Running on empty.
Imagine a game where you are a driving instructor. A smartass fifteen-year-old gets in the car with you and puts his foot down on the pedal. You think you are going to die. Fortunately you’re in a driving school car, so you have a few controls to preserve your life. You can step on your instructor-side brake pedal, which brings the car to a jerking halt. At worst you can always reach over and turn the steering wheel yourself, with the reflexes of a panicked cheetah.
[image1]This is exactly what it feels like when you play Sonic and the Secret Rings. In a textbook example of how not to revitalize a franchise, Secret Rings takes everything that was pure and fun about the Sonic series and flips it on you. The fast and fluid gameplay is now choppy; the transparent interface is now clunky and obtrusive, and the exploration subgame has been replaced by a narrow corridor of traps. The game that was once fun and free-wheeling is now a frustrating quagmire of trials and errors.
In the old days, just holding the d-pad felt good, like you were rocking Sonic around a loop or up the side of a cliff. But in Secret Rings, you just run up to the loop and watch a ten-second cut scene as the game plays its own best moments. At least the motion controls are fluid, and flashy speed boost and time slow super moves give the action a kick in the pants. Forget about jumping, though. The new jump timing is intentionally stubborn. So you can’t run, and you hate to jump… how about that Sonic?
The hundred levels in Secret Rings
feel more like short bonus stages
than the usual Sonic sprawl
. The missions are clever cross-sections of the eight or nine main worlds, so some tracks are reused. Every world has variations on “Collect Rings” and “Defeat Enemies” missions, and the nonlinear mission select system lets you take on the tasks you like and put off the ones you don’t.
[image2]The missions themselves are loaded with collectibles and replay value: one mission usually opens up two more, while hidden items and performance medals unlock a massive gallery of art, music and behind-the-scenes videos.
The other pleasant surprise is a Paper Mario
skill system: Sonic levels up after every mission, earning skills like ‘Run faster’ and ‘Start with 5 rings.’ You pick a limited number of skills for each mission, and then you can save the configuration for easy access. The interface is a little overdone, but this level system and the nonlinear mission structure are the best parts of the game.
The rest is mostly silly. The 1001 Arabian Nights setting and cameos from Sonic favorites are refreshing but superficial, and the graphic novel cut scenes crawl by so the preschoolers can follow along.
A WarioWare-style multiplayer mode ties forty simple Wiimote minigames into a thin board game. This is fairly broken, and the ‘new art’ looks low-rez and grainy; it ain’t Mario Party and they should have just reused art from the single-player game. Plus in multiplayer, your friends won’t get to run or do anything Sonic-like.
[image3]Sonic sounds silly but he looks fine: the 3D worlds feature lots of twists and effects, while Sonic and the cast look smooth and well-rounded. You have a few large boss battles, and the camera behaves very well (except for a few odd spots where you have to walk backwards). The soundtrack is a little too on the nose. The Dino Jungle world sings, “Dino it’s a jungle / Dino the wicked wild / Dinos or a robot / It’s a jungle the wicked wild.” The voice acting should be great for the target younger audience, it sounds like just the kind of stuff you would hear from Sonic’s various cartoons.
Sonic’s recent mood swings have shaken our trust: first he dyes his hair black, takes up a gun and a bad-boy motorcycle. Because the world’s fastest rodent needs a motorcycle. Then he goes from jet-black to platinum-bleach hair faster than My Chemical Romance, ooh he’s so outcast! And from what I hear, he’s even started kissing girls. Sonic’s rebellious phase means nothing if he can’t bring the gameplay.
I’d like to get past my seeming bias for the Old Days, but every mistake and death reminds me of some comfortable feature from yesterday’s Sonics that didn’t make it into Sonic and the Secret Rings. Sonic is just too fast for his own good.