Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 (Yes, the fourth Sonic The Hedgehog game, at last. There have been no others. Ever.) comes at a strange and somewhat appropriate time in games history. In the past couple of years, there’s been a strong nineties resurgence with titles like Street Fighter 4, Megaman 9 and 10, New Super Mario Bros, and the upcoming Mortal Kombat game, all hearkening back to their early-90s ancestry. Sonic The Hedgehog continues this trend with Sonic 4, and not a moment too soon. It’s no secret that the Sonic franchise has been in the gutter for the past decade or so, with the amount of time and the number of games featuring Sonic that have been panned now outnumbering the hallowed classics. Sonic 4 stands as what could be the last chance for the franchise to earn back some respect among the video game populace, and have a breath of fresh air amongst all the waste the brand has been excreting, but is it enough? Does it live up to its golden (Or should I say royal blue) forefathers?
The story of Sonic games since the late 90s has been a bit of a laughing point for any self respecting human being over the age of 13. The games have slowly taken on more and more ridiculously self serious tones, culminating in 2006’s Sonic The Hedgehog, in which Sonic died. Not permanently, mind you, but the fact remains that Sonic fucking dies. Sonic 4, thankfully, does away with any trace of a plot past the mid 90s and graces us with a very simple narrative: Eggman (hereby referred to as Robotnik, because I am a giant retrofag.) is up to no good. Make him cut it out. The game itself doesn’t even really touch on the story, and sends you right in to the first zone when you pick ‘start’. Just the way I like it.
From the get-go, the fact that this is an attempt to hearken back to the days of 16 bit, 2-D sidescrollers is immediately apparent. You’re treated to an old school level title card, some midi-sounding music (None of which is very memorable, I have to add, as a side-note), and a landscape very reminiscent of Sonic 1’s Green Hill Zone. Including that motobug, right there. And those piranha things… And that spring… Wait a second, you might think, feeling utterly duped; This is Green Hill Zone.
Well, yes and no. See, that’s kind of Sonic 4: Episode 1’s shtick. The story that wasn’t touched on earlier? It’s basically “Robotnik is recycling his old creations, ’cause he’s out of ideas”, and it echoes in the zones. Every single one of them, save for the final zone, is extremely reminiscent of an earlier, 16 bit counterpart. Namely; Green Hill Zone and Labyrinth Zone from Sonic 1, and Casino Night Zone and Metropolis Zone from Sonic 2. That’s not to say these levels are carbon copies. Though the level art evokes the feeling of “What you remember this level looking like”, there are new elements to the re-imagined 3D art, and new gimmicks in the zones themselves. That said, there are also some old gimmicks, so all and all these end up feeling more or less like remixed locations that you’ve already tread if you’ve played either of the first two games of the series.
The level design itself isn’t bad, especially in comparison to other recent entries in the series, offering the branching paths and speedy venues that made the original Sonics so fun to explore and tool around in, whether you like to see how blisteringly fast you can make it through each stage, or poke around at a more methodical pace to see what secret items and areas you can find. The most offensive lapse in good level design is a liberal smattering of chains of enemies to homing attack in order to reach the upper-most areas of a level. These are almost never necessary to actually traverse a stage, but it would be nice to be able to reach these higher paths without spending most of your time airborne, pressing Jump.
On that note, (rough segue!) the physics in Sonic 4 all-together feel a little ‘off’. Now, I’m not gonna go in to anal-retentive recitals of algorithms and slope angles like some of the more obsessive Sonic fans out there, but it doesn’t take a hardcore fan to notice things feel a little floaty. Sonic’s movement lacks any sort of momentum or weight, to the point where often times it is possible to stop on a dime by jumping, which seems to completely cancel out any existing movement if you’re not holding a direction down. While this can be a live saver on particularly perilous platforming parts (Quadruple alliteration. I’m quite proud.), it feels clunky everywhere else. When you’re in the air, or moving at high speeds, the game flows quite well, but the problem is that spending half your time with your feet off solid ground, chaining homing attacks just isn’t fun after a while.
Despite some rough areas that could use a loving touch and some polish to bring out what I feel could truly be a good game beneath its flaws, Sonic 4 still manages to exude some of the charm present in its predecessors, due in no small part to Sonic’s reduction to a small character that communicated entirely with motion and doesn’t spout forced one liners and “YEAH. WAHOO” every three and a half seconds. It’s also nice to see the good Doctor as a main antagonist again, instead of a catalyst for a bigger, likely supernatural baddy to come and take the spotlight, as has been the formula for the last ten or so years. The nostalgia comes at a cost, though, ending up making S4E1 feel more like Sonic 1&2: Homing Attack Edition than anything else at times.
Outside of the linear story progression, there is time attack mode that can be accessed at any time after the first stage that acts as a fun distraction for anyone wanting to test their twitch reflexes in speed runs of Sonic 4’s levels. It’s not exactly a game maker or breaker, but it’s a plus.
All in all, Sonic 4 isn’t the glorious return to form some people were hoping for, no. It’s not anything particularly revolutionary, either. The game is, in short, average. If you’re a long time Sonic fan, you’ll eat it up. If you’re not, you probably won’t find anything to convert you in this game. It won’t break your heart, but it won’t make you fall in love again, either. There is an ending teasing Episode 2 if you get all the Chaos Emeralds that leaves me personally excited for the next chapter, though, and hopefully with that next chapter will come some changes to make the game more accessible. Until then, it’s not a terrible product by any stretch… but it’s just not quite enough to restore any permanent faith in the series.
Over the last ten or so years, there have actually been several Mixed Martial Arts video games, mostly focused on the lucrative UFC promotion. In 2009, this sub-genre was revolutionized and truly brought to the mainstream in a way that parallels the sports recent rise in popularity with UFC 2009: Undisputed. Undisputed presented the sport with a brutal realism that was far removed from button combos and special moves that developers tried to shoehorn into its predecessors. It was impressive, but it lacked some key elements in the cage. UFC Undisputed 2010 fixed many of these issues, and it was hard to imagine how it could be vastly improved upon at that point.
A little known fact is that Dana White and the UFC went to EA long before THQ and Yukes to make a UFC game. EA dismissed MMA as ‘not a real sport’ and continued to make another Madden. However, the success of Undisputed caught EA’s eye, and deals with the lesser promotion Strikeforce were made immediately, to the complete spite of Dana White, who went so far as to declare any UFC fighters that appear in EA’s MMA game to be fired from the UFC (Of course, this seems to not count for Randy Couture, though this seems to have been allowed because Randy had not signed his likeness over to THQ for undisputed).
And so comes EA MMA, a competitor that I think is needed if MMA video games are going to continue to improve, as I believe competition is the key to improvement. I’ll be transparent here; I’m a UFC fan. I see Strikeforce as a generally lesser promotion with lesser talent and more WWE-style production values. I expected very little out of EA MMA, and that was foolish of me. UFC Needs to step its game up for 2011, because EA is bringing its usual dominance to the proverbial cage.
The Demo for EA MMA just recently came out on XBLA (Yes, you can go play it. Right now!), and I of course had to give it a spin. I want to first note that I like UFC’s soundtrack better. The opening movie for EA being set to Linkin Park’s new song ‘Wretches and Kings’ was a little eye roll worthy, but that’s a very petty complaint. Let’s move, instead, into the important factors: The game’s performance.
EA MMA takes a lot of cues from undisputed, presentation-wise, but veers off in some very significant ways on its own. The biggest difference is of course EA’s ‘Total Striking Control’, which takes more than a small bit of influence from EA’s other hit fighting franchise, Fight Night. It’s the same sort of set up, with the right analog stick controlling your furious fists. However, since this is in fact not boxing, the left trigger serves as a modifier to turn those punches in to kicks controlled via the same fashion. The face buttons serve as one press short cuts to clinch, sprawl, and go for the takedown, while pressing A works to advance your position on the ground, X goes for a submission (Which we’ll get to), and B counters a move or stands you up if you’re in the dominant position. This greatly decreases the complicated nature of the ground game, which is a frustration for many in Undisputed.
However, there is also a control scheme called ‘Classic’ that mirrors Undisputed in an obvious way, with the same sort of striking face buttons and stick-based clinch and grapple. There are a few button variations (A fake-modifier button, which is much more useful against a human opponent who can actually get psyched out), but overall it might be the best choice if you plan to play both EA and UFC.
Submissions are the only thing that, no matter what, are a whole different beast. Instead of the irritating Mario Party submissions like in Undisputed, EA separates its submissions and their mechanics into joint and choke submissions. Joint submissions (Armbar, Kimura, Americana, etc) are a button pressing game in which you try to maintain your stamina while slowly pushing your opponent’s joints (represented in a very cool way by an X Ray view of the bones) to their limit. This isn’t button mashing, though, it requires much more careful timing. Choke submissions require you to rotate the left stick until you find the ‘sweet spot’, which will change periodically and requires a sort of constant twiddling to nail. Your vision tunnels in the closer you get to the choke, narrowing the sweet spot down and simulating actually passing out. Defending submissions works in the same manner.
Fighting in EA MMA feels good. I’ve always found Undisputed to feel a bit mechanical, movement wise, with sounds that don’t quite drive home the impact of every good punch. EA feels organic, and gives you a gratifying smack for every well landed hit. Knockouts are a flurry of punches that never cease to satisfy, and when you clinch, it really feels like these guys are throwing eachother around on your TV. When it comes down to it, I would be happy to sit back and watch people duke it out on EA MMA, while I always found spectating Undisputed matches to be a little boring and methodical. Point: EA.
This isn’t to say EA is absolutely the superior game. UFC seems to present more variable options, and the fights are a bit more spontaneous. EA has a visible torso and head health bar when you begin to really wail on a guy that lets you know when the knockout is coming, and while that’s very helpful for knowing when to back off and play defensive, it also takes a bit of the excitement out of the flash knock out. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a flash KO yet, as every KO becomes your opponent falling to the ground and you engaging in a mad button mashing sequence to finish him off as he tried desperately to defend. That said, you can turn the HUD completely off, but it doesn’t make flash KOs exist in the game.
Take all of this with a pillar of salt, seeing as this is only a demo. The full version of EA MMA will include EA Game Face in the create-a-fighter, which may or may not have terrible results, live broadcasts of fights in a real worldwide ranking, and many more features that I couldn’t explore in the demo. It’s shaping up to be a great game, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dana White making some calls if it does well. Look for a full review when the game comes out later this month.
So, despite the fact that this blog has been more or less inactive for the last two years, I’m still averaging 65 hits a day. Why do you guys do it? I’m not quite sure. That said, it makes a good case for me to get back on the horse and keep doing my thing. In fact, I’m better equipped now to do my thing more than I ever was, thanks to a recent acquisition. That’s right, I finally have a 360. I can, you know, play games.
Laptop still sucks, though. The more things change, huh?
So, what better way to get back on the saddle than to talk about the latest thing to punch the gaming world straight in the damn face: Halo Reach (Cue inspiring chorus chanting).
Guess what, guys? It’s Halo! My god, is it Halo! This is not a bad thing by any means, though. In fact, I would say Reach (Which I firmly believe Bungie would have simply titled this game were there not a need for brand recognition) is more Halo than any Halo since Halo:CE has been. Dual wielding? Scrap it. Playing as elites in normal multiplayer? Gone, for the most part. Convoluted storylines and somehow discovering ANOTHER Halo? Forget it, we’re not about that. No, this is Halo like you haven’t experienced since some ten years ago, and it is delicious.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. Before I talk about what you’re all really here for, I want to give credit where credit is due: Halo Reach has an outstanding single player campaign that completely outshines anything that the last four Halo related titles (2, 3, ODST, and Wars) have thrown at us. You’re Noble Six, the newest member in an elite team of Spartans, which is saying something, since even the lowest Spartan is an elite in the overall military. You’ve been stationed on Reach, where you’re told straight from the get go that “You picked a hell of a day to join up”.
And so you did. What starts as a routine mission that is presumed to just be some anti-rebellion crowd control turns in to a battle for the very fate of the military fortress world of Reach; which, if you haven’t kept up on your Halo lore, is the last stronghold between the alien forces of The Covenant, and our home world of Earth. Spoilers, Reach falls. You will lose. This is something that, again, you already know if you’re on the up and up on your Halo mythology. What’s intriguing about the plot of this game is not the fact that Reach falls, it’s how you and the rest of Noble Team tie in to the events that occur, and how the perspective paints the climactic Fall of Reach.
One of the best early moments of the campaign
On the note of Noble Team, that’s part of what’s really incredible about this game’s story. In past Halos, you were the Master Chief, but you never really cared about the Master Chief as a character, or anyone else for that matter; at least not beyond a passing way. In Reach, you truly find yourself caring about the fate of your five fellow Noble units, as well as the fate of your Noble Six. I say your Noble Six because, unlike Master Chief, you truly define Noble Six. His or Her gender, armor type, color, and emblem all carry over from your Multiplayer spartan, contributing to a true sense of personal connection with the soldier whose eyes you see the events of the campaign unfold from. Ultimately, the story is satisfying, albeit a bit depressing. The depression is quickly lifted, though, when you remember that the game’s climax takes place mere weeks before the opening of Halo: Combat Evolved, and the smack down that the Master Chief is about to unleash unto the Covenant hordes on the titular Halo.
If I had any complaints, it would be that in the back half of the game, things do start to become a little drag-y. There’s a point where you’ll really want to start just running through anything in your way to get to the next story point, though I’m not sure if that speaks to how compelling the story is, or how monotonous the fight formula eventually gets. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that eventually Bungie just throws ridiculous amounts of dudes at you. Either way, it’s a bit of a slog, but well worth it in the end. Speaking of having dudes thrown at you…
I’ll make no bones about it: This is not an easy game. Bungie has ramped up the difficulty significantly since the three core Halos. Normal was kicking my ass in the back half, and I’m no slouch at shooters. Heroic is a true test of mettle (and described directly as “The way Halo is meant to be played” in the difficulty selection screen.), and Legendary is nothing short of a trial in the limits of patience. It says something about the difficulty level that the largest and hardest achievement in Reach is for completing Legendary in a solo game. Anyone who does this has both my applause, and my eternal doubt as to their sanity. My recommendation? If you’re a veteran of the Halo series and you know your way around an assault rifle, go ahead and dive right in to Heroic, where even a single Elite is a worthy and frightening adversary. If you want to experience pre-mature hair-loss, go for Legendary.
Alright, so the single player is good. Half of you (if not more) couldn’t care less. Is it still the Halo you know and love online?
Yes. A resounding yes. For the most part, at least. There have been some changes to the formula, but I feel that they help more than hurt, for the most part. As I mentioned, dual wielding has been thankfully done away with, meaning every weapon feels a bit beefier than it has in recent iterations. Some weapons (such as the SMG) have been done away with all together. Most of us won’t miss them. For every weapon missing in action, however, there is a brand new toy waiting for your eager hands. I’ll leave you to discover those, if you haven’t already.
Taking the place of Halo 3’s deploy-able equipment are armor abilities. These come in the form of things like sprinting, jet packs, and the bubble shield, among other things, that you choose for your spartan in the initial load out (!!!) screen when you spawn in. Aside from sprinting, most of these abilities vary in usage by situation. The jet pack isn’t terribly useful in a map that doesn’t involve a lot of verticality, as it’s actually quite slow and leaves you a sitting duck for snipers, while the bubble shield has received an overhaul in the fact that your health now regenerates while you’re inside of it. Oh yeah, in case I’d forgotten to mention- health and health packs are back. Again, Halo hasn’t been this Halo since Halo.
Playlists and matchmaking have been robustly revamped as well. New variants like Headhunter and Invasion have been added to the repertoire of gametypes, while things like campaign and the ODST pioneered Firefight have become their own multiplayer playlist options, That’s right, you can now play the campaign with complete strangers, racial epithets included.
But wait, not necessarily! Another addition to the multiplayer component is the long needed addition of psyche profiles. This is basically a set of options to single out the type of player you are and want to play with, so you can find games with like minded individuals. Want to play some team slayer with guys that actually like to work as a team? Choose Team Player over Lone Wolf. Want to avoid ten year olds that have just discovered the word “Faggot”? Choose Polite over Trash Talkers, or hell, just choose Quiet over Chatty. So far, this system has worked well in keeping things pleasant for the people who don’t want to be subjected to the stereotypical “Halo crowd”, though fears have surfaced of this eventually being used as a trolling tool. It’s not hard to imagine someone choosing “Polite” and then calling everyone in the game a different racist term before you’ve even spawned in to the map. Hopefully there will be some solution for that eventuality, like a way to go “HEY THEY GUY IS A DICKBAG”. For the moment, all we have are Xbox Live player reviews, and hey, that seems to work alright.
Frankly, I could go on and on about what Reach has done right, eventually pumping out a 3000 word post (I’m already just short of half-way there!), but I think you get the picture. With an engaging single player, and robust multi player suite, Reach is good. Reach is really, really good. If you’ve written off Halo in the past few years because of lackluster performances in 2 and 3, or have just never really had a reason to give Bungie’s mega-franchise a spin, I highly recommend you give this game a shot. It’s an homage to the Halo Franchise, a worthy farewell to the series from Bungie, and a massive loveletter to the fans all wrapped into one, incredible package.
Fuck it, just go buy it already.
4.5/5 (I know people are gonna bitch, so I’ll spell it out here: That last third or so of the campaign did nearly have me quitting. The pacing is really not so good, even if the story remains incredible. Some of the battles really feel like they’re just padding out time. It could have been a much more streamlined sequence of events. For this, I dock a half point. That’s a 90 out of 100, if you want to do the math. It’s not a bad score. It would be enough to pass a college class.)
So that’s Halo Reach in a very large nut shell, and I didn’t even touch on things like Forge and the additions and improvements to Firefight and Theater mode. Maybe I’ll do that in a future post, but I felt this review was running a little too long. So look for Halo Reach: The Review: The Addendum in the next few days, I guess? As well as some screenshots and maybe video of a map I’ve created in Forge, just to drive the point home, and also because I’m a humongous show off.
Also coming soon: My thoughts on Ninja Theory’s Creative Director May Self Insert And Make Us Cry (DMC), and why Hideki Kamiya needs to stop breaking our hearts with hints of Megaman Legends 3. Basically, TGS 2010 in retrospect.
Till then, catchy sign out phrase.