When Sonic 4 was revealed in 2010, it quickly became a very controversial game. Fans reacted with emotions ranging from joyful glee to seething, undiluted hatred. Criticisms ranged from the physics, to the level design, to Sonic’s…eye color. By the time of the game’s release, the more serious complaints were proven to have validity, though in despite of this criticism Sonic 4 Episode 1 received the highest scores of any console Sonic game in years, even managing eights from many of the larger websites.
One of the great things about releasing a game episodically is that it allows for developers to take fan and press criticism into account mid development. Sonic 4 is easily one of the best examples of this: Episode 2 features a large variety of improvements over Episode 1.
The state of the physics was the biggest criticism in Episode 1, and they’ve received a good deal of attention for Episode 2. Sonic no longer stops dead in his tracks when the player stops pressing forward. Instead, Sonic maintains all of his momentum once he’s gained it, regardless of whether or not the player presses forward or not. Sonic is also no longer predisposed to uncurling, as listeners of the Sonic Talk podcast will know, which makes bouncing off of enemies after rolling up into the air much easier and more fluid. The bounce from destroying enemies has also been improved, giving Sonic much more air. It’s not all blue skies and good times though, as one thing hasn’t changed: Sonic doesn’t get the momentum he should from rolling down hills. When you go into a roll on an incline, Sonic typically only gains a little speed, and if the incline isn’t steep enough, he can come to an outright stop on it. These are still not the physics of the classic Sonic games.
So, classic Sonic fans may still not necessarily be pleased. Aside from that though…Sonic 4 Episode 2 is still a lot of fun. Going by what I’ve played, it’s a much better game than Episode 1 was. For one, the game obviously has a bigger budget, and this factors into more than just better graphics: the levels here are more intricate. Sylvania Castle Zone Act 1 is larger and more complicated then Splash Hill Zone Act 1 is, with a combination of water and land based environments, a better balance between thrilling speed areas and slower platforming areas, and places that take some skill to reach. White Park Zone is easily more thrilling than anything in the previous episode, period. Sonic will be chased by avalanches of snow, board on flowing rivers of snow, and drill through snow filled caverns. This is all stuff we’ve seen in the trailers, of course, but during my play through I found these gimmicks to be much more satisfying then the gimmicks in Sonic 4.
Another big change between Episode 1 and Episode 2 is the inclusion of Tails. Now, SEGA has gotten a lot of flak for not including Tails as a playable character…but honestly? Those people are missing the point. In Sonic 2, Tails’s inclusion was more about co-op then it was actually playing as Tails. Playing as Tails was boring. He was just a Sonic reskin, he had no special abilities, and couldn’t even fly. Tails was, in essence, only useful as a player two character. That’s exactly the case here, except things have been expanded upon. Tails is there to allow for in game co-op and to augment Sonic’s own abilities, and it’s here where Episode 2 again differentiates itself from Episode 1. Tails and Sonic essentially act as a single character with expanded abilities, and this changes fundamental aspects of Sonic 4’s formula, now allowing players to fly around the stage to explore new areas, and enter a kind of “rolling attack”. This rolling attack is very fast and powerful, and can come in handy in speed areas with lots of inclines. To balance things out, it is also very hard to control, and using it poorly can either completely mess up a speed run or lead to a very quick death. These two new moves do a lot to help spice up the standard Sonic formula, and it never feels like it comes at the expense of the game’s pacing, as similar team based mechanics did in Heroes and Advanced 3.
Episode 2 is also a very beautiful game. It’s pretty obvious that Episode 2 had a much bigger budget then Episode 1, since graphically it looks almost like a retail title. The backgrounds of both levels are filled with detail. Sylvania Castle has a beautiful morning sky in the background, with a sun shimmering through the clouds as it begins to poke above the mountains, while White Park Zone has an entire carnival moving in the background. Snow will fall off of flowers as Sonic runs past them and give more life to the underwater areas of Sylvania Castle. Episode 2 has a lot of life and movement in it, and it all runs at a silky smooth 60 FPS.
Only the complete game will tell us just how big an improvement Episode 2 is over Episode 1. I won’t make any promises to classic fans, as the game still feels like Sonic 4, just a much improved version of it. Episode 1 had more flaws then just the physics, and as far as I’m concerned, if the level design of all of Episode 2 reflects the two acts I’ve played, I’ll be very happy. People who hated Episode 1 will probably still hate Episode 2, unless the aforementioned physics fixes or improved graphics and level design solved what they disliked about the first episode. Fans who liked Episode 1 will like Episode 2 a lot more though, if these two acts are any indication. This game had a bigger budget then the first episode, and it most certainly shows in the improved graphics and level design. I am confident this will be Sonic’s best digital offering yet.