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Sonic and the Black Knight

Sega get set for a new spin-off, but can Sonic cut it with a blade?

The Arthurian legends have been told and retold so often we reckon we're experts. After a quick Google-fuelled refresher we can tell you that the legendary king wielded a sword called Excalibur, had a pathological fear of right-angled furniture and looked a lot like Clive Owen or Peter Davison or Bradley James, depending on who you talk to.

Oh, and he had a bit of help from an electric blue hedgehog with zippy red trainers and a neat line in irritating wisecracks. Yes, Sega's worst kept secret,2 the follow-up to 2007's Sonic And The Secret Rings, is limbering up for release next year. Entitled Sonic And The Black Knight, it's a significant addition to the Sonic canon for fans hoping for a hedgehog hat-trick following the rather good Sonic Chronicles and the hopefully rather good Sonic Unleashed. The great news is that this is showing some early promise.

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Comparisons with The Secret Rings are inevitable, but this new Wii exclusive owes just as much to Unleashed. More, even. The fantasy setting is gloriously colourful and a long way away from the real-world locations of the latter, but the emphasis on speed is remarkably similar. The camera sits behind Sonic most of the time, switching to a side-on view for certain combat and platforming sections - just like Unleashed. The winding track-like stages are as much racing game as platform game - just like Unleashed. And Sonic is steered with the nunchuk - just like Unleashed and not a bit like The Secret Rings' Wii remote-centric control scheme. So, why the switch? Well, you're going to need your remote hand free to swing your sword.

Yes, for the first time ever, Sonic has managed to get his hands on a weapon. Far sharper than his spiny coat, this baby can run through an errant knight's armour like a laser-powered chainsaw. Better yet, it can cleave solid stone blocks and help our boy scale (and descend) castle walls. But Sonic's new toy is a - wait for it - double-edged sword. It might bless him with a stack of new moves but it also slows things down considerably. Every time he takes on an enemy (all of whom appear to be knights in stage one) he has to stop to parry and lunge. In nearly any other game this would be immediately accepted - in a game series that's usually defined by its speed, it could prove unforgivable.

If Sonic's moves could be upgraded somehow to make them satisfying enough to be worth slowing down for, then a bit of flashy sword work would make a welcome change of pace. Encouragingly, there are some RPG-lite elements, as Sonic is required to collect items such as gauntlets and amass followers in the form of strange villagers that mysteriously stroll the landscapes. Sonic can gain their admiration by behaving chivalrously and he can also curry favour with a bribe of rings. Sonic will be able to earn Knight Titles when he gains enough followers - we reckon this could unlock extra athletic and attack abilities.

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Other gameplay elements will see Sonic returning to completed acts to take part in a series of missions and earn more followers. Expect these to take the form of simple challenges such as speed runs and defeating a set number of evil knights. Later levels are likely to introduce slightly different play styles. We've even seen one that places Sonic atop a horse-drawn carriage, giving him the opportunity to fend off an ambush from a bunch of nimble assassins. We'd also be surprised if some of Sonic's woodland chums didn't turn up recast in roles that fit the new setting. We haven't seen anything quite as incongruous as The Secret Rings' dinosaurs yet, but hey, there's still time for all kinds of new things to be included.

Sonic And The Black Knight doesn't yet seem to offer anything far beyond what we've already glimpsed in Sonic Unleashed. But the fact that it's a follow-up to arguably the best hedgehog spin-off ever made is an encouraging thought. If this game lives up to expectations, the Storybook series could, just like Sonic in most of his games, run and run. If it does, Sonic old pal, we can safely say that it looks like the knighthood is in the bag. Watch out for more hedgehog-related info in future issues.

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