A Low in a Series of Lows
The GoodSonic the Hedgehog
is one of the most divisive game series in existence. Some would argue that the early titles were the forefront of platform gaming at the time. Time, however, has not been kind to the little blue guy, and since 2001's Sonic Adventure 2
, things have inarguably been getting worse. The fans will desperately look for any conceivable good in the titles that come out, while the press will dismiss any new title as "another crappy Sonic game" without even giving it a closer look.Sonic 2006
is not a game entirely without merit. Some of the music is catchy. A few of the environments are rather nice-looking, particularly Tropical Jungle. The falling-through-the-floor bugs that plagued the last few titles are nearly gone. The primary characters (Sonic, Shadow, and Silver) are easy enough to control. A few aspects were introduced in this title that that were later refined in Sonic Unleashed
But perhaps its real purpose lies in not what the game itself did, but what happened in its wake. Viewing it from years later, it almost seems to have been the "breaking point" for both the fans and the creators; a point where people had grown sick of terrible game after terrible game, and someone realized that maybe, just maybe, it was possible for this franchise that was once iconic and synonymous with the industry to claw its way back up into relevance.
That said, it takes a truly awful game to create that kind of reaction. Now, I'm not dismissing the game; I played it through to completion, then kept playing to reach the full 1000 gamerscore out of a sense of duty. I've been a Sonic fan since my parents bought a Sega Genesis when I was seven years old. I got some entertainment out of it, and an incredible sense of satisfaction when that last achievements unlocked, but it is in nearly every way a terrible game. The developers have gone on record to state that it suffered due to an accelerated production schedule in order to get the game out for Christmas, but I'm not sure how much help a few extra months would have been.
The game is set up in a similar way to Sonic Adventure
: only Sonic is unlocked from the start, while the other characters are unlocked when Sonic encounters them in the story. The story makes absolutely no sense, with lots of time travel, a princess that gets kidnapped literally a half dozen times, and some weird creature named Mephiles that I'm not sure if I'm supposed to already know or not. The FMV cutscenes are slick and rubbery, nice to look at, but few in number. Without spoiling too much, the ending almost feels like it echoes the developers' thoughts on the game itself. Overall, it serves to lead the characters from one area to the next, and not much else.
Which would be fine if the areas themselves were interesting to traverse; I'm firmly of the belief that strong gameplay can support a weak story. The problem lies in that there are only actually nine stages in the game, and you have to play all of them with Sonic. Then all of them again with Shadow, and again with Silver. Sure, the layouts are a bit different, skipping areas that would be impassible with certain characters, but it's quite clearly the same stage each time. Indoor areas go even further and reuse rooms within the same level; some levels like Aquatic Base are made from just the same six rooms stuck together in different ways, and there's not even any attempts made to mask this.
The objective in most areas is either "get to the end without dying" or "kill everything in this area". These simple objectives are the strongest part of the game, but things start to slip when they get more complicated. Shadow has the ability to climb into several vehicles, most of which are nearly impossible to control; the hovercraft, in particular, will flip over and fall into the water at the slightest bump -- including using its jump function. Silver can use telekinesis to throw objects, but will often hit the other objects he's holding when he tries to throw. Then there's the ball puzzle at the end of Silver's White Acropolis stage; suffice to say, this one room may hold the distinction of being the most aggravating, poorly-thought out "puzzle" in the franchise; thankfully, there's a bug that lets you bypass it completely.
The game suffers from a serious lack of design focus. There are several half-implemented side characters that you're forced to use for varying amounts of time. Tails can rain massive amounts of bombs on enemies, but for whatever reason his bombs are ring capsules filled with "fake rings". Knuckles is the most egregious offender, getting hopelessly stuck to walls, and having an uncontrollable fireball attack that most often leads to him sailing off into a pit, which will be familiar to anyone who plays Kirby in Super Smash Bros.
. There are the aforementioned awkward driving sections. There are more than 50 pointless "town missions" that serve no purpose other than to say the game has side missions.
There are also obnoxiously long load times. Every load time last about 12-15 seconds, and that includes loading for a single screen of dialogue or a five second cutscene. Loading breaks in the middle of a level. The town missions are the absolute worst, though: talk to a person, say "yes, I'll help you", 12 second load, "thanks for helping me", 12 second load, play the mission, possibly fail, 12 second load, "sorry, try again", 12 second load, back to where you started. Installing the game to a hard drive cuts the load times by about half, which makes them almost tolerable, but having to sit through nearly a minute of loading because you made one tiny mistake in a short mission is inexcusable.
The Bottom Line
For all of its faults, I'm still glad this game was made. The lessons learned by the development team were likely a key factor in the production of the far superior Sonic Unleashed
two years later. This is a game that has truly earned its dubious reputation, but if it means we're going to start getting better Sonic games now, then it must stand as a reminder of how far a once-loved franchise can fall.