Shadow the Hedgehog
I think it is fair to say that in the war that will never end, the one between Mario and Sonic, one is clearly lagging behind the other. Since the 3D transition Mario, despite occasional complaints about Super Mario Sunshine, has flourished while most of Sega’s Sonic efforts have not been worth spitting on, to put it bluntly. I admit I’m biased (who isn’t?) in this area since I’ve always been a massive Mario fan and not a Sonic one, but I liked the 2D iterations on the Mega Drive and have always appreciated the fast-paced pinball aspects of the series. This is a little different, however, as for the first time in our next-gen age Sega has given the starring role to no-one’s favourite supporting character Shadow.
Yeah, in this shot Shadow’s chasing an airship on the back of, um, another flying thing.
Spin-offs are not a phenomenon unfamiliar to the Sonic universe, but Sega’s never been very successful with them. Would you rather play Mario Kart or Sonic R? Super Smash Bros. or Sonic Fighters? Sonic Shuffle or Mario Party 47? How many people have even heard of Sonic Shuffle? Still, this appears to be the most publicised and hyped spin off of them all, basically Sonic with shoehorned in ‘grittiness’. It’s a shame that Sega haven’t taken the time to try and do something totally different with the character as no-one wanted a sub-par Sonic game crawling at the heels of Grand Theft Auto.
Shadow is disturbed; he’s a very dark character with a ‘mysterious past’ that seems cribbed from X-Men’s Wolverine. This game attempts to capitalise on this with an idea that, on paper, is quite novel. As you blast through the Sonic-esque (but darker!) levels you can choose to be good (kill only the evil aliens), bad (follow the evil voice and kill only the good soldier characters) or neutral (kill both or neither and get to the end as soon as possible). Different choices will take you on different paths through the game and only by playing all three ways will you see all the levels.
Um, more flying action, I guess.
The aliens in question are called ‘Black Arms’ and just happen to be terrorising the planet. The leader of this outfit, Black Doom, says that he knows Shadow and will restore his memory (thus revealing the ‘mysterious past’) if the angst-ridden hedhgehog collects the seven powerful chaos emeralds for him. Sonic, Knuckles and some more demonstrations of Sonic Team’s hideous new designs (a little furry boy/girl that looks like a bee or something), also turn up as representations of the ‘good’ side to follow and trail Shadow throughout the whole thing squealing at you.
It’s an interesting ‘moral system’ that appears to be easily managed by changing objectives at the tap of a button. However, in practice Shadow the Hedgehog is perhaps the clumsiest game with production values this high that I’ve ever played. Getting through is a chore thanks to awful controls and convoluted tasks. When one character vaguely asks if you’ll collect various items around the level for them, I didn’t realise that I couldn’t complete the level without doing this (the other levels didn’t have any similar collection tasks) and so upon reaching the end, had to backtrack for ages to find this obscurely hidden stuff. This is a bit more easily managed thanks to the warp pad system that has been implemented but it’s still a huge time-waster.
Thanks to distractions like this the moral system becomes irrelevant. Who can be bothered to go through levels shooting only the good guys or bad guys when every single character is shooting at you anyway? I guarantee almost every player will pick the neutral route since the entire experience is so frustrating, and that is a shame because some of the old Sonic rollercoaster-style thrills are here and the level design is occasionally excellent. It is much, much too easy, however, to die and as a result you begin to lose interest and become careless and die even more. It’s not a particularly difficult game, but twitchy controls, thin ledges, over-busy visual design and a slow camera will mean constant, mind-numbing death.
Nasty things and a gun, can you see what you have to do?
Apart from being generally infuriating, this also kills the pace of the game, it’s tough to get going at full speed and stay there for ten seconds without plummeting off the edge. Since pace and level design were the clear victories of the best Sonic games, eliminating one of them is a sore blow to the franchise and stripped of its most vital asset the gameplay seems shallow and murderously repetitive. There are lots of keys to collect, secret doors to unlock and various other secrets and collectables but when the process of procuring them is no fun then it’s just redundant. There’s a lot of good ideas here really but even compared to much more mundane platformers like Scooby Doo there’s very little enjoyment to be had.
Another big mistake is the game’s insistence on being the latest in a long line of titles trying to sap the life from the Grand Theft Auto franchise. Here in the UK, the game is rated as a ‘12’, which is a Sonic first. This boils down to random weapons being left around, with most dead enemies dispatching them, which Shadow is able to pick up and kill people with. There’s actually a surprisingly wide variety from laser pistols to machine guns to big metal clubs and while they are fun to use they are totally unnecessary and just another element in the death of the game’s pace. Some weapons take ages to load and fire a shot, but since hardly any of the enemies are that powerful, what’s the point? It comes down, as usual, to a case of finding the weapon that crops up most often (therefore providing most ammo) and just blasting through with that. But even then it’s only really an issue to those who wish to take down either good or bad characters to get the level variety since enemies can easily be ignored or just killed with Shadow’s jump attack (which, in turn, will result in flying off the screen, rather than to the enemy, and dying about five times out of ten).
Oooh la-la, who’s that?
The most laughable and useless feature ransacked from GTA is the ability to ‘steal’ and drive vehicles lying around the harshly linear stages. But none of them can even match Shadow’s running speed and very few of them actually do anything in particular so it is never (and I mean NEVER) advantageous to touch any of these vehicles. The pointlessness of it boggles the mind! The more adult skewing of the Sonic universe is also forced through more aggressive dialogue and the same awful faux-rock music that the series has assaulted players with since it moved to Dreamcast. Does anyone like it at all?
Otherwise, presentation is mostly first rate. The game starts with a gorgeously rendered cut scene that really makes the most of Sonic Team’s designs and the graphics are impressive throughout. Although the levels occasionally suffer from so much happening within them that it can be visually confusing, this constant chaos is remarkably atmospheric, seeming almost like a Hollywood film with its enveloping explosions, fleets of army helicopters and vast cityscape skylines. The level designs are extraordinarily varied and detailed with distinct landmarks and cleverly patterned platforming sections that make it easy to find the right place (usually) when backtracking. The character designs are as insipid and uninspired as the plot but the animation is smooth and the framerate rarely stutters. Sound is the only real down point, with cheesy, annoying voice acting and mind bendingly awful dialogue begging you to turn it all down.
*Sniff, sniff* Say, can you smell something burning?
In theory the game has a lot of replay value and playing through the game normally once will only let you see seven of the levels on offer (about a third). Inevitably though, by the end seven levels feels like more than enough. It seems unlikely that many people aside from Sonic fanatics will actually enjoy the game, despite its considerable superficial pleasures and alluring half-baked ideas. From its stripping down of the series’ most successful gameplay elements to its obviously desperate addition of weapons and ‘street’ cool this is still a product of a development studio with a good imagination. But also, it seems, a lazy one only too happy to jump on the same GTA bandwagon that’s currently carrying way too many developers.
Four out of ten