Sega was nice enough to send me a review copy of Sonic and the Secret Rings today. I had heard a car door close while I was at my computer, so I went to the front door to see who it was. No one was there, but a DHL package was left sitting on my steps. I wasn’t expecting any packages, so I had no idea what was inside. I opened it up and was met with a big pair of Sonic eyes. This was a complete surprise; I didn’t know I would be getting a review copy. I grabbed the game, ran over to the Wii, and popped that sucker right in. Full reviews have to wait until February 20th, but I can give you some early impressions of the game.
I had over an hour of playtime with Secret Rings, which I think gave me a very good taste of things to come. The first thing that hit me was the manner in which the story is told. Since Secret Rings takes place in a storybook, cutscenes are done in a hand drawn style. Some shots are slightly animated, but for the most part the story unfolds like a comic book. The direction of the art, as well as the flow of these scenes works perfectly with the storyline of the game. The only bad part would have to be the voice acting. Unfortunately, this is something we have come to expect from Sonic games. That’s alright though…how many people are playing Sonic for the story?!
The game starts you off with a set of training courses to get you adjusted to the Wiimote. You hold it sideways just as you do with Excite Truck, or old school NES games on the VC. The two button is jump, you tilt the Wiimote left and right to move Sonic left and right, and tilting the controller towards you slows Sonic down. When you jump, you can slam the Wiimote downwards to shoot Sonic through the air. This is used when you are attacking an enemy as well. There are a number of training courses to go through. They range from basic movement, to grinding on rails, to short and long jumps. A certain number of these missions have to be completed before you can enter the first world.
We have all seen what the first world looks like. If you followed our posts, you saw that IGN ran a video of the entire first level as well. I had played this level back at E3, and now I got to see first hand how things have changed since then. You find yourself racing along a sandy beach, running in and out of buildings, running up and down walls, and even grinding along rails. The flow of the level is really nice, and has been expanded upon a great deal since E3. Some of my favorite portions include dodging giant arrows being shot at you, as well as carefully crossing along the top of a building with spikes jutting out. As you play through, you will see branching paths…some that you can take, and others you can’t. The paths you cannot take come into play later on.
Once you do the first run through of a level, different gameplay missions are opened up. When I completed the first level, I unlocked another mission. One objective of this mission was to make it through the level without losing all of my rings. When the level started, I was plopped down in a different starting point from my first run. This time I was running down different paths, as well as fighting a lot more enemies. Challenges like this definitely ramped up the difficulty, as I died a few times while trying to make it through. These other missions are where a major part of the game comes into play. To unlock the next level, you have to complete a set amount of extra missions. To unlock the second level in the game, I had to complete roughly 4 extra missions from the first level. These included two sections of not losing all my rings, one where I couldn’t break any pots and another where I had to break 5 pots. Keep in mind that all these missions changed up the layout of the level, where you started in a level, the enemy placement and number, or all three. Each time you go through you see something new. It made completing these missions a lot of fun, instead of a chore. I really liked have to work harder to unlock the second level, instead of jumping right into it.
Every time you complete a mission in a level, you gain points. These points are used to fill up an experience meter. Once you fill the meter completely, you are given a set number of experience points. As you play through, you also learn different moves that Sonic can utilize. The thing is, you cannot use these moves until you have enough experience points to equip them. One of the first moves you learn is a quick start. This allows Sonic to get a boost off the starting line by slamming the controller down. To equip this move I needed three experience points. As I completed missions, my point meter would fill. Eventually I gained enough points to bump my experience meter into the next bar. Now I had 3 experience points, which just so happened to be enough to equip the boost start. The moves you equip are housed in the ring that Sonic wears on his finger. At the start of each level you can choose one of four rings, each one containing moves that you equip them with. For instance, if you have a bunch of moves that help you gain a lot of speed, you would set them all up on one ring. You would then use that ring on one of the time trial missions. The rings add a deeper layer to Sonic, it’s quite unlike anything we’ve seen in the entire series.
I am really happy to report that Secret Rings is (so far) a lot of fun to play. Camera issues are almost non existent. This is a huge change for the series, seeing that almost all the 3d versions of the game have horrible 3d cameras. There were one or two instances where the camera changed to a dramatic angle, and it did get a bit disorienting. These only lasted for a second or less, rather then the long term issues camera problems of other Sonic games. Steering Sonic with the Wiimote works great, and I haven’t had any issues. The training mode should help iron out any issues you have. I’d say that the steepest learning curve is found in Sonic’s jump. When you press the 2 button, Sonic will slide until you release. Once you release the 2 button, Sonic launches himself in the air. Each time you press the 2 button after that, he will slam himself back to the ground. It’s almost as if he is acting as a magnet. It is also possible to use quick presses of the 2 button to do short hops. It takes some practice to get the timing right, seeing that Sonic slides into a jump rather than jumping instantly. As I said, I played for an hour, and within that time I had the jumping down no problem.
The biggest improvement Secret Rings has over other Sonic 3d titles is the sense of involvement. If you have played other Sonic 3d titles, you are most likely familiar with the sense of not really controlling Sonic. You see him run through loops, jump from spring to spring, and all sorts of crazy things. The only problem is, you were never in control of any of that. You could literally put the controller down for a good 20 to 30 seconds and just let Sonic go. Secret Rings still has a bit of those instances, but they are very few and far between. Those types of moments are in the game, but now you really get to control Sonic. There is one point in the second level where you are climbing up a spiral platform. In a previous Sonic game you would have just sat and watched. Sonic and the Secret Rings lets you move left to right, and jump. You have control over the scene, rather than just watching it. Finally having control over most of the action sequences adds a ton of fun to the game. You can literally pick apart the portions of levels that would have been completely controlled by the game had this been on another console. There is one portion in the first level that has you jumping out over the ocean to lock onto enemies. When you lock on, you have to slam the Wiimote down to destroy them. They pop you up in the air, and you lock onto the next. You make your way across the ocean onto a platform with a set of rails to grind, as well as spiked balls to avoid. You jump from track to track, then hit a speed boost to make it over to another island. Finally you guide Sonic through a twisting portion of the jungle to come to the finish. Playing these portions of the game while they take various cinematic camera angles really stands out. I was actually smiling while playing through. I can’t tell you the last time I smiled while playing a Sonic console game.
Well, as I said, I have to hold off on a full review. I have barely scratched any of the game, but this is what I have picked up on through my first hour. I am not declaring this Sonic a winner just yet. I am cautiously optimistic, only because of my previous Sonic experiences since Sonic Adventure. The one thing I can say for sure is that I am having a lot of fun. I don’t see any reason why things wouldn’t continue that way.