Sonic's first new GameCube game is ironically his weakest.
The Sonic Adventure series is a controversial one. The games were praised for keeping traditional level design alive during last generation’s onslaught of collect-a-thon platformers. However, Sonic Adventure 1 and 2’s unpredictable glitches and hit-and-miss gameplay turned many old-school Sonic fans off. After bringing both Dreamcast titles and the hedgehog’s 2-D classics to the GameCube, Sonic Team has released the successor to the Adventure series: Sonic Heroes. While Sonic Heroes presents a few new gameplay mechanics and impressive visuals, the multiplatform game suffers from the same technical problems as its predecessors—plus a few new ones!
The game’s basic premise remains the same as in most Sonic games: get through the levels as quickly and skillfully as possible. In an interesting twist, however, players now control teams of three characters. There are four teams: Team Sonic, Team Dark, Team Rose, and Team Chaotix. Borrowing from Sonic 3 & Knuckles and the Sonic Advance games in design, the game consists of all four playable teams progressing through similar levels and boss battles. The player controls one character at a time and can switch formations with the X and Y buttons. Computer-controlled teammates aid in attacks and often act as ammunition; they cannot be killed and re-spawn when separated from the leader.
Each team has a speed character (e.g. Sonic), a power character (e.g. Knuckles), and a flight character (e.g. Tails); all characters of the same type share similar moves. In 2-D Sonic games, the unique feel of each character provides vastly different experiences, and the lack of such variety among teams in Sonic Heroes comes as a huge disappointment. While the teams have their own versions of each level, only Team Chaotix’s scavenger-based missions come off as truly different from the rest. Renters can experience a comprehensive Sonic Heroes experience after only one or two teams’ stories.
Sonic Heroes’ biggest weaknesses are its combat system and related controls. While the three-formation system provides a refreshing choice in combat styles when facing a handful of opponents, the system quickly becomes disorienting in larger battles. Stunned teammates cannot lead, and the formation will not switch until all characters are on the ground, regardless of when you push X or Y. As a result, players will find themselves performing a flying formation attack after they think they’ve switched to power formation—often leading to damage or death. Context sensitive controls further complicate combat. For instance, as Sonic, pushing B near rings as triggers a light dash, which causes Sonic (and his teammates) follow a trail of rings to another location. The same button also triggers a homing tornado attack circling an enemy when pushed in midair, and a speed burst when on the ground. As a result, a player can easily dash off a cliff or attack an enemy instead of following a path of rings when he pushes B.
Boss battles are a huge disappointment: most require little strategy and ridiculous precision. Mashing the homing attack button 40 times to destroy one target while another attacks from behind is hardly fun. What’s more, larger enemies have a knack for hitting characters such that they either fall off a cliff or become entrapped in attacks for an instant kill. The team boss battles are mindless, chaotic shoving matches between two teams on a suspended platform. As if to demonstrate Sonic Team’s apathy towards boss battles, two of them are uncreative parades of standard enemies. Unacceptable!
The close combat also poisons many of Sonic Heroes’ later levels. In the Sonic Adventure games, levels were divided by gameplay styles; those who disliked one style could simply choose not to revisit those levels. Such is not the case in Sonic Heroes. Most stages feature a series of puzzle, platforming, and combat sections. The good levels focus on the former two gameplay styles and resemble Sonic Adventure 2’s action stages: players blaze through levels while destroying enemies and hitting switches to move forward. However, once stronger enemies rear their heads and block the player’s progress, the game slows to a crawl. Certain enemies are only vulnerable to power formation attacks. The problem is that the most useful power attacks have a recovery period in which the player cannot attack or switch formations, and stronger enemies tend to shield themselves. The result is a horrendous case of hurry-up-and-wait in a title that promises fast-paced action, making for longer levels that tend to drag.
No modern Sonic game would be complete without annoying voice acting. In the Sonic Adventure series, cut-scenes with disgraceful dialogue furthered the games’ plots. Thankfully, optional Japanese voices and scene-skipping brought the torture down to a tolerable level. Sonic Heroes has no such remedy. In what amounts to a cruel practical joke, this game’s haphazard plot is mostly revealed through discussion amongst the members of your team during gameplay. While the voice actors range from highly annoying to tolerable, the script is appalling. In fact, most of the game’s events have little to no explanation. Sonic games have never needed much of a story, but the weak conversations mostly consist of repetitive or obtuse commentary. Here are a just few of the brilliant statements heard within the game:
Cream: There are so many robots!
Big: Wow, you’re right!
Tails: Woah, my head’s spinning!
Cream: I feel like I've become one with the flower!
The characters also provide hints, triggered when the player touches hint icons or plays through the level. At first the vocal aids make for a useful tutorial, but they quickly outstay their welcome. In fact, the game reminds players of standard moves on Team Sonic’s final level! NO! The worst part? Sonic Heroes only includes English voice dubs and provides no way to mute them. The aural pollution is a damn shame, too, as gamers will be unable to appreciate the quality soundtrack if they choose to mute the sound.
Sonic Heroes attempts to enhance the Sonic gameplay with its team-based combat, but instead detracts from the fast-paced gameplay gamers expect. Fans will enjoy this game if they are willing to put up with chaotic combat, frustrating combat controls, and inexplicable deaths, while tuning out the barrage of obtuse character comments, but the other 98% of the gaming community should rent the game at most. Sonic Adventure 2: Battle remains the best 3D Sonic game available.