Friday, November 26, 2010

Sonic Colors Review

Cut me in half and call me a munchkin because ding dog the cycle is dead. For those who don't know, the Sonic Cycle has become an almost certainty in gaming. Here is a link for those who are unaware of what it is . Every game since Adventure has been like that.

Now, let me preface my review with an opinion of the Sonic franchise. Each console Sonic game since Sonic 3 and Knuckles has been a disappointment. I thought Sonic Adventure was alright at best. When it came out I thought "Wow, that's Sonic's first 3D title, pretty good first try, I'm sure the following games will be even better." Needless to say, they weren't and I stopped playing Sonic games after Adventure 2. Other games kept trying to be better at 3D to the point where it doesn't even seem like an innovation, but Sega kept trying to rehash their initial mediocrity by adding more insufferable characters, insufferable hub worlds and insufferable gameplay. I find it irritating that many gamers praise Adventure as if it's the pinnacle of 3D sonic games. It's terrible by today's standards. I can't help but think that most opinions are altered because of nostalgia and the fact that it's Sonic. If Adventure featured the same gameplay but a different character, people wouldn't be praising it as much as they do. Then again, most Sonic fans are insufferable, so what can one expect? Look, when the pinnacle is mediocrity, then you aren't going to get anything truly outstanding.

The last great Sonic game was Sonic 3 and Knuckles. I know I sound like an "only retro games are good" moron, but hear me out. That game came out 16 years ago, and the experience, while dated, is not diluted. The controls, graphics, and camera won't surprise in the same way that they will in Sonic Adventure. Now, I try to take my nostalgia out of it as much as possible. There are things about Sonic 3 and Knuckles that aren't very good. The Chaos Emerald special stages were unbelievably annoying, and there were a few levels that were so tedious that they didn't feel in place with a Sonic game generally.

What I'm trying to get at here is that I am by no means a Sonic fanboy. I think that's important for anyone reading this review to realize. Sonic fanboys will praise anything Sonic related and as such their opinions are really hard to trust. I'm very reluctant to praise a Sonic game. I've done it three times in the past 10 years, and I've regretted it twice. Sonic and the Secret Rings was nowhere near as good as I initially thought, and neither was Unleashed. Sonic 4 is really good so far though.

So where does Sonic Colors Stand? Colors is certainly not superior to Sonic 3 and Knuckles, not by any stretch of the imagination. However, it is the best Sonic game released since then. Then again, that's not saying much, is it?

Sonic Colors was made in response to fan response of Sonic Unleashed. Sonic Unleashed had two types of gameplay, day levels and night levels. During the Night you played as a Werehog, and actually this part of the game was most like the 3D iterations of Sonic until that point, except with an added God of War element. What was new was the day levels. These were a reimagining of what a 3D Sonic experience could be. It's difficult to get in to the nitty gritty of what makes these sections such a departure from what the series had been doing. They essentially borrowed elements from the Burnout Racing series and put it in a Sonic game, namely drifting and boosting, while splicing in some of the tropes of the 2D title. There was a sense of speed and you could see the potential in the day levels.

Here are some examples of the Day Levels from Unleashed
The 360 and PS3 Day levels

The Wii Day levels

It was only marred by some control issues for the PS3 and the 360, and the Wii wound up being the better version of Sonic Unleashed. As long as you played with a Gamecube controller, because you had to waggle to boost and use homing attack. I'm sure some people enjoyed the waggle, but when a game demands a certain amount of precision, waggling just doesn't work.

Anyway, those day levels were a step in the right direction and were realized far better on the Wii. Sonic Colors takes another step in that direction on the Wii.

Here's a sample (not a speed run though)

This game allows for three types of controllers, the gamecube, the classic controller, and the Wiimote and Nunchuck. They refined the controls on the Wii to the point where the Wiimote and Nunchuck feel the most natural of the three. The button placement and the precision just feel correct. Thankfully, waggling is kept to a minimum, it is just used to activate wisps and that requires almost no precision. You move sonic with the analog stick (obviously), jump and use homing attack with the a button, boost with the b button, and slide and stomp the ground (while in the air) with the z button.

Likely you've heard conflicting stories about how Sonic handles; Gametrailers said the control was not precise, IGN said it was. I think that the differing opinions may be a result of using differing control methods. The worst review I read was from a reviewer who said "the game must be played with a Gamecube controller." Ultimately, I can't say for certain, but after playing through the first few levels with all three control types, I wound up just sticking with the Wiimote the rest of the way through. The button placement on the Gamecube controller is by far the worst. That isn't to say that there isn't a learning curve with the Wiimote. Definitely, one thing you'll have to become accustomed to is accounting for momentum. I fell off a ledge more than once because of that, but I never felt that it was poor design just my mistake. Also, the jumping is very... malleable. Which could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your perspective. All in all, the control experience felt on par with Super Mario Galaxy.

When it comes to level design, once again, you've probably heard conflicting stories.. To be honest, it's hit and miss. The level design is great insofar as Sonic games have always been about getting from point a to point b. To the developer's credit, there certainly are a lot of ways to do that. You can use wisps, or totally ignore them for the most part. There are sections where wisp use is mandatory, but thankfully, those are few and far between. However, these levels aren't without their pitfalls, both literally and figuratively. Every once in a while you'll run in to a "GOTCHA!" death. These moments are holdovers from the very first Sonic games and I really wish that Sega would stop using them. When you have a game that is all about momentum, and that momentum is broken by a "GOTCHA!" death, then it breaks up the flow of an otherwise great game.

The spikes in difficulty in this game come from the level design and inexperience. When you are inexperienced, and what comes next is a "gotcha!" death, the game can be pretty infuriating. Especially on the last couple of levels. The second to last level almost had me hurl my controller at something. Thankfully, the game encourages re-playability, and if you do replay those levels, they become loads easier thanks to your experience.

Protip for the second to last level: Do what this guy does for the level that starts at 0:43.

These difficulty spikes are few and far between, and harping on them is nitpicking at best. In point of fact, it isn't difficult by any stretch of the imagination though. I was able to get through it REALLY fast, and infact, that's my one complaint. I beat the game in about 4 hours. If you don't replay old stages, then the game is short. Which is how it should be as far as I'm concerned. Each stage was about 2 to 5 minutes, and when you do the math, 4 hours is actually quite a lot of content. Moreover the replayability is immense. I'm not done with this game, not by a longshot.

So how about the story? To be honest, I find any presence of a story in a Sonic game kind of insipid. The Sonic cartoon was alright, for a kid, but it's terrible in retrospect. Sonic 3 and Knuckles had kind of a story, but it was never a deal maker or breaker. Since Sonic Adventure, however, we just have to have some crappy psuedo anime story to go along with out Sonic games, don't we? The stories thus far aren't childish so much as just plain terrible. Thankfully, the story is more along the lines of the Saturday Morning Cartoon show insofar as it's simply childish instead of atrocious. The actors are surprisingly not annoying, though their lines will make you facepalm. Thankfully, there aren't many characters you'll have to keep track of. That's right, Sonic's cavalcade of annoying woodland characters has been cut down. It's just Sonic, Tails, Robotnik, and his Robots. There are the side characters of the wisps, but they don't actually have any intelligible dialogue, so they are tolerable. The story is pretty straight forward, servicable, and childish. Which fits since Sonic is supposed to be more about the game than the story, and the story should be aimed at children. As opposed to the grim dark BS of Shadow, which just comes off as pathetic or the melodramatic Sonic 06 story which was just... disturbing.

All in all, this is hands down the best Sonic console game since Sonic 3 and Knuckles. It's a Sonic game that doesn't require the caveat "if you're a die-hard fan, you'll like it." Even if you don't like Sonic, I highly recommend at least trying it out. Hopefully, Sega has learned its lesson. It's evident that they didn't rest on their laurels and rely on a rehash to make this game. Even between the Unleashed Day Levels and the Sonic Colors level there is still an enormous advancement in design. Here's hoping the Sonic cycle is truly and forever broken and that Sega will continue to refine this gameplay. If this keeps up, eventually Sonic will be a real rival to Mario once again.

Verdict: Buy it.

Donkey Kong Country Returns

Donkey Kong Country Returns is fantastic. I cannot say enough good things about it. As far as I am concerned it is the best Wii game of the year. I will be extremely surprised if anything out does it in the next couple of months.

What I love most about it is the fact that it’s the same quality as the original Donkey Kong Country but it has its own magic. Anyone who played the first Donkey Kong Country knows what I’m talking about, the aesthetic approach in terms of gameplay, graphics, and music just created this indescribably amazing atmosphere. Donkey Kong Country Returns does the same thing, but in a different way. That means that it doesn’t overshadow the original, it compliments it. It is what a sequel should be.

The graphics aren’t cutting edge in terms of polygon count or shaders, but it’s some of the best art in the industry. Retro is fast becoming Blizzard level quality when it comes to their art direction. I would rather look at what is going on in Donkey Kong Country Returns than what’s going on in Black Ops. (That’s assuming you can tell what’s going on in Black Ops.)

The controls are precise, but require some getting used to. You have the choice between Nun chuck and Wiimote or just the Wiimote. Strangely enough, the Nun-chuck and Wiimote is the best option even though it seems that it would feel kind of weird using an analog stick for a side-scroller. However, largely due to how the waggling works within the game, you’ll want to get used to using the nun chuck combo to save yourself some grief.

You see, shaking just the Wiimote is far more awkward than shaking the Wiimote and Nunchuck in tandem. Moreover, the nunchuck and wiimote work separately as waggle inputs, which means you can shake just the Wiimote, or just the nunchuck. Essentially you get two waggle inputs as opposed to one and those two inputs working together seem to cover each other quite well. I personally had trouble with the game registering my waggles when I used just the Wiimote. Oh, and it’s really nice to not constantly have to press a button to run. If you use just the Wiimote, you have to constantly press 1 to have DK run at full clip. With the analog stick you just push it all the way to the right.

On a quick side note about the controls; I read several reviews where reviewers said that a misfired barrel roll got them killed. THAT NEVER HAPPENED TO ME. I’m beginning to think that the people who review these games barely play them or are simply terrible gamers.

Which brings me to another point, the difficulty; it’s bad but not that bad. I got through the every level in the game (not including the bonus stuff after you beat the game) in a single evening without using the super guide.

Keep in mind, I couldn’t beat the second boss in Ninja Gaiden and constantly get destroyed in multiplayer games.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard. I lost track of how many lives I lost. I’m guessing it’s somewhere between 150 and 200. But the game handles death in such a way where you’re just like “OK, whatever.” You are always given a chance, and the deaths almost always feel like your fault. It’s almost never annoying. And the feeling of beating a level you didn’t think you could beat is better than sex. I remember at one point I just kept dying, and I just started laughing gleefully because I knew I would get through it. I knew the feeling of satisfaction that was coming. It’s difficulty done right.

The super guide exists to help people who aren’t really in to games, or children. If you consider yourself a gamer and you use the Super Guide, then you should be ashamed.

Though, I will say, you’ll dread seeing the damn rocket barrel. The rocket barrel levels are the new mine cart levels. They are easily the most difficult level type to deal with. But even those levels are designed well.

Hell, all of the level design is goddamn brilliant. The first hour or so of gameplay is fairly underwhelming, and at first it feels like just a rehash of Donkey Kong Country, but then Retro studios goes off in its own direction and there are just some jaw dropping moments of amazingness.

Takes this little gem for example

Or this one

Oh, and just look at this

It’s pretty much all amazing.

Even the damn rocket barrel levels are impressive if annoying.

The enemy design is a mixed bag. While I don’t like seeing the Kremlings gone, the tikis have their own presence. They feel like something Rare would have created, but didn’t and they don’t feel out of place. In terms of gameplay, I liked that some required more than a simple bop on the head to kill. However, the animal enemy designs left a little to be desired, aside from the turkey on stilts and the little blue critter things the animal enemies just felt anemic. I missed the vultures and wasps of the Donkey Kong Country games.

What I don’t miss are the Donkey Kong Country Bosses. The Donkey Kong Country Returns bosses are simply better. Well, K. Rool was actually a better final boss, but for the most part, Donkey Kong Country Returns has better bosses.

For the sake of comparison

1st Boss in Donkey Kong Country

1st Boss in Donkey Kong Country Returns

It’s essentially the same strategy. Avoid boss going left to right, but DKCR just does it so much better.

Finally, the music. It lives up to the pedigree, but there is a retro twist to it. All of the tunes are remixed from the original DKC. Sorry, no DKC2 music. Atleast, none that I heard. I swear I heard some Metroid Prime stuff in there. This track especially sounds Metroid Prime influenced, AND it’s been stuck in my head ever since I first heard it.

This may sound extremely cliché, but it’s so true: If you own a Wii, you owe it to yourself to get this game. Retrostudios has cemented itself as this generation’s Rare.

Verdict: Buy it.