TSS@E3 – Hands-on: Sonic Boom Shattered Crystal

Boom-3DS-20For a second opinion, please head over to SEGAbits to check out Shigs’s thoughts.

It’s felt like years since I’ve played a new handheld Sonic title that I’ve really enjoyed. Sonic Colors, Generations and Lost World have all had stages I’ve liked, but as a complete package none of them seem to be able to reach the level of the Sonic Rush titles. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal is going to change that trend, if my time with the E3 demo is any indication.

Shattered Crystal brings some really interesting ideas to the table. Instead of focusing on the typical multilayered super-fast platforming Sonic is known for, Shattered Crystal’s primary focus is exploration, with some brief speed areas in between large, expansive, almost labyrinthine areas. These stages are huge. As I was playing I constantly tried to go off the beaten path to find every nook and cranny, which often resulted in me uncovering small hidden areas. Sometimes however, I found myself on a completely new path that took me further into the game. The exploration is facilitated by the diverse cast of Sonic characters at your disposal in the game.

At the start of the game you will only have access to Sonic, with Knuckles, Tails and Sticks being made available later on. Each of these characters have their own moves that allow them to access specific parts of a given stage: Sonic can blast through these large blue blocks that block certain areas, Tails can glide on air currents that allow him to access high places and get over gaps, Knuckles can dig through specially marked areas to get around walls and access hidden areas, and Sticks can hit faraway switches with her boomerang. Between these different abilities you can solve a variety of simple environmental puzzles and explore an expansive level design that is the very antithesis of “hold right to win”. Doing that here will rarely get you anywhere, except maybe dead.

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Compared to The Rise of Lyric, Shattered Crystal is much closer to a typical Sonic experience. All of the characters have a homing attack, are able to boost anywhere in the game, there are loop-de-loops, booster pads and checkpoint posts, and the overall game just feels a lot more familiar. That isn’t to say there aren’t some serious differences though. Much like the Wii U game, lives have been removed and rings now act as a life bar. It’s now possible to switch between characters on the fly, allowing you to easily choose the right character to bypass certain obstacles. Though this game feels more familiar, it is still quite distinctive in its own right.

Really, for all intents and purposes, this should be an amazing Sonic game, because it tries to correct so many complaints people have with Sonic’s side scrolling handheld affairs. In addition to being extremely non-linear, pitfalls are easy to spot in the opening stage and the game rarely moves with any serious speed. Even with the boost button the game never approaches the speed of the Rush games, which could often move too fast. So what’s my problem with this game?Unfortunately, it’s the level design and the interface.

Both the level map and character selection share the touchscreen, and players have to switch between them in order to access the different functions. In the demo, which starts with all the characters unlocked, this was a problem. In order to move smoothly through a level you need constant access to all four characters so you can quickly switch to them on the fly, but in order to make your way around the complex level design without getting lost you need access to the map screen. This game isn’t slow and methodical like other Metroidvania type games: there is constant movement and action here, and this game is at its best when you’re able to move through stages seamlessly. This interface results in awkward pacing and frustrating stop and go gameplay.

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When I first played the demo I preferred to keep the lower screen on the character selection screen, but I quickly found myself becoming lost and going in circles to the point where I was growing increasingly frustrated. So I switched to the map screen and thought my problems were solved….until I began to run into a constant flow of obstacles that required different characters, a few of which I didn’t realize were there until it was too late, causing me to fall to a lower area and forcing me to make my way back up. So I found myself constant having to switch between screens twice with many of the obstacles I encountered in order to ensure I always had access to the map screen and didn’t become lost again.

As an experiment, on the final day of E3 I attempted to run through the demo with just Sonic as my character. Since Sonic is the only character available at the start of the game, I thought that perhaps I might be able to blast through the whole demo as Sonic and enjoy a more seemless experience. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a Sonic only path, so it seems that all of the characters will be needed to traverse through at least some stages in the game.

As a huge fan of Metroid, I would love to see a Sonic game like this actually work. The most painful part about this is that I feel it almost does. I feel like there is a great game here, hidden behind a frustrating interface that makes exploration and puzzle solving more of a chore then it should be. Interface aside, there are so many parts of this game that work! The level design feels like it could yield endless possibilities and I found myself constantly torn between which way I should go since I wanted to see as much as I could in the small amount of time I would have with it. I love that feeling, and the great thing is that after three playthroughs I know I haven’t seen everything in that one single stage.

The rivals race with Sticks is also a lot of fun. It’s probably the closest this game comes go traditional Sonic, with loads of ramps, loops, Mobius strips and straight-aways. You can go nuts with the boost button here, and let me tell you that in terms of physics this is probably the best handheld Sonic has felt in a long time. The characters feel like they have weight again, rather than hollow plastic action figures come to life. It feels like momentum kind of means something here, too. Finally, there’s also a 3D tube level, which adds a nice bit of behind the back 3d excitement to the proceedings. It’s nothing spectacular, but it was fun.

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After five years worth of E3s, there are three things that can usually be fixed between the demo and the final product: interface, controls, and minor graphical issues like frame rate and texture pop-in. These demos are always examples and works in progress, and I’ve seen these issues be fixed before. This game’s two major problems are its interface and framerate (which fell well below 30 frames for a sizeable portion of the demo), so this game could certainly still be a lot of fun. Personally, I’d like to see the character screen either integrated with the map screen, or mapped to the d-pad like it is on the Wii U version. I found myself preferring to control the game with the analog stick, since the game feels like it was made to work well with analog control. Alternatively, character selection icons could be relegated to one side of the map screen, so they can be accessed quickly there.

Provided Sanzaru finds a solution to this issue, this could be one of the best side scrolling Sonic games in years. If they don’t, this may unfortunately continue the string of mediocre handheld titles that the Sonic series has been left with since they were tied into the console releases. Either way, we’ll find out when the game is released in November.

TSS@E3 – Hands-on: Sonic Jump Fever

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I wasn’t really a big fan of the original Sonic Jump. It was fairly simplistic and lacked the kind of adrenaline pumping speed I’ve come to expect from Sonic’s 2D efforts. The game also became impossibly hard later on, being very unforgiving of mistakes in the hopes of getting players to spend real world money on power ups and other “cheats”. Since Sonic Jump, Sonic’s mobile efforts have improved immensely, from Christian Whitehead’s stellar retro Sonic ports to better modern Sonic efforts like Sonic Dash. How does the new Sonic Jump sequel, Sonic Jump Fever, stack up to the other, better mobile games Sonic has starred in over the last few years?

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Sonic Jump Fever is definitely an improvement over the original game. Graphically the game looks a lot better, with much more colorful sprites and much more detailed backgrounds. Whereas the old Sonic Jump looks like a cheap fan game, the visuals here look far more like what you would expect from a proper, official Sonic title. These improved graphics are accompanied by much more hectic movement. Whereas Jump could often feel kind of empty, the stages we got to play in Fever where constantly filed with moving enemies, flickies and platforms.

Visuals are nothing without good game play though and in this regard Fever brings some huge improvement to Jump’s formula. Where Jump had a slower pace, focused a lot on vertical movement, and came to a complete stop with every death, Fever flows a lot quicker. The action is constantly moving and between the various orange boost rings and bouncing platforms it’s very easy to keep upward momentum going. Even dying no longer kills the momentum, since the game gives you extra lives in the form of cannons, which immediately launch you back into the air if you miss a platform. Once you run out of lives, the game immediately takes you to the end of the stage instead of giving you a game over screen. Finally, Fever also adds a boost meter, which is fueled by collecting rings and getting combos. Once the boost meter fills up, it automatically activates, blasting Sonic upwards into a massive barrage of rings. This boost meter is a very welcome addition to the Sonic Jump formula, making an already fast game all the more exciting.

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The speed is complimented with a time limit, which can only be increased by reaching ribbon check points placed at set parts of every stage. Much like in old school arcade games, the timer helps to add some urgency to the proceedings, since trying to slow down to collect rings or rescue flickies can end your game in short order. Fever’s stages are also more populated, filled to the brim with enemies, power ups, moving platforms and caged flickies. This really lends the stages a sense of movement and life that the original Sonic Jump lacked. Even the end of the stages are better: instead of a bland sign post, every stage is topped with a platform full of flickies and a hot air balloon that you need to toss them into. Fever also adds new helper chao, which can be found and hatched in the “Chao Forest”. Once hatched, these Chao can assist you in levels, whether it be in collecting rings or defeating enemies.

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All of these improvements culminate in a game that feels much more complete than its predecessor. Everything about it, from the graphics to the level design to the game play, has been improved markedly. That said, I’ve no idea how this game will hold up over the long term. I grew bored of Jump and Dash rather quickly because there wasn’t much to them, and I can’t yet say whether or not the same will happen to Fever. One thing is for sure though: it is a lot better than Jump. It could very well be the best made-for-mobile title Sonic has ever had. I had a lot of fun with it and anyone who’s a fan of the original Sonic Jump will certainly love this title.

PAX 2010 Preview: Sonic Free Riders, Part 1

We’ve got three Sonic games coming out at the end of the year, and between the three, the one SEGA’s kept closest to its chest has been Sonic Free Riders. Unplayable at E3, the game was only made available to the press about a month ago and made its first public appearance at Gamescom a few weeks ago.

The Penny Arcade Expo marks Free Riders’ first public appearance in America… sort of. Despite SEGA’s intention of bringing it to the show floor, those plans were cancelled at the last minute. So, how am I writing this preview? During the last 45 minutes of the Sunday show, some of the good people over at SEGA closed the Sonic 4 booth and set up a Sonic Free Riders demo. Only a few people, aside from myself, were able to play it and I’ve compiled their opinions for the second part of this preview.

So, how does it play? Well, allow me to start by saying that despite this game being on a “casual gamer focused” peripheral, it’s probably the least user-friendly game I’ve played for the peripheral so far. There is a certain way you need to stand, a certain way you need to move to activate certain attacks, and if you don’t do it right, the game won’t control properly.

When you do, though, Free Riders is probably one the best titles on Kinect’s holiday line up, but that’s not really saying much. It’s also looking like being the best game in the Riders series, though again this isn’t really saying much. In order to play the game properly, you need to stand as if you where on a skateboard. If you stand with your body facing the screen, you will have absolutely no control over your character. You also need to throw the different weapons in different ways, with a certain amount of exaggeration in your movements.

So with this game, much like Sonic Riders and Zero Gravity, there may be a lot of early frustration depending on the user. While I was watching others play, I noticed some of them picked it immediately, while others needed some time to get used to how the game played. Once you do get it though, Sonic Free Riders can actually be rather exhilarating. For the users who do get it right away, they’re in for a pretty neat motion game. It cuts out a lot of the fat that held down its predecessors; you no longer need to refill your air, turning is a lot easier to pull off then it was in past titles – at least once you figure out how to stand – and the difficulty is more forgiving.

However, with the removal of many of these elements, the game itself has become simpler, which may have its drawbacks in the long run. Even compared to arcade racers likes like Sonic and SEGA All Stars Racing and Outrun 2, the game feels a little shallow. The handful of weapons that were shown in the demo – the rocket and the bowling ball – aren’t anything we haven’t seen before.

Of course, this is all based on a single race; about 3 minutes of playtime, and at the end of the day the experience was definitely a positive one. Sonic Free Riders is fast and it stands as a testament to just how immersive the Kinect peripheral can be when it’s applied to the right game. While you play the game, you physically throw the weapons, scoot your back foot across the ground to activate the boost (as you would on a real skateboard), jump in the air to jump, swim with your arms to move through water segments, and twist your body left and right to make the turns. All of this makes for a great – although somewhat exhausting – racing experience.

So, will Sonic Free Riders turn out to be a great game? I’ve played too little to say. As I said earlier, the game is a little shallow and there is no telling whether the final product will offer enough to keep you playing for a long time. It is most certainly not a bad game, though.

While I am personally expecting more from Sonic Free Riders when it’s released than I was before, it still didn’t excite me enough to actually buy the Kinect. If you’re planning on buying Kinect for this game alone, I’d advise you to try before you buy, if you can. While it was fun, I’m not sure it’s worth Kinect’s $150 price tag.

We’ll bring you our thoughts on the full game once it comes out this holiday season. Stay tuned for part 2 of this preview, which is a video compilation of what other players thought of the game.

1UP’s Sonic Free Riders Video Preview

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3x3n7OvPPE[/youtube]

1UP.com and IGN.com recently got some hands-on time with SEGA’s first Kinect for Xbox 360 title Sonic Free Riders, 1UP.com’s preview comes in video form and IGN’s in written form but they say a video version is coming. 1UP seem pretty positive and both testers agree it controls very well, while IGN think it will cater more to the younger crowd than the hardcore gamer.

New weapons are shown in 1UP’s footage including a bowling ball, which we assume replaces the bowling bomb in previous games, and a golf club. Did we say a golf club? Yes, a golf club for whacking your opponents with. Another thing you may notice in the footage is Sonic swimming, without his life jacket from Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, we’ll let you debate that and everything else in the previews in the comments section.

Don’t forget to check out five new screenshots from IGN’s preview below –

Sources: IGN(thanks fammicomander at the SSMB) and 1UP via Spindash.de

Eurogamer Hands-On: M&S Winter Olympics

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SEGA held an event in Vancouver for the press to play some curling and try out Mario & Sonic at the Winter Olympic Games for the Wii and DS.  There are brand new screenshots and impressions from the new mascot-branded, mini-game collection for you to check out, but I’d just like to point out one thing:

Multiplayer is unlocked from the start of the game.  Thank you for correcting an awful design choice, SEGA.

The article also highlights Wii Balance Board support for sports like downhill skiing and bobsledding.  On the DS front, all sports will be sharable with up to 4 DS systems with a single cartridge. Wow!  Producer Eigo Kasahara says:

“Actually I wanted to make all the events available for free download last time, but because of time constraints it was difficult.  With this version, maybe players will bring the cartridge to school and play with their friends. Then kids will go home and ask their Mum to buy them a copy… So it’s a kind of viral marketing almost.”

All I need now is some hockey.  I mean, you can’t have the Winter Olympics (in Canada, no less) without hockey!

Eurogamer Hands-On with M&S: Winter Olympics