I finally figured it out...
In the 10-year lifecycle of Sonic the Hedgehog, have you noticed that every supporting character has been designed around 3 basic principles? Characters are either:
- A. Evil mirrors of Sonic
B. Jarringly annoying
I'll prove it. Tails the two-tailed fox is an annoying tag-along. Knuckles is a red, climbing Sonic. Robotnik has been eating too many Krispy Kremes. Amy is the ultra-annoying and obsessive Sonic stalker. Mecha-Sonic is a robotic, evil Sonic. And Big the Cat is, well… big and fat.
Sonic Adventure 2 (SA2) continues the trend by introducing two new characters: Shadow, the quintessential anti-Sonic, and Rouge, an annoying bat with breasts. Sorry folks - no new fat characters. I know, I know - big loss.
Instead, this game is thoroughly fat, stuffed with extended play goals and mini games. Plus plenty of beautiful eye candy that must have been heavy on the calories. Too bad SA2 could use some weight loss in favor of such blatant problems as camera, game flow, and story.
The plot is classic Sonic. Robotnik, while searching the remnants of his grandfather's laboratory, uncovers Shadow the Hedgehog. Together, the two conspire to unleash the Eclipse Cannon - a weapon of mass destruction. Apparently the government is color blind, and arrests Sonic for Shadow's nefarious hijinks.
The game allows you to join the path of light or fall to the dark side, by selecting either the Hero or Evil quests. Help Sonic, Knuckles and Tails get to the bottom of Robotnik's schemes or try to take over the world with Robotnik, Shadow and Rouge. A very cool choice, but it would have been even better if a choose-your-own story a la Guardian Heroes method was used. Instead, the level progression is stictly linear for the two stories.
Storywise, Sonic games have come only a little ways from: 1) Robotnik bad 2) Sonic good 3) Finish the game and get an image of Sonic pointing at you. Despite the huge game, the story is still simple and barely picks up at the end. Yes - it is an action game, but if they are attempting to do a more compelling story, they should follow through on it.
The flow of the game gets rid of the "adventure" element from the first Sonic Adventure (SA), opting for a level-to-level rhythm that truer to the nature of a Sonic game. Unfortunately, this rhythm is a staccato beat due to the forced switching of characters between levels. The choosing of one character and then sticking to that character in the original SA works out much better then jumping from one creature to the next in SA2. Fix one thing only to break another.
Each set of characters has a different style of gameplay. Robotnik rides his classic eggpod and Tails jets around in his Valkyrie-esque robot-plane. The "shoot-anything-and-everything-that-moves" control for these two characters is similar to Gamma from SA. Knuckles and Rouge must search for emeralds, utilizing their flying and wall climbing abilities. And Sonic and Shadow run damn fast. Control is kept relatively simple and is easy to pick up.
Different gameplay styles? I'm all for that. But there's something about zooming through a beautiful designed Sonic level, only to follow up with a plodding Knuckles level. Perhaps it's the stark contrasts between play styles that make the non-Sonic levels a mite irritating. Or maybe it's the fact that the Sonic levels are just heads and tails better than those of his compatriots. The game is named Sonic Adventure 2, remember?
That isn't to say that the non-Sonic levels aren't any good. Taken in and of themselves, there are some bright spots. The best Tails/Robotnik stages play like a well strung together twitch-shooter on rails. And the Knuckles/Rouge stages are just incredibly huge. Plus there are upgrades for your characters that will allow them to uncover new secrets.
The Knuckles/Rouge stages suffer from a narrow-minded emerald detection meter. The meter only indicates the nearby emeralds in a certain order. You might be able to accidentally stumble upon an emerald, but your meter only tells you where the "next" one is. Annoying when you consider that the levels are still time-based.
The Sonic/Shadow levels are well designed, fast, and play like the original game. They've brought in some classic obstacles, like the renowned loop de loop and cyclone tubes. Then there are some new inventions fit for a three-dimensional world, such as 6-way gravity, miniature planets, and the oft-mentioned rail grinding: Jump onto a rail, and slide down Jet Grind style.
The "smart" camera is designed around the idea that what you see on screen is where you should go. For example, Sonic is supposed to turn left at the corner. Once you reach the corner, said camera will whip around to give you a view of your left. That sounds all fine and dandy in theory, but the reality proves differently.
There are moments where the camera (in stints of foolishness) will get stuck behind objects or point you astray. There isn't even a first person look-around to help you figure out your surroundings. Worst of all, sometimes the camera spins around in such a way that you'll be veering towards doom withour realizing. The camera works decently in the linear-style Sonic levels, but more camera control is needed for a Knuckles level.
The game is chock full of extras and extended play features. 180 goals to complete is nothing to thumb your nose at. There's a also nifty 2-player mode where you can pit good/evil character sets against one another. The additional kart racing game didn't do anything for me and seemed unnecessary.
Still want more? The Chao Adventures 2 game on the VMU is more virtual pet antics, with an injection of neurotic humor. The stories on your VMU showcase little stories about your Chao; everything from his voyeuristic camera tendencies to his experiments with tin foil. And you can even shape the moral tendencies of your Chao in the Chao Garden, like a lightweight Black and White.
The graphics are sweet, sweet eye-crack, even more (blast) processed and refined than the original. Levels have sharp, photographic textures and everything runs at a silky 60 FPS. The characters look and animate beautifully. Shadow runs like he's effortlessly skating. And best of all, you have to see how Robotnik runs about in the Chao Garden. Funnier still is how he looks when he runs at a tree just right. I'll leave it at that.
I wasn't a big fan of SA's musical themes, but I liked the kitsch value of those odd 80's J-pop songs done by groups with limited English. With SA2, the characters still have themes, but thankfully, a more understated approach is taken. What you get is a mix of good to above-decent tunes.
The English voices for the characters are crap. Change them to Japanese. 'Nuff said.
In the end, I liked Sonic Adventure 2, but it could have been even better. If only they balanced it with a touch more quality in a couple areas in exchange for all the quantity. But grievances like this don't take away enough to ruin the game. There are these beautiful moments where everything seems to be just right. Where the fastest, most arrogant hedgehog leaves a blue streak through a technicolor world. And I am a wide-eyed boy again, tagging along for the race.