Slight improvements don't change Sonic's bad luck in 3-D.
Sonic and the Secret Rings is miles ahead of the crew of hedgehog miscarriages that Sonic Team and Sega have turned out over the past several years, but this is unfortunately not enough to save the game from falling into some of the same traps as its older brothers. While the basic game design seems to be revolutionary for Sonic, the game itself makes no apprehensions about existing in the same realm as Shadow the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog for Xbox 360 and PS3, and Sonic Adventure 2. Like those games, Secret Rings revels in gameplay features that bastardize Sonic and have nothing to do with the core concept of his original 16-bit games. I'm really surprised that Sega was able to screw this up.
Secret Rings main innovation is quite welcome: no longer do we have open, 3-D levels that Sonic must roam about, but rather there are linear levels that Sonic progresses through on a track. Sonic moves forward automatically while the player moves him left and right by tilting the Wii Remote, similar to Excite Truck. Players can also make Sonic jump, stop, and move backwards. While jumping, the player can thrust the Wii Remote forward to perform a homing attack on a nearby enemy. There is no camera control.
The control system isn't awful, although it is quirky. Moving left and right with the Wii Remote is a fine feature, and I hope Sonic Team uses it again. Jumping is a different matter: holding down the jump button causes Sonic to grind, and only upon releasing does he jump, causing a delay. Even a quick tap of the jump button has a delayed reaction, and jumping overall slows Sonic down. Also, homing attacks can only be performed after jumping, and you must “lock on" to an enemy to perform them. There are two problems here: one, it takes too long to jump. Two, you must be in the air for a certain amount of time before you actually “lock on." If you are running at full speed towards a gap and see an enemy at the last minute, you are likely to jump, performing your homing attack without locking on, and fall to your death. This means that whenever something unexpected shows up in the levels, you will die. There's never enough time to dodge, jump, or attack. Sonic Team wanted the game to be fast paced, but why did they make Sonic's attacks so slow?
Where Secret Rings really falls apart is in level design. Replicating the main mistake of Shadow the Hedgehog, Sonic Team has put too many obstacles in the way of Sonic as he attempts to zoom through a level at high speed. These obstacles range from simple obstructions to groups of enemies that must be defeated or puzzles that must be solved. One area has you transporting dinosaur eggs to their appropriate nests, but since there are many branched paths, you have to loop around the level just finding the darn eggs before you can go on a hunt for the nests. The on-rails concept just doesn't fit the exploration necessary in this level. Other times, the levels will have long side scrolling portions where you must inch yourself left and right to avoid spikes and jump over barricades. It is awkward when Sonic stops in one of these areas so you can have complete control over his movement, then once he is past a specific obstacle will begin running automatically again. It is also awkward in general to have 3-D movement controls intact while playing from a 2-D perspective. It must be said that the level design does not reach Shadow the Hedgehog's heinous heights. Some of these levels are inadvertently fun, but they're few and far between.
One early level puts Sonic in front of a pack of raging Triceratops, and he must hit as many of the familiar “speed pads" as he can to avoid them. The problem is that Sonic Team has attempted to create a cinematic dinosaur chase that is shown from many different angles but, for simple gameplay purposes, I need to see where I'm going. The camera is often looking in the wrong direction, or at an awkward angle that confuses your left/right movement. It is also hard to actually hit the pads, and if you miss a few of them, the Triceratops will trample you. It also just so happens that in this level gaining rings is your top priority. It's a really sadistic level that you may have to play many times before completing.
The game is lacking linearity where it could use some – since you're unlocking everything out of order, often you have to go back to the early stages to play a mission you missed before you can progress. There is also an experience point system that is entirely out of place. As you level up, Sonic will gain new “abilities" which range from useless to absolutely necessary: “Improve steering control," or “Accelerate faster." The game is nearly unplayable at first until you gain these key abilities, making the controls go from awful to adequate. Some of the skills become necessary, like the ability to slow time down or speed it up, but it's never clear when to use these until too late. The organization of these skills (which must be equipped prior to starting a level) in the menu is confusing and annoying… actually, so is every part of the menus. You'll be seeing the menus a lot because every time you complete a single level (some of them in less than 45 seconds) you'll be sent back to select a new one.
No surprise again, Sonic Team has thrown in an overlong and ridiculous “plot" that attempts to motivate Sonic's adventures inside of the book “Arabian Nights." The voice acting is terrible, although the hand-drawn images are rather beautiful. Likewise, the game's graphics are perhaps the best on Wii, outside of Zelda. The levels look clean and polished, much unlike the stop-and-go gameplay mechanic. In terms of music, Sonic is once again billed as a “rough dude," which is why we hear angst-rock most of the time. Some of the level tunes break this mold and are catchy, in a Sonic way, almost making you think you could be playing an old Sonic game.
Secret Rings throws in a multiplayer party game extra that is amusing if you have people over. It attempts to emulate Mario Party with a game board interface, but the only part that's actually worthwhile are the mini-games themselves. Like most first generation Wii developers, Sonic Team was able to think up some fun and stupid mini-games that make the Wii Remote seem really cool. One of the best ones I encountered has you pretending to play a violin with the Wii Remote, and there are others similarly inventive. The party game element isn't too complicated, which means it will get old fairly quickly except for the occasional replay of an awesome mini-game.
Overall, Secret Rings isn't a new low, just a new disappointment. It seemed like, maybe, we would finally get a Sonic game that achieved its goals, namely speed and fun. Sonic Team needs to take the on-rails concept and thoroughly rework their previous notions about level design, and then perhaps we can get the 3-D Sonic game we've always wanted.