Sonic Force’s decision to include a custom character with a very different game play style has been a decision that has polarised the fan base. It continues Sonic Team’s history to add new dimensions to bolster the established 2D and 3D platforming in order to produce a more broad appeal.
In the context of Sonic Force’s story, your custom hero is “the Rookie,” a member of the resistance, who’s so good at kicking robo-butt he makes Vector jealous. Despite this, the rookie is meant to be a “normal” character from the world of Sonic, without any special abilities beyond her/his technology.
This lack of special abilities becomes almost immediately apparent once you take control of the character. The Rookie cannot spin jump, roll, or boost. She/he can still run faster than your typical platform character, but beyond that all the character’s powers come from technology. The Rookie is equipped with two items: a grappling hook and a “wispon”.
The grappling hook acts a stand-in for Sonic’s homing attack. By utilizing it, the Rookie can grapple onto and smash into enemies. There is a momentary delay during the attack while the grappling hook finds its mark, but beyond that it functions just like Sonic’s homing attack. It took me a moment to get used to it, but overall it works just as well.
The grappling hook can also be used to grab onto and swing on specially marked metal spheres. Using these balls, it’s possible to swing up into higher areas of the stage, as well as transition from one part of the stage to the other. This feels really satisfying to pull off and it works pretty well.
Then there are the “Wispons” which, much like the grappling hook, have both traversal and combat functions; the two available in the demo were a flame thrower and an electric whip. Both weapons can be activated with the right trigger button. The flame thrower fires a horizontal flame that can easily destroy rows of enemies. Fire it at them while running and you’ll even get a brief speed boost. The lightning whip also attacks enemies horizontally, and it can not only deliver a brief speed boost, but also be used to redirect the direction of a jump. These Wispons work pretty well: both feel like a satisfying way to destroy enemies, and the lightning whip’s speed boost and jump redirection capabilities made it a favorite for me.
In addition to destroying enemies and affecting speed and movement, each Wispon also comes with a Wisp-specific power. The lightning whip gives the Rookie the ability to lightspeed dash over rings, while the flame thrower gives her/him the ability to jump constantly up into the air to gather rings and reach higher platforms. The lightspeed dash may be somewhat frustrating to use for Sonic veterans at first, as the button for it must be held down, rather than simply pressed like in past Sonic games. If you fail to do this, or otherwise screw it up, you will not be able to do it again, as yellow wisps are in short supply and do not respawn.
The flame thrower, meanwhile, allows the Rookie to make a series of mid-air jumps, allowing the her/him to jump high into the air to collect rings and reach higher areas, as well as hit additional red wisps to refill the gauge.
Overall, these weapons and abilities work well and when they can shine on their own they make for a fun experience. But while these mechanics are sound, the platforming is not. When the Rookie is forced to make a series of death defying jumps, the whole thing just seems to fall apart. The two Rookie stages SEGA has on display at E3 exemplifies this gulf in quality perfectly.
The PS4/XB1 version of the Forces demo had the Green Hill stage which SEGA PR and Community Manager Aaron Webber previewed on Twitch, and it is in this stage where the Rookie’s issues manifest. Simply put, the Rookie’s jumping physics are awkward and stiff. It is very easy to overshoot or undershoot a jump and unlike other platformers, which allow you to freely maneuver a character after a jump to land more precisely, the Rookie is nearly uncontrollable. Once you jump, your ability to maneuver through the air is severely limited, making it nearly impossible to correct a jump. There is no double jump, nor any other kind of mid-air maneuver to get you where you want to go. You either land or you die. While the lightning whip can technically redirect the direction of your jump, this is a partial solution at best.
This is stating the obvious, but: poor platforming mechanics in a platformer are a problem. It is certainly possible that I simply need to get used to how the character controls. This is, in part, why I gave the mode the benefit of the doubt in my initial Forces preview. But even upon returning to it and spending lots of time with it, the jumping issues persisted. I had to memorize how to approach each jump: how long to press the button, how hard to push the analog stick, which sorts of platforms were worth reaching and which were best avoided. The end result was an experience that was more frustrating than fun, and when I reached the giant robot crab chase scene at the end, I felt relief rather than joy that I had conquered the stage.
But then there’s the Switch stage, which perfectly demonstrates what’s fun about the Rookie. The stage, which takes place in the same destroyed city seen in promotional footage for the game, has little in the way of precision platforming. Instead, it is all about the Rookie’s grappling hook, Wispon, and Wisp powers, and it is an absolute joy to play. It feels satisfying to run through the stage, attacking and shooting enemies, swinging around on the grappling hook, and traversing the stage with the wisp powers. The level is well not just well designed, but also plays to the Rookie’s strengths and shows the character’s potential.
So, the final verdict? The Rookie has potential, but this potential is currently marred by a sub-par platforming experience. These sorts of customizable characters can be difficult to demo, especially since various attributes (including jumping) vary between different Rookie species. The Rookie’s jumping could simply be improved before the game’s release. Maybe, just maybe, more time is all that is needed to get used to how the Rookie controls.
But from what I have played, the Rookie game mode looks like it will join treasure hunting, fishing, and the Werehog in the waste bin of half-baked ideas that didn’t quite catch on, albeit one of the better ideas.