There's no point trying to deny the truth of the situation: the revelation of a new Sonic game is no longer something to get excited about. These days any such announcement is more likely to summon a feeling of apprehension, perhaps with a pinch of pessimism sprinkled on top. We've come a long way since the hedgehog's glory days in the mid '90s, and yet we're still waiting for a 3D game that really does the little guy justice.
Still, let's not be too negative. Sonic and The Black Knight is an upcoming Wii game that acts as a rough sequel to Sonic and the Secret Rings - one of the better-received of the icon's recent outings, even if Tom didn't much care for it . The plot is pretty unusual too: a young sorceress named Merlina summons Sonic to the realm of Camelot so that he can help defeat the evil force that has somehow possessed King Arthur. Meanwhile there are a few familiar faces appearing in the roles of Arthur's most trusted knights. Knuckles plays Sir Gawain, Shadow is Sir Lancelot and Blaze the Cat is Perceval.
What this all means, in a nutshell, is that Sonic gets to run around a medieval environment waving a bloody great big sword - Excalibur, no less. As with the Wii version of Sonic Unleashed, you'll spend most of your time running through levels that are essentially just linear tracks. You are able to adjust your speed, and backtrack if necessary, but your main input is to steer the hedgehog left and right with the analogue stick, using the A button to jump. As with Unleashed, the camera sits just behind Sonic and occasionally switches to a new perspective as he negotiates certain obstacles. While your left hand handles navigation, your right will be waving the Wii remote in a bid to chop up your enemies. Sword attacks are dished out via simple gestures, while the Z trigger can be used to block.
Because you're moving at a few hundred miles an hour, and because you're Sonic the Hedgehog, the enemies you face don't really represent an enormous threat. Instead the challenge is to take down your opponents in a fluid chain without losing momentum. In addition to Excalibur (who talks, incidentally) you'll also gain access to Soul Surge - a lock-on move that can only be used once you've filled up a power gauge by defeating foes. By holding down B you'll summon a red target over your nearest threat; shake the remote and you'll plough right through the unfortunate bad guy. The target then moves to the next enemy and you're free to shake again, continuing until the gauge is depleted. With practice, you should be able to rip through large groups of enemies without a problem.
Aside from the swordplay, standard stages play out in fairly typical Sonic fashion. Golden fairies take the place of gold rings, but the main objective is still to get from A to B as fast as possible. The game hurtles about at a fair old speed, and the graphics look pretty sharp for a Wii release. So far so good, but there's less cause for celebration when it comes to the duel stages that seem to pop up every once in a while. Some, like an early boss fight with King Arthur, take the form of simple QTE challenges; others see Sonic facing off against characters who have similar abilities to his own. Here the aim is to block incoming attacks and to counter when the opportunity arises, but often these fights seem to descend into bouts of frantic remote-waving.
Another possible area of concern is the fact that the game doesn't seem that keen to explain itself - something that could be quite important, given its young target audience. Certain stages require you to complete them in a certain way, but often the precise requirements are left unclear. One early level simply told me to "use soul surge on the ground", which I dutifully did - and then when I got to the end of the stage I got a failure message. Eventually I noticed a small "0/10" indicator at the side of the screen, and deducted that I had to kill that many enemies using the aforementioned special move. Even once I'd worked this out, I still managed to fail the level because I hadn't realised that the game didn't count soul surges that began with a jump. Okay, so perhaps I was just being thick - but I'd wager that there are quite a few eight-year-olds who would be just as dumb. Well, one or two at any rate.
At the end of each stage the player is given a score and then informed of the items they have received for their work. During the course of my test I won a small multitude of weapons, treasure items and foodstuffs - but once again, the game neglected to tell me what precise purpose they serve. In fairness, I didn't make an enormous amount of headway into the game, so perhaps all will be revealed later. What is clear is that SEGA's trying hard to give the Black Knight a generous degree of replayability. Stages you've completed can be revisited using the RPG-like map screen that appears between levels, and it appears that once the main campaign is complete you'll be able to play through as Knuckles and the other supporting characters. The game also includes a generous selection of galleries and a VS mode for up to four players, although it's not clear how this will work yet.
It seems like a fairly generous package, and the game's cut scenes are also looking quite impressive. Still, long-term Sonic fans will be more concerned with how the game plays. From what's been shown so far, the main Sonic-moving-at-speed sections are working pretty well, but it remains to be seen whether or not the remote-waving will become tiresome over a long period of time. We're just as keen as everyone else to see the definitive 3D Sonic game, but experience has taught us to be cautious when it comes to making early judgements.
Sonic and the Black Knight will be released in March on Wii.