As a preface to this review, I will say that I am being particularly harsh in my criticisms of this game, because I feel no need to patronize this team or treat the game as “just a fangame,” mostly because of its enormous size, publicity, and history. I’m also sore because I get motion sickness from playing jerky 3D games and am being doing it for spite from all the physical pain it put me through. On to the review…Sonic Robo Blast 2 is a project that has been in development for over a decade and it shows. In the eyes of many fangamers, including this one, it’s in a class of its own. The volume of content and detail in this game is incredible. It is and it feels like a full game. However, it’s far from feeling like a complete game, as there are a large number of truly unfortunate glaring flaws with this game which keep me from really enjoying it.
For starters, the controls suffer from hyper-fluidity (something common in FPSes, but exacerbated by the fact that this is a high-speed platformer). Every time you press a button you feel like the fly in the windshield, effecting the momentum of the car you hit in imperceptibly low ways. There is no discreteness to the controls: no skidding, no sense of friction, or traction. The entire game’s a giant ice stage in space. Even jumping and rolling feels more like a nudge than a switch as you’re just shifting from one gliding motion to another.Though especially uncharacteristic when on the ground, this is particularly damaging when you’re in the air where it literally takes 5 seconds to alter direction when going at mid-speeds. In a platformer, this is unacceptable as it makes everything frustrating, even the otherwise wonderfully well-done belt gimmick in Arid Canyon Zone.The view is limited vertically and tied to movement horizontally, probably done for the sake of keeping the sprite-count low. This method can get a little frustrating when things are coming from above or you need a wide-angle view of what you’re jumping into. But this isn’t really so bad; at least you have substantial control of the camera contrary to some of the official 3D Sonic games.Though you can really tell the difference between the graphics made eons ago and the ones done recently (the ones done recently being much prettier), this game is graphically impressive. The antiquated Doom rendering engine will test your sensitivity to aliasing and lack of bump-mapping and other modern rending techniques, especially in the spacious level design that SRB2 has on display. But if you can get past that, there’s a lot to enjoy in the later levels. The character sprites are immaculate and the use of pixel art techniques in the level textures of Arid Canyon Zone and Egg Rock Zone make them absolutely gorgeous.Presentationally, the game has a unique and congruent style. This is such a rare thing in fangames and is so well-done in this game (though some of the old areas could use some going back to and retouching).As with the graphics, level design quality is somewhat varied from section to section (attributed to the gigantic time this game has been in development, no doubt), but on the whole are conceptually wonderful. The look, the feel, and the scale of the levels show a real creative eye for design. There is a wonderful amount of variety in the later levels and a nice flow to the layout. However, somewhere in the transition from conception to player, all the fun and design of the level get rounded off by unreasonable (and probably unintentional) difficulty.
This game is simply frustrating and shows a lack of sympathy for the new player. Common with way too many amateur or independent game projects, SRB2 suffers from a lack of leniency, adopting a “the best is just enough” difficulty balancing policy. The levels are in many ways designed to be played through as Sonic, but playing through as Sonic is at all times frustrating and at many times next to impossible due to a combination of the aforementioned loose controls and the aforementioned lack of leniency. Far too often the only way to make a jump is to reach the platform right at the top of your jump. In my opinion, this is a cardinal sin, even for platforms which are right next to you and most definitely should not be practiced regularly with variable-distance long-jumps.
There was one “what the hell was the designer thinking?” moment in particular: in Deep Sea Zone Act 1, the game sets out to recreate the old “logs slowly flowing down a waterfall” scenario, but the “logs” come out randomly and are spaced 3/4 Sonic’s max jump distance apart with no downward leniency (if you lose any vertical footing, you have no chance of making it). The degree in which the planets must align in order for you to make that jump as Sonic is indeed cosmic. I say it again: What the hell was the designer thinking!? The game tries to sell you off of playing as Sonic unless you know the game like the back of your hand, but I get the feeling that this is a bit of a cop-out reaction to the fact that no-one could complete their game as Sonic.
Playing as Tails or Knuckles, you blast past all the entire level, segments at a time, without ever experiencing them. Until you get to the Egg Rock zone, where you’ll hit a brick wall anyway, made all the more insulting by the fact that they start you off with 1 life when if you try to play it after losing all your lives. It forces you to play the whole game over again, scavenging for extra men. Please, a little sympathy. I like being challenged, but I don’t like being toyed with.
Another area where the level design suffers is in a lack of direction. I know the developers are reluctant to patronize the player by planting arrow signs everywhere, but there is a lack of distinguishing landmarks indicating the direction you should or should not be going, often resulting in you going in circles. The game gets better about that later in the game, though that’s more of a product of the increasingly distinct graphical design and less of a conscious effort to make sure the player knows where he should be going.
To use an extremely over-used cliche, SRB2 is the proverbial diamond-in-the-rough, complete with rough. As I have no experience modding (much less Doom modding), so I won’t speculate as to what’s an engine limitation and what’s an unfortunate design choice or programming flaw, but I think it’s safe to say two things about using the Doom engine: (1) SRB2 will never be a modern game using the Doom engine and (2) it is possible to polish a very good game out of what is there already without having to recreate it in a non-Doom environment (maybe not as good as it could be, but very good nonetheless). In many ways, this game reminds me of my experience with Sonic Heroes, whose catastrophic implementation flaws get in the way of its legitimately impressive content. And like Sonic Heroes, I’m sure if I spent days and days playing SRB2 I’d come to love it even through its flaws, but that doesn’t change the fact that these flaws simply shouldn’t be.
Kain is a veteran fangamer and senior member of SFGHQ.