In a first for Decades I passed on review duties for this one to an outside writer (who just said I should do this more often!?)
Please welcome a games guru, a wizard of the noble art of levelling up, a man who wields a control pad like Obi Wan wields ‘the force’, a man who knows more about video games than pretty much anyone I know, a man who has spent the night in a Japanese capsule hotel.
Please welcome James Marshall!
Nostalgia can be a powerful thing. Looking back at certain games, their primitive graphics or outdated systems betraying their age, it can be easy to fall into the rose-tinted trap of memory. Any frustrations are put aside as you remember the wonderful moments of your youth, tied forever to a certain level, moment or audio cue. Unfortunately for Sonic Adventure 2, the furthest I’d ever previously reached was the end of the first level. After that spectacular truck chase down San Francisco streets ended? It seems, Sonic, you’ve got no nostalgia to protect you now.
Well, that’s not entirely true. While Sonic Adventure 2 is another foray into 3D worlds, Sonic began his glorious rise (and fall?) back in the days of the Sega Mega Drive. The original Sonic games are still held up as masters of the platforming genre, combining speed, intricate level paths and a dazzling array of art design to stunning effect. Translating the whiplash-inducing blur to 3D has its roots in Sonic 2’s bonus levels, although it was Sonic Adventure 1 and 2 which threw the blue-coiffed icon into a whole new gaming landscape. Originally released for the Dreamcast, Sega have joined the development masses in re-releasing classic titles as HD remakes, available through the XBLA and PSN. Sonic Adventure received a fairly dismal port, so how does it’s sequel fare?
Like a caveman frozen in ice, Sonic Adventure 2 awakes in the present day in a gaming world that has changed significantly. Despite a gap of only six years, Sonic Adventure 2 is plagued by design choices and shonky mechanics that have long since fallen out of favour with contemporary tastes. A laundry list of problems turn a cheery, fun game into a frustrating experience. Sonic Adventure 2 teases you with a few precious minutes of inventive gameplay before shattering the illusion thanks to sluggish controls or a restrictive time limit. Almost all of the standard Sonic traits are there – he moves faster than most platformers, the collection of rings as both score boost and health reserve as well as saving googly-eyed critters from the evil Dr. Robotnik (he’ll always be Robotnik, never the pointlessly renamed Dr Eggman!)
It’s rather telling that these stalwart features are some of the better parts of Sonic Adventure 2. If there was ever a lesson encouraging the sentiment ‘less is more’, it’s a game where Sonic bring along his entourage of intolerable friends. Tails – despite being voiced by a 5-year-old – verges on acceptable, thanks to his inclusion in Sonic 2. Knuckles, Shadow, Amy, Rouge and more? Purely extraneous inclusions who manage to be interminably dumb, totally unnecessary and unexpectedly patronising all at the same time. If the disappointment and apathy found in the state of the modern Sonic franchise could be distilled into character form, the plasticine-faced creations of Sonic Adventure 2 would surely be the result. Each character brings a different gameplay style to play – a technique that would be quite welcome given likable avatars to use. Sonic sticks with his traditional platforming, spruced up with a few new moves; Tails pilots a mechanical walker with lock-on missiles; Knuckles scavenges for arbitrary MacGuffins in large, open levels. The Dark side of the game – an entirely different campaign that intersects with the Hero mode – sees these same gameplay styles albeit using the ‘evil’ characters. The change in gameplay mixes proceedings up a little but the problems are exponential, given the radically different character skills.
Public Enemy Number One, sabotaging the game from the off, remains the notoriously unhelpful camera. It’s a sign of things to come that the first level is presented with the camera positioned in front of Sonic as he runs toward the screen. The chosen angle is effective in framing the action as a GUN truck shunts its way through parked cars and over hills, but the inability to see oncoming obstacles can undermine the urgency of the situation as Sonic hurtles headfirst into immovable scenery. Rarely a moment goes by without the camera causing a headache – becoming caught on the scenery or deliberately aiming the wrong way. It’s adjustable, allowing you to position your goal in sight, but the moment you move your character it swings back to the default setting as if it were ashamed to let you see the way ahead. Deaths build up as the camera actively works against level progression until you run out of lives, forcing a permanent restart. Some games are tough; Sonic Adventure 2 is just unfair.
The controls make this unfairness feel especially vindictive. When he’s not zooming around, Sonic can perform an airy jump that’s hard to judge. A button press allows him to dash midair, automatically locking on to enemies. This particular move is often necessary to cross cavernous spaces, locking on a jumping from enemy to enemy. It’s a pain, then, that the lock-on will often not work, merrily sending Sonic to fall to his death. Holding B (or circle on PS3) Sonic can also whip along trails of rings – another vital move that will see you die repeatedly thanks to poor implementation.
Production values are also scattershot in quality – cutscenes often have dialogue overlap and the facial animation is dire. Given the age of the game this is probably to be expected and it is rather amusing to watch Tails face distort into a disturbing grimace in what is meant to exhibit surprise, if only to imagine that it’s his death mask. While this utmost hatred may seem extreme, one hearing of the terrible voice acting will soon have you thinking the same way. Sonic talks like a surfer reject, Tails speaks exactly how a childish sidekick would and the less said about the rest the better. Perhaps the worst culprit remains the stupid tutorial Chao (we’ll get to the Chaos later) who spouts unhelpful or blatantly obvious tips if you happen to bump into him. During boss fights it’ll even pop up and tell you how to defeat the boss – without prompting – even if you’ve already made a few successful attacks. It talks in a child’s voice, making it a hundred times more patronising, as if you have a spoilt nephew sitting beside you complaining about your gaming ineptitude.
This is also a common theme in Sonic Adventure 2 – judging your performance. Every level is scored dependent on time or rings collected. Often, thanks to the conspiring efforts of the camera and clunky controls, you’ll have finished the level far behind the best times at which point you’ll be ranked. Fair enough, an E or D sucks, but thanks for playing a little soundbite of the character rubbing in how amazingly crap I was, Sonic Adventure! Any desire to persist or – shock horror! – better my time completely evaporated into boiling hatred of these pre-teen animals who deem themselves fit to judge me.
On a plus side, the Chao World remains intact – albeit without the Dreamcast VMU compatibility – and provides a relaxingly downtempo interlude between the action. Raising and training a Chao can be an enigma to begin with, thanks to the absence of a clear tutorial (where were you when I actually needed you, Tutorial Chao?!) but the ability to enter your Chao in fight tournaments or singing lessons is adorable. The song in the Chao classroom will melt your heart with its cuteness – an excellent remedy to the blackened, sickly shell in its place due created from your complete hatred toward Sonic and his ‘friends’.
The utter failure of the camera and controls is even more disappointing as you can see the promise of a fantastic game underneath. Levels featuring Sonic maintain a smooth framerate despite blistering speed, there are some genuinely interesting ideas and it’s presented capably. The problem remains that the industry – and audience – has seen huge change in the intervening period and Sonic Adventure 2, with its buggy camera and myriad other problems, comes across as severely dated. Back in 2001 these problems would be par for the course, something that everyone accepted. Now that these issues have been almost eradicated, Sonic Adventure 2 cannot shake the feeling of being a relic of a past age. It’s worth a brief play if only to witness the fall of a console icon from powerhouse to laughing stock but as a full game it’s a real slog. What should be a fast and exhilarating experience runs flat into a brick wall more times than you can count, ruining any fun you might be having. If you’ve played it before then the power of nostalgia may allow you to overcome the problems you’ll face or, more likely, it’ll show you just how far we’ve come and how rudimentary Sonic Adventure 2 remains.