In a demonstration of some serious staying power, this year is Sonic's fifteenth - fifteenth! - birthday. Sadly, on the evidence of the past few years - and again with his Xbox 360 latest, Sonic The Hedgehog - it's crystal his best days are well behind him.
In the past, admirably, Sega have been unafraid to tinker with the formula that made him so endearing back on the MegaDrive (namely cheek-flapping speed and spectacle, obviously), but Grade A misfires such as Sonic Adventure and, recently, the terrible Sonic Riders, have been riddled with clumsy mechanics, unhelpful cameras and, in the case of the former game, minor, unsuccessful RPG elements; a turn of events which have conspired to dilute exactly what it was that made Sonic a gaming icon in the first place.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
So, Sonic the Hedgehog is a concerted attempt by Sega to recapture those former glories. They've long said as much; the original press release for the game quoted series mastermind Yuji Naka as saying that they wanted to go back to the "starting point" of the series. And there's the name - no Riders, no Heroes, just Sonic. 'Back to basics' seems to be the mission statement, which is noble enough - so, why then is this anything but a return to Sonic's classic roots?
If anything, it's Sonic Adventure Part Three. There are multiple characters to play as - the game's divided into three, with Sonic, Shadow and newcomer Silver the three protagonists (ably helped out by playable companions such as Blaze the cat and everyone's favourite punching bag, Tails). This in itself is no bad thing - more on that later - but the game also takes its cue from Adventure in that there are town levels as well as action levels. So, if you're expecting non-stop speed and hellblazing set-pieces, you're going to be disappointed; not only are the action levels frustratingly stop-start, with multiple routes and sometimes unclear objectives (check out Sonic's opening action level, the final objective of which is to close a gate to stop a familiar whale from escaping with Sonic on his back - it took us several teeth-grinding attempts to find the damn thing, so woefully is it signposted), the Town levels sport tedious wandering around and speaking to utterly idiotic NPCs in order to open up the next area. If Sonic the Hedgehog is a return to what made the blue 'hog so appealing in the first place, why then are we forced to indulge in activities so utterly alien to Sonic's appeal? Basically, the town levels are out of place, tedious and annoying.
The three main characters are variable too. Sonic's much as you expect, and when his levels 'click' and the face-melting velocity is maintained, catapulting you from one breathtaking set-piece to the next, the effect is glorious; but too often combat, ill-judged platforming and occasional indecision as to what to do next get in the way instead. Shadow's levels, on paper at least, offer something different, as he's able to drive a variety of vehicles, but his blast-happy action and essential charmlessness throw a spanner in the works. It's up to Silver to redress the balance, and this newcomer's powers - he can throw cars around using only the power of his mind - are genuinely enjoyable, even if his levels are, once again, far removed from the Sonic games of yore.
HEDGE YOUR BETS
It's actually quite upsetting that the game's so spotty, because there are moments of wonder here. In high definition, the cartoony looks are a definite bonus - Silver's opening level, for example, is glorious: a big, ruined, burning city of remarkable scale that starts to become apparent as you're thrust ever upwards through bounding leaps and telekinetically- created platforms. Some of the bosses too are awe-inspiring, and there are occasions when you genuinely forget how uneven the game is, such is the spectacle.