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[ Writer ] = CMoon
[ 02/16/04 ] = Sonic Heroes

Sometimes there's no good explanation why a game is good. It tries so hard to be a bad game. It throws in every wincingly-bad hook that made all its predecessors bad. It even invents new rotten shit to ensure complete and total commercial failure. But somehow the game just can't lose. This is the story of Sonic (Heroes).

There's no doubt that a long time ago Sonic was actually a good series. I never owned a Genesis (my butt belonged in the arcade, not sitting on a couch at home), and by the time I played the 'classic' Sonic games, they were only of minimal appeal. But far more horrific were the Dreamcast entries, and not just because they were bad games but because they had taken the somewhat cute characters and made them into talking entities. It isn't just that Tails is gay, it's that we had to visually and aurally experience
his gayness, never mind the new cast of utterly horrendous characters. Big the cat? Cream the bunny? Suffering from the George Lucas syndrome, Sonic Team had started making their games for successively younger audiences - and that just isn't the way it works.



Have I said how bad the voice-overs are in the Sonic games yet? Fortunately the Genesis wasn't really equipped to do voice-overs, but the Dreamcast sure was. This would be great if Sonic was designed for 3 year-olds, but it isn't really - at least Heroes isn't. With its roots still securely in the soil of 16-bit platformer goodness, I don't see how the average 5 year-old could enjoy the Sonic games, so I can only reason the voice-overs are there to piss us off. I need a Tails plushy so I can punch it every time his
character says something in the game.

Oh and then there's the music. I'll probably go to hell for saying I like it, but I do in a really 'guilty-pleasure' sort of way. Do you
remember the early 80's when there was new wave and punk, but instead everyone was listening to Air Supply? I suppose bad rock will never die, and even if it does, Team Sonic will be there to keep it alive for us. While the Guilty Gear team has been blazing the way for Queen-worship in the world of video game soundtracks (good), Team Sonic would have us never forget the soundtrack to Ghostbusters (ghaaahhh!) I actually find myself digging this during the Casino level especially and in a few other places. It's strangely catchy, but it's also embarrassing. I mean, if your friends walked in on you watching a porno, I'm sure you'd merely end up as the butt-end of their jokes for a few weeks - but heaven forbid they catch you playing Sonic Heroes (or Adventures)! With the childlike voice acting (that can't be turned off) and the bad-80's glam-yet-soft-rock-guitar, you'll be out of the cool club for sure!

With all that said you're probably wondering why I'd even bother reviewing Sonic Heroes (GameCube, PlayStation 2, Xbox), and the answer may come as a surprise to many: Underneath all the layers of 'bad presentation', Sonic Heroes is a really fine game. If
the hero in question was Strider, raves for 'Strider Heroes' would have already circumnavigated the globe. In fact, Heroes has already done a lot to refurbish Sonic's rather dismal image of late. But what's most amazing is it wasn't done by fixing any of the truly hideous problems with Sonic Adventures. Look at it this way. You're out in the ocean and your boat is on fire. You can probably make it to an island and build a new boat - because your old boat is done for. Any rational person would do this.
But Team Sonic says no. Team Sonic sees their boat is on fire and decides to build the BIG BURNING BARGE FROM HELL! I mean, I give them credit for deciding to work with what they had, but I wish I didn't have to feel embarrassed playing this game; and I really shouldn't!

What Team Sonic did was put the speed back in the game. There is hardly a moment in the game where you can't be flying through levels so quick that everything is a blur. That's right, Sonic is once again a fast game. And I'm not even joking about being fast. Sonic Heroes may be the fastest moving 3-D game I've ever played, and despite not looking like much more than its DC predecessors, the speed at which polygons are being pushed is truly impressive.

Part of the solution to this problem of speed was to turn the game into teams instead of individual characters. Nobody wants to play the slow (and gay) Tails levels, but having Tails on your team will let you fly when you really need to. Likewise, Knuckles' slower (and item-hunting) levels have also been eliminated, but he's along for the ride to punch the crap out of anyone or anything that gets in your way.

When you need the powers of one of your teammates, a simple push of a button puts him (or her) at the front, subsequently changing all the properties of your team. It isn't just that you put Tails in front when you wanna fly, but putting him in front also makes your team slower, you jump farther, and in this case, your group actually stands taller (by standing on each other's shoulders.) With Knuckles you move at a medium speed and everyone spreads out - great for grabbing multiple rows of rings.

So the whole team feature (without going too in-depth) is a real stroke of genius. It lets you do everything at once, meaning the levels are designed to let you do everything at once. And that is where Sonic Heroes saves its own butt! Who would want to play a fast character that can't fly and with limited offensive capability, when you can play a team that does everything? Apparently Team Sonic answered this question for themselves.

Now with the freedom to make universal levels for all the teams (instead of just being suited to one character), some real creativity was able to surface. Levels became longer with emphasis on speed, flying and power throughout! Despite being 3-D, the game took on a marked resemblance to former 2-D outings with precision and memorization necessary for mastering levels. Run as fast as you can with Sonic, switch to Tails long enough to down a flying enemy, switch to Knuckles long enough to destroy the
enemy. Switch back to Sonic to triangle jump through a floorless corridor, etc. etc. You could do this a different way, but you'll find your own way to do it - your best way! But for the most part, if you want the best time you'll have to stick to your speed character which means precise switching when you need it.

And yes, memorization. Sonic Adventures introduced lots of loops and so forth where the player could just let go of the controls and watch Sonic do his thing. In a way that hasn't changed, there are so many little deviations you can make from the 'obvious' path (many of which are mid-loops or in other places you wouldn't expect) that to really achieve at the levels, you'll need to look carefully at all your surroundings and remember the specific time you'll need to make a death-defying leap.

The difficulty also feels rather satisfying. Some may question this, since levels can for the most part be easily beaten. But you will also notice a grade, a score, and a time. Sure you can beat a level easily, but the number of times I've gotten an A rank is a very, very small number. Getting a level down to minimum time can also be hard. And remember, it's Sonic: beat a level with over 100 rings and you get a bonus level. You may easily get to the end of a level, but doing well is an altogether different thing. That's the kind of difficulty I like.

And I suppose I need to discuss the core gameplay itself. It may be with polygons, but for the most part, Sonic plays like it's 2-D - from time to time you'll hit a larger area and Sonic will gain a 3rd dimension. Perhaps this is why Sonic Heroes is so glorious. By taking out that 3rd dimension, you're left to running and platform hopping - and given how fast you'll be moving, that can be pretty freakin' amazing. So what I'm really saying here is that despite being dressed up like Sonic Adventures, Sonic Heroes is
a 2-D game. Even when it is truly in 3-D, it still plays like classic 2-D. Some of the patterns you'll be dodging just don't belong to the videogame world of Sony and Microsoft, and that's why I bring up the seemingly inappropriate reference to Strider. Strider was my arcade love, and what was it about other than speed and dodging patterns? That's what Sonic Heroes is about; subsequently I think it's amazing.

With all that said (and plenty more I could say), let me sum this up for the attention-challenged:

[ Rundown ] = Pros
- Extremely fast (graphics still hold at 60 fps even at top speeds)
- Team play lets you do EVERYTHING!
- Levels are creative, long, frantic and fun
- Core gameplay is rooted in classic 2-D platformer goodness (speed, precision, memorization!)
- Performance is graded, and you can repeatedly play levels for better scores
- Lots of things to unlock, 'Challenge' versions of every level

[ Rundown ] = Cons
- Apparently designed for 5 year-olds (voice-overs, some character design)
- 'Timeless' music doesn't necessarily mean 'good'
- Mediocre 'camera'
- Only two of the teams are worth playing (character design is banal!)
- Two player mode looks like it was programmed for the PSone
- May be too embarrassing to play around your friends
- If you don't give a crap about the score or grades, replay may be minimal

My final take: This is a surprisingly good game that is unfortunately out on every console (ensuring the GameCube will die). Old-schoolers will dig it, but it has plenty of appeal for everyone. It won't last long though, if you're the sort who just wants to see the end.