams represent greater difficulty overall. The Chaotix team even throws objective-based gameplay into the mix, meaning one stage might require you to rescue a Chao while another can demand that you find ten hermit crabs. You can progress to varying degrees in any order you like, and skip from one team's adventure to the other as the mood strikes you. Many players will do this to clear out the early stages and open up the game's multi-player modes so that two players can enjoy things together.
In the end, there are a lot of reasons to recommend Sonic Heroes and, more specifically, the GameCube version. Load times here are a dream, lasting no more than a few seconds at even the worst of times. A game save also takes precious little space on your memory card, especially considering that this is one of the largest platformer titles in existence. If it weren't for the sense of redundancy that comes from the too-large environments (and from playing through many of them multiple times as the different teams), this title would have been just about perfect. In the end, Sonic Heroes certainly isn't perfect. However, it's a great step in the right direction and I can't help but think that if Sonic Team keeps up with the improvements, Sonic may make it back to the spotlight after all.
Staff review by Jason Venter (January 10, 2004)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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