There's some good stuff, and some bad in Sonic's newest adventure. First impressions inside.
Sonic and the Secret Rings is not the full facelift of the 3-D Sonic franchise that critics and audiences have asked for since Sonic Adventure 2. Sonic Team has instead developed a game that takes the best bits from the recent Sonic games, namely their speed and on-rails gameplay, while removing the worst, like the extra playable characters and dull adventuring quests. Sonic and the Secret Rings finds its home in speed - Sonic moves forward without your help while you steer a la Excite Truck.
The controls aren't perfect thus far. Perhaps more playtime will enhance the scheme, as only certain parts are broken. Steering, for instance, is great. Jumping, though a bit awkward, serves its purpose. What is most frustrating is the method of attack. First you must jump, then shake the Wii Remote forward to home in and attack. This is cumbersome, especially when you are moving forward at high speeds: very often you will jump right over the enemy you are intending to attack. This also adds to unnecessary deaths when the homing is required to cross chasms. Overall, though, the controls allow you to experience Sonic's speed without relinquishing playability as past Sonic games have.
After a three hour sit down with Sonic, it is evident that there are two types of complexity in his new game: one of these types is welcome and the other is not. The welcome type is that of a full world with branching paths, many enemies, items, and secrets that will keep you replaying levels for high scores and best times. Sometimes Sonic jumps on a log for a river ride, other times he's being chased by dinosaurs, other times he's sneaking past them, and all in the same level. This reassures those who may have thought that the on-rails premise of Sonic and the Secret Rings would be oversimplified. The type of complexity, though, that is not so welcome is that of the skills Sonic can gain; they are attained via experience points, which are themselves gained through mysterious means. Sonic can upgrade his attacks, add boosts, special moves, even speed up at critical moments. All of these extras don't seem to add to the basic on-rails gameplay, though with only a few hours of play, this reviewer may not have seen the best of them yet. Also complicated is the level configuration - depending on your best times and scores, different stages are unlocked. By the time you unlock the third level, you'll still be unlocking stages in the first level, ad infinitum. What would be really nice, especially after the branching path nightmare that was Shadow the Hedgehog, is a simple linear progression through a platforming game that does not involve experience, skills, or backtracking.
Graphically the game is impressive with large levels and many different environmental features within each level. The speed of the game so far is fast with no frame drops, and the animation on the various creatures is solid. Graphically, Sonic and the Secret Rings may be the best third party game on Wii yet.
The sound, though, is terrible. Anyone who's played any recent Sonic game knows about the generic angst-rock with bad lyrics, as well as the terrible voice acting during the otherwise beautiful cinema scenes. Turning down the sound and turning up a favorite album is advised.
So far Secret Rings is more faithful to Sonic than every Sonic game post-Sonic Adventure. If it sticks, Secret Rings could be the best Sonic game in 3-D. Look for our full review this weekend.