Review: Sonic Heroes (Nintendo Gamecube)

Platform: Nintendo GameCube
Category: Platformer
Developer: Sonic Team
Publisher: SEGA
Release: Jan. 04
The Down-Lo: The closest attempt at classic old-school 2D Sonic gameplay within the 3D realm.

Right. So. After waiting over three years for an original next-generation Sonic title to bless our lives, it’s finally here. Sonic Heroes. By far the most ambitious 3D Sonic game ever made. 4 teams. 12 characters. 3 different consoles. One long adrenaline filled rush.

But it’s 3D. And of course we all know there are two kinds of Sonic gamers out there. Ones that live and swear by 2D, as if life or death. And ones that still live and swear by 2D, but aren’t so anal so as to not enjoy the 3D romps.

Me? I’m in the latter, of course. Yes, Bebito loves him some 2D Sonic. And I recognize the inherent flaws resulting from Sonic and pals venturing into the third dimension; but while said flaws annoy from time to time, they don’t detract from the fun of the games overall. In most cases, Sonic games 2D and 3D alike hit the spot.

Well, Ok. Sonic Adventure 2 did tarnish things a little. But it had less to do with the 3D aspect of it all, and more to do with how gameplay was split up. Nobody wanted to dig for Emeralds. Nobody wanted to shoot at robots. 99.999% of the time we all just wanted to do what this series has been about from the beginning. RUN. Running as Sonic. Running as Shadow. Running as any freaking body. But we just wanted to get moving, and the rest of the game was getting in the way.

Sonic Team surprisingly heard those pleas. As much as they’re criticized for never giving gamers what they really want (…do I even need to mention NiGHTS sequel?), ST has delivered with Sonic Heroes. They trimmed the fat and removed a lot of the garbage plaguing the last 3D romp much to delight of series fans.

But uh oh. Then they added more back?

Yup. We’re not just controlling one spasm critter anymore. Oh no. It’s 3 all at once. And admittedly that’s a cool idea. It may even be the way to go forward with the series from here on in. But goodness, people. Working with one Sonic character in 3D gave way to so many issues. Now we potentially have 3X the frustrations? Making this work involves solving the inherent problems we’ve endured in these games for so long. And sadly, they weren’t solved here.

Now, be warned. You’re going to see me tear this game apart at certain points. You’re going to see me point out every glaring defect. Every concept fumble. And every sad, inexcusable slip up. Bluntly put, this game is flawed. Flawed on so many levels that it’s almost embarrassing.

But there’s more to a game than the sum of its parts. Soul Calibur 2 was amazing on the surface. Ironically, many felt it lacked the ‘soul’ so noticeably prevalent in its predecessor, consequentially dropping a potential classic down into mild disappointment territory. It had the right formula. It had all the right pieces. But in the end somehow it ended up a slap to the face of so many gamers (not all) who loved the franchise previous. Curious and rare occurrence indeed.

But does it work both ways? Is a game that’s fundamentally flawed in design able to somehow supercede its faults and result in an ultimately satisfying gaming experience? Is a game that has nearly none of the pieces falling into place from the get-go, able to rise above the incoherency that by definition says it should be inferior and spit out something not only playable, but special? That’s the dilemma we have with Sonic Heroes.



LET’S REVIEW

1. PLOT:

Let’s assume you haven’t been living in the backwoods with the guys from Deliverance for the past decade, and you’ve heard of Sonic The Hedgehog. So I’ll save us all the franchise summary.

In Sonic Heroes gameplay is split up between four different teams. And thus there are four different stories. Team Sonic: Consisting of Sonic, Tails, & Knuckles. Team Dark: Shadow, Rouge, & Omega. Team Rose: Amy, Cream, & Big. And the return of Team Chaotix: Espio, Vector & Charmy. Each group has a specialized objective, but the main interwoven theme is that Dr. Eggman (Will somebody please tell me, what was so bloody wrong with calling him Robotnik? Huh? Will somebody tell me?!) is back and ready to unleash the ultimate weapon for world destruction in a mere two days. Whether your team is chasing Eggman or chasing someone whose chasing after Eggman, somehow it all links together.

And err’ well. That’s basically it. No plot twists. No huge revelations. No disturbing yet mildly arousing furrie orgy scenes with Shadow, Sonic, and Amy. NO NOTHING. Both Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 had far more compelling plots that this game. And that’s disappointing. Sonic Team tends to pull out all the stops for 3D efforts of their leading franchise in this regard, but they held back this time. The player is given a basic, bare bones reason to start playing for each team and you’ll carry on from there to the end with little else thrown in.

Worse yet, dialogue is more laughable than it’s ever been in this series, with some of the verbal exchanges amongst characters during story sequences not even making sense.

Not to say that it’s truly bad. The in-game and FMV cut scenes move what little there is of the story along. There’s just enough here to hold your attention and keep things going cohesively as an excuse for continued play. Possibly the lack of heavy narrative was done on purpose to streamline gameplay. The flow of this game moves at breakneck speed akin to the pace of old-school 2D Sonics of yore, and a thicker plot might only serve to slow things down. Regardless, the story gets the job done.

Sadly, if you’re looking for a game with a plot that grabs your imagination by the reigns and hold you there, then this isn’t going to be your cup of tea. But if I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times, a good story is needed not to a good platformer make.

Story mode rating: 5/10


2. GRAPHICS:

One of the most valid concerns when Sonic Heroes was announced came from the fact that the game would be the first identical multi-platform Sonic game released. Sega made a wise decision in recognizing Sonic’s mass-market appeal by not limiting his exposure to just Nintendo this time. GameCube, Xbox, and the PS2 all have respective versions of Sonic Heroes. But Head of Sonic Team Yuji Naka formerly has been vocal in his criticisms that simultaneously developing games on multiple consoles decreases overall product quality. When leveled with the task of doing this with Sonic Heroes, many questioned what effect it would have upon the game, particularly graphic quality. Sure, Naka seemed confident in Criterion Software’s RenderWare technology to get the job done. But we’re dealing with three drastically different systems here after all. The Xbox is a powerhouse. The PS2 is the current pip-squeak. And the Cube is on the high end somewhere in between. How did they all turn out?

Surprisingly good. Good that is if you own a GameCube or Xbox. These versions are virtually perfect. But PS2 Sonic Heroes? Fugly. REAL fugly. Worst version of the three. Somehow even that one sounds worse. Thank God I didn’t have to review it. :p

But. Sonic Heroes on GameCube? Nice. Definitely ‘next-gen’ quality stuff. Sonic Team is known for creating visually striking games, specifically within their chief franchises. And they don’t disappoint here.

Characters models aren’t a huge leap above those found in Sonic Adventure 2, but they have some minor tweaks and sport a ‘shinier’, sleeker look. They all animate nicely too.


Sonic and pals are back. Looking sort of slightly better than ever!

Environments are expansive, well detailed, and busy with a lot going on in them to catch the eye. Whales jumping about, ships flying overhead, trains riding down expressways’ Lots of ‘oohhs’ and ‘aahhs’ to be had.

The FMV movies are excellent. And there’s a healthy portion littered throughout too. Funny, they still don’t seem to have passed the original quality of Sonic Adventure‘s FMVs. Those are the best 3D representations I’ve seen of these characters anywhere. But I suppose that’s subjective and this comes in a close second at any rate.

As much as there’s controversy with the game’s camera concerning Controls, the awkward angles it purposely presents results in some dynamic action sequences. You may not know what direction to push, but you’ll surely enjoy watching your misguided attempts at pulling off some outrageous stunts. Some truly awesome sequences transpire.

This isn’t always effective, though. During one chase scene when you’re running towards the camera away from a pursuing object I was unable to even see my characters due to the clumsy camera position. These glitches come out of hiding every once in a while at inopportune moments to ruin what was until then a perfectly enjoyable cinematic experience.

While the main game’s framerate stays rock solid steady, there is some slowdown during 2Player modes. Especially when both players kick the speed into high gear or when there are multiple enemies on screen.

For the most part, it’s all good. If you’re someone who plays games because they look pretty, then you can do worse than Sonic Heroes. It’s fast with little slowdown, has excellent FMVs, and sports impressive looking environments. Occasionally things may look a bit awkward but more often than not, quite a few ‘Wow, look at that!! That was cool,’ moments will creep up on you. Good job from Sonic Team, especially for having to develop for three consoles concurrently.

Just stay away from the PS2 version.

Graphics rating (for a GameCube game): 8/10


3. SOUND:

Bella’s been giving me the evil eye all month due to my constant singing of the Sonic Heroes theme. Don’t even realize I’m doing it honestly. That song is just stuck in my head. Nothing wrong with a grown man singing ‘Sonic Heroes’ in public, right? Right?

Whatever. I like this game’s acoustics. Some of the music’s a little cheesy, like some of the character team specific themes, but it’s mostly well done. Particularly music for each of the levels is catchy, diverse, upbeat, and memorable. Even the Options screen music pleases the ears. Sound effects are equally good to go as well.

Voice acting though? Bleh. It’s always been just barely tolerable. Granted, some of the VAs such as those for Sonic, Tails, & Omega get the job done, but a lot of the characters sound generic and or borderline annoying. At least your team speaks up during some amusingly appropriate moments. Following Sonic through loops, Tails and Knuckles will talk about how dizzy they’re getting trying to keep up. And when there’s a puzzle to figure out, odds are one of your teammates will give you a clue.

Overall it’s good. You won’t be blown away. But with at least a few tunes particularly, you’ll catch yourself humming along.

Sound rating: 7/10


4. CONTROL:

All right. Here we go.

For every time the gameplay made me smile with mad dog-like insanity, for every time my heart warmed with glee resultant from the latest 3D speed rush, there were just as many times I wanted to tie my GameCube controller cord into a noose and hang myself out my second story window. Sonic Heroes is the very definition of ‘love-hate’ relationship. It’ll make sweet, sweet, mind-blowing love to you with some of the craziest action sequences ever programmed into a digital experience. And then it’ll reveal it’s HIV positive the next morning with some of the most maddening camera angles ever allowed to pass through a beta test. I’ve never been so torn over a game before in my life.

Why do I love it so? I love it because it breaks far and away from what we had to deal with in Sonic Adventure 2. No longer are we subject to long stretches of game time doing things we honestly have no desire to do. Scavenger hunts. Shooting missions. Slow as molasses gameplay. Except for small exceptions with Team Chaotix, they’re all blissfully gone. We’re back to the core gameplay of the series. Even more so than the first Sonic Adventure.

I love it because the three-character gimmick actually works! Each team member represents a formation type. Speed. Flight. Power. Your team runs together and switching between them is done with a quick press of a button. Depending on what formation you’re in, that character type takes the lead and your abilities and specialized moves then change appropriately. In Team Sonic, switching to Flight formation will have Tails carry Sonic and Knuckles in chain up to higher platforms. Power formation has Knuckles punching through barriers and using his teammates as Street Fighter-like projective weapons. And of course when it’s time to break it off with some Speed, Sonic kills it like none other. Sweeter still, each group has an end all special technique called ‘Team Blast’ that, when your meter is filled, unleashes a joint effort devastating attack destroying everything on screen in a light show of wonderment. There’s a bit of a learning curve to all this, but thankfully the game starts slowly teaching you how the team based gameplay works, building up to much more elaborate and constantly shifting challenges. This new team intensive control scheme transforms a normally shallow gameplaying experience (Let’s be honest. Running in Sonic games is fun to be sure, but it’s not exactly the deepest thing we could subject our gaming skills to.) feel much more complete. Great, innovative stuff.

But then comes the hate. Oh, my yes, then comes the HATE. Just as you’re exploring the ins and outs of the controls and hugging and squeezing and kissing and loving them like Elmyra loves her bunnies, do the nagging problems of old creep themselves up yet again. It’s been five and a half years, people. Five and a half years. Why Sonic Team has been making 3D games for this long and is still unable to resolve issues stemming from an automatic camera, I’ll never know. Why they force the player to guess which direction to push while going through loop de loops, only to guess wrong and fall to their deaths time and time again, I can’t fathom. And why glitchy bugs and collision detection issues are still so prevalent in what we’re told are supposed to be ‘finished’ levels, well, it just boggles my feeble mind. But what I do know is that it’s inexcusable. Perhaps it was forgivable the first time back in 1999. Perhaps it was cute the second time in 2001. But now it’s intolerable. And shameful. Something as simple as pulling out a switch to open doors was rendered impossible due to shoddy collision detection. Things as simple as avoiding enemy gunfire and jumping over chasms, proved to be excruciating due to the camera not even allowing you to see your characters. And that’s not the half of it. You’ll scream with Andrew Dice Clay-humbling profanities during this game. Your overall enjoyment of what would otherwise be a fantastic experience is tarnished by these devilish evils. True, after playing levels a couple of times and going through some trial and error, you’ll eventually get used to them. But that’s not the point; we shouldn’t have to ‘get used to them’. We can no longer view these types of major gameplay issues as overlookable. The bar has since been raised in this genre. What Sonic Heroes gets wrong, so many others have gotten right for so long. You begin to wonder if Sonic Team is refusing to take the time to solve these issues or if they’re just plain unable to.

Honestly, these are the most innovative and well put together controls for any 3D Sonic game released thus far. The team based concept delivers in spades. The return to the core Sonic gameplay of old is a breathe of fresh air. Sonic Heroes gets so many things right that it almost serves to cover up what it gets wrong. Almost. The fundamental design flaws that have been inherent to this series since it’s 3D inception remain. Does it completely ruin your game experience? Not at all. If your tolerance is high and you can put up with some hate sprinkled in with your lovin’, then you’re more than good to go. Personally, I absolutely LOVE this game for what it gets right. But since we’re talking about Control and Control alone, no matter how much fun the game is overall. No matter how much lovin’ the experience will undoubtedly provide you. After nearly six years of this, folks, we can’t let slide.

-RANT OVER-

Control Rating: 4/10


5. REPLAYABILITY:

With 4 different teams you’ll be playing this more than once, that’s for sure. This is especially because, while similar, all teams play differently in mechanics and in narrative. As covered above the story isn’t exactly Shakespear, but each group has their own adventure that’ll keep you mildly curious as to how it all plays out. Each team also holds individual special abilities ranging in diversity from subtle to drastic. Example: Sonic, Shadow and Espio are all Speed formation leaders. Sonic and Shadow both have the ability to perform the Light Speed Dash, a lightning quick maneuver that sends you dashing along a string of rings. Lacking this, Espio makes up for it, in true chameleon fashion, with the power of Camouflage, rendering himself undetectable to surrounding enemies. Nice.

Chaos Emerald collecting for all 4 teams also guarantees more replay value. It’s worth the extra effort going back through levels retrieving them all to play through the game’s real ending unlocking the awesomeness that is the final boss; which I won’t spoil for you. ;)

Oh yes. And the 2 Player modes. Head to head racing, combat, whatever fits your fancy. It’s a bit messy and a mild diversion at best, but hey, it’s something. You’ll unlock more modes in 2P as you earn Emblems from completing levels in the Story mode. Plus you’ll earn even more Emblems if you go into Challenge Mode and complete extra trials for your completed levels.

The levels also have multiple routes for completion that can be accessed depending on which formation you choose to use.

Here’s the thing. Not that the replayability is bad, per se. It’s actually really good. But a large motivation for playing Sonic Heroes is to see what the game throws at you next. Once you’ve seen it 4 different times with 4 different teams, you’re pretty much spent. The grand pay-offs for fighting off the games numerous control issues are all used up. Thus I’ll probably leave this on the shelf next to Sonic Adventure 2 for Sonic games that I played the bloody mary out of when I first got, but probably won’t ever touch again for over a year from now.

Replayability rating: 7/10


6. BALANCE:

Funny, I was expecting the worst but this game is pretty well balanced.

Each team represents a different skill level. Team Sonic is your standard difficulty setting. Team Dark’s levels are similar to Team Sonic’s except 5X as hard. Team Rose’s stages hold your hand like a mentally retarded attention deficient disorder toddler if you’re new to action games. And Team Chaotix is the X-factor with a bunch of random and unique challenges. In this respect each team holds up to their part of the difficulty setting bargain.

But when you get within the actual stream of gameplay things get a little screwy. As mentioned before we’ve gotten back to the old flow from 2D Sonic titles. Two stages, then you’re on to fight the area Boss. If you’re battling Eggman, more power to you. It’s going to be a fun (and probably easy) little brawl as you figure out the best way to take him down. Good times had by all. But sometimes, the ‘Boss’ will end up as one of the other 4 character teams. And when that happens, oh lord. Just button mash and pray. Seriously. You’re going to get hit with a ton of crap you can’t possibly do anything about here and your chances of success are determined by the ‘Gods of Arbitrariness.’ Playing as Team Sonic against Team Dark I had a ‘battle’, if you can call it that, which went on for over five minutes of mindless back and forth frustrating lunacy, only to die from Jeebas knows what hitting me, plummeting to my death unable to even see my characters due to the camera angle. Ugh. The very next go round, however? I beat them in one hit without even moving the directional stick. What the blood clot, people? What the blood clot’

Other than this one conspicuous balancing foible, I was surprised to find the game better balanced than most other Sonic excursions. Difficulty steadily increased. Stages got longer. Proficiency in character switching tactics became more crucial. It was a breath of fresh air from the mind numbing easiness that you’d normally see in the series. There was some actual challenge. And I liked that a LOT.

But the praise can’t be extended too far, as the line between the challenge rising because the game progressively became more difficult and it rising because the Controls are demon spawned hellions from the abyss, are slightly blurred. And can good balance really be attributed to flawed design?

Balance rating: 6/10


7. ORIGINALITY:

My, my, my, an innovative Sonic game? Isn’t this a pleasant surprise! You can look all you want. But you won’t find a game anything like this anywhere else in platformer-land. Team-based, platforming gameplay similar has never been accomplished on such an extensive level.

Ask yourself. How many other 3D platforming games have you played that move this fast? How many other platformers have you controlling 3 characters simultaneously? You’d be hard pressed to come up with one.

Originality rating: 8/10


8. ADDICTIVENESS:

Very good. For as many times as I died unnecessarily due to bad camera angles, shoddy controls, weird play mechanics, etc., something about SH kept sucking me back in. I had that, ‘Just one more game’ feeling. I had that, ‘It’s 2AM already?’ feeling. Maybe it’s because I’m a diehard fan, but hands down I was thoroughly addicted to this game.

At first.

Then things started to sloooooow doooooown. Literally. Team Rose and Team Chaotix in particular. You see given the choice, everyone is going to start playing through this game with Team Sonic. Then they’ll probably work their way over to Team Dark, because let’s face it; those are the two coolest teams. Both feature fast, action packed gameplay that’ll challenge your gaming mojo to the limits. But Team Rose? Easy. Easier than getting laid during a season of The Real World. Easier than getting bitten by a Goth chick at an underground bondage club in Chicago. Easier than IPgames falling into chaos and disarray pending a revolt from Alex Lucard and I. Easier than getting Chuck Platt to have gay cyber sex. Easier than two lubricated monkey licking each other’s bananas without having to.. Wait. Wait. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. Sometimes I get carried away. It’s the Torrets.

What I mean is, Team Rose is for beginners. And yes, that’s how it’s supposed to be. But you’re no longer a beginner. It’s tough to play at that sedated level after going through the insanity you’ve just experienced with Team Sonic and or Dark. And Team Chaotix levels don’t help matters much either, as the random tasks you’re obligated to perform end up at times being more tedious than entertaining.

Although the Team Rose and Chaotix expeditions were less attractive, I was compelled to push through, just not as feverishly. All were still enjoyable in their own ways. As a whole, this game just has that charm. The levels are truly diverse and engaging. From rain forests to haunted houses to massive airships, continued play is near mandatory just from the addiction of finding out what the next demented ‘trip’ this game is going to send you on next. That rush accounts for a lot and fights against the game’s weaknesses tremendously.

Addictiveness rating: 7/10


9. APPEAL FACTOR:

SEGA’s marketing has been excellent (Did I just say that?). And Sonic as a brand name is far from unrecognizable. But the crucial factor in this game’s appeal for you individually is dependant upon your history with the franchise.

Attention all Sonic fans. You want this game. If you’ve stuck with the series from the old Genesis titles, and especially thru to the Dreamcast Sonic Adventure games, then don’t hesitate. Pick this up. You will love it, warts and all. You’ll grin with glee witnessing the return of the much-loved Killer Whales. You’ll mark out seeing Team Chaotix in 3D for the first time. You’ll piss yourself after playing through a full 3D replica to the spiritual successor of Casinopollis, with slot machines, flippers, and all. And you’ll damn near pass out after discovering whom the final villain is. This game was made for you, the Sonic The Hedgehog fan. Made for you to enjoy and savor and devour.


Sonic fans do not hesitate! This will rock your world!

But as for the rest of you… If you haven’t already endeared yourself to these characters previous, this is NOT the game to win you over. You could very well end up HATING the entire blasted franchise based off just this one game. The disorientation of moving so fast in 3D with not one, but three different characters at once could alienate many used to more methodical platformers. (Even though Sonic Heroes is the most methodical game in the series.) Plus the controls and camera are frustrating for series veterans, let alone newbies.

Tell ya what. Go buy Sonic Advance 2 for the GBA, people. Or better still, get Sonic MegaCollection for the Cube or Sonic Jam for your Sega Saturn (You do own a Saturn, right? RIGHT??). Work your way up to the first Sonic Adventure. Find out what this series is all about from the best incarnations of it readily available. Get into the universe, the characters, and discover its charm before you even decide to lay hands on this latest chapter in the franchise. Otherwise, you may not ‘get it’. If you ignore that advice or you’re too cool for 2D then I’m telling you all now, do not spend 50 bones on Sonic Heroes without first renting to see if it fits your fancy. Far higher quality platformers abundantly roam around on this console. This is a NINTENDO system after all. Just remember, 75% of the enjoyment from playing Sonic Heroes, other than the rush and cheap thrills, will come from your already developed attachment to the series. If that doesn’t exist, then you may be better off playing Mario Sunshine or Viewtiful Joe. Because you won’t put up with half the garbage those who are already hooked will.

Getting back to you Sonic fans’ Of course many of you won’t purchase this game, regardless if you might enjoy it or not, because as a rule it’s cool to bash 3D Sonic games in the Sonic gaming community. In that case all I can hope is that you grow up, form your own opinion, and stop acting like blinded fanboy sheep. If you are among the many (and there are quite a few; millions actually) that DO get what this series is all about, then don’t worry about the negative-ness you’ve been hearing everywhere about this game. It’s all Hating. Yes, you’ll complain. Yes, you’ll get frustrated. And yes, you’ll be smiling all the way through it despite yourself.

Appeal Factor rating: 6/10


10. MISCELLANEOUS:

Here’s the deal. For everything this game gets wrong, it gets tons more right. It would take a seriously jaded gamer, or someone who hated platformers to begin with, to not at least crack a smile while playing Sonic Heroes. Some truly spectacular events transpire while playing this game that I can’t do justice with words and wouldn’t want to won’t spoil for you anyway. It must be experienced to be appreciated. What we have here is a fundamentally broken game with glimmers of something simply incredible just waiting to break out from underneath it. I can’t tell you how many times my jaw dropped at the images coming across my screen. They’re too numerous to even mention. Sonic Heroes is infectious in it’s ability to wow you at every corner when you least expect it. This applies not only for those who love and cherish this series as I do, but also for anyone who truly enjoys video games in any shape or form. Wonderful.

Miscellaneous rating: 9/10


Short Attention Span Summary
Perhaps this’ll clear everything up about our rating system. In the pages of EGM you’ll see a paragraph review with this same score completely destroying a game, with almost no positives or in-depth insight given at all. That’s because around there (and most places for that matter), a score of 7 is considered Average. It keeps the game companies happy and properly sucked up to. Well, that’s not how we operate around here, folks. 5 is Average. 6.5 means ABOVE AVERAGE. It means the game has worthwhile qualities that make it worth checking out still. In the case of Sonic Heroes, there are several problems afoot. A broken camera. Problems with bugs and collision detection. Some balance issues. Many, many things. But the rush, the ambiance, the sheer coolness of the entire experience carries so much weight that it easily eclipses said imperfections. I’ve scored this game lower than others within the genre but I’d much rather play this than more solid entries like Billy Hatcher and Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando. That’s because when Sonic Heroes is bad, it’s bad. But when it’s good, it’s oh so GOOD. Sonic fans, you need this game. Everyone else should rent first. It’s not going to float everyone’s boat, as some people will never be able to come to grips with 3D Sonic titles. But for those who can enjoy, it rocks harder and feels more like old-school 2D Sonic gameplay than any other 3D title released within the series thus far. Flawed and awesome; all at once.