Oh Sonic. How we all wanted you to surprise everyone with your latest video game. There's no denying the fact that Sonic and the Secret Rings looked to be the game that would propel Sonic back into the limelight, finally delivering a 3D experience that would rival the good old 2D platformers. And it's on the Wii, the console that is being hailed as the saviour of the industry by many people who have grown tired of the endless graphics race. So how did Sonic on the Wii turn out to be such a big disappointment?
Story wise things aren't particularly great, with the plot and script unlikely to wow anyone over the age of ten. An evildoer named Erazor Djinn is destroying the book of the Arabian Nights and Sonic agrees to dive into the world of the book and stop this from happening. A series of dull comic book-like cutscenes give you updates on how the story is progressing, but it's completely forgettable and the bad voice acting will be enough to irritate many players.
In an attempt to make a 3D Sonic game that really works, Sonic Team went back to the drawing board and attempted to design a game mechanic and control scheme that would suit the speedy hedgehog and the Wii-mote. What we've ended up with is a semi on-rails racing game/platfomer that limits Sonic to pretty basic movement. By default he'll run forwards, with sideways movement performed by tilting the Wii-mote to the left or right (from its side-on orientation where the d-pad is on the left). This all sounds good on paper, but it's amazing how such a simple control scheme can cause so many problems.
Had Secret Rings simply been a racing game this continuous forward motion wouldn't have been an issue, but you'll frequently face obstacles and enemies that cause unfair amounts of grief. To counter this Sonic can move backwards by tilting the controller back towards you, but this feels incredibly clumsy even after you've gained increased backtracking abilities. This emphasis on new abilities runs throughout the game, with your experience level determining how good a super hedgehog Sonic actually is.
Gaining new experience and abilities is something that is commonplace in modern video games, but the result here is a game that starts off annoying and never really recovers. For example, the targeting system that comes into play when Sonic leaps into the air can be improved, but by the time it has there's every chance you'll have given up due to frustration. The act of pushing the Wii-mote forwards to attack is in itself annoying after you've been playing for a few hours, and the other problems just pile on top. Why not just let Sonic target enemies from a larger distance and recover between attacks quicker right from the start? Removing the levelling up aspect would have streamlined the whole game and made it more enjoyable at the same time.
Things aren't helped by the strange way in which you move through the game. The whole experience is incredibly disjointed, with each world in the game being home to a number of short missions. After each mission you're thrown back to the mission select window and can then pick from all available missions. The game even forces you to hop from world to world without any real reason, so even if you want to play through each in some kind of order, you can't. Most of the missions seem completely random too, often forcing you to achieve goals completely unrelated to the story as a whole.
Missions that ask you to scream through one of the many impressive looking environments are great, but as soon as you're given strange criteria for success the fun is gone. Some of these missions (like killing a set number of enemies) are plain dull, while one-on-one races are more a case of trial and error and trying to avoid certain areas of a level that always result in disaster. The amount of times I attempted to complete one particular one-on-one only to fail at the same point tested the strength of the Wii-remote safety strap to its limit, and I was often left with nothing to choose from but infuriating missions.
Out of all the new abilities the Speed Break and Time Break are the most interesting, but they only come into their own in very specific sections of certain missions. The Speed Break acts as an extreme turbo charge for Sonic's running speed while Time Break slows down time and allows you to navigate tricky areas. These moves rely on your collection of orbs that are scattered around each level, but thankfully you'll gain an ability to attract orbs pretty early on in the game.
As a complete aside to the main single-player game, Sonic and the Secret Rings also includes a number of mini-games for up to four players. These are pretty typical Wii mini-games and use the Wii-mote in a number of 'fun' ways. They're not bad for a few minutes now and again but they don't feel like they're part of the game as a whole. Visually, the mini-game mode looks quite drastically different to the main single-player game and it's hard to shake the feeling that they were developed purely because people would expect them in a Wii title.
Despite its many problems, Sonic and the Secret Rings isn't as bad as the recently released Sonic the Hedgehog for next-gen consoles. It delivers pure Sonic action far more often than that weak effort managed, but it's still hard to call it a successful game. For every good moment there's a handful of annoying ones, with everything from the Wii-mote controls to the game structure causing problems at some point or another. SEGA would be wise to persevere with the best aspects of its latest Sonic outing, but by no means should they think they've cracked the 3D conundrum. They're still far from it.