Game Description: Sonic Heroes takes you blazing through a world of great adventure! Use multiple teams and formations to conquer the ultimate hero, once and for all.
Let me start by sharing a secret. Lean closer so I can whisper it. That's right; there are times when we lose our sense of direction in the game of life. This might be short-term dissatisfaction stemming from a work-related incident, or a broader setback caused by failure of a personal relationship. Our internal compass stops and we can't decide what goals deserve attention as we try to make sense of unexpected change. After playing Sonic Heroes, I wonder if developer Sonic Team is going through a similar phase, lacking a clear sense of direction which causes its work to suffer. Sega has been through a lot of change since the company's transition from hardware maker to software development shop. To revitalize itself, Sega utilized the corporate practice of reorganization, with an eye to maximizing talent, efficiency and profit. One can only imagine the upheaval that ensued as Sega was shaken then stirred.
Sega reduced the number of its Japanese development studios from nine to seven in October 2003, consolidating its nine teams into five while adding two new teams. Of note for this review, Sonic Team combined with United Game Artists (Rez, Sega Rally) to focus on popular titles for more casual gamers. Legendarily creative designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi, formerly of United Game Artists (UGA), left the company. Sega discussed mergers with both Sammy and Namco over the last year or so without result. Then at the end of 2003, Sammy Corporation became Sega's largest shareholder as part of its attempt to diversify its entries in the business of entertainment. The fallout remains to be seen as Sammy orders Sega to focus its operations on the arcade game business. The company's main focus will supposedly be creating content for Sammy's Atomiswave arcade cabinet. Sega is also prepared to work on content for the Nintendo DS and Sony PlayStation Portable systems.
With all this reorganization and change going on internally at Sega, it would not be surprising if the developers in the trenches had a loss of focus. It's hard to keep grounded and look dead ahead when everything around one is different. Emerging out of this corporate chaos is Sonic Heroes, Sonic Team's creative mass-market endeavor which shows promise but fails somewhat on the delivery. The game tries to build upon a foundation of the things that traditionally define Sonic games, being a platformer at its running and jumping heart. It is level-oriented with the goal of earning the highest possible scores, by collecting rings and keeping the clock low, while Sonic and company battle the nefarious Eggman and his mechanized creations. The core premise is still heavy doses of speed—there is no tiresome "adventure" to bog down the proceedings.
The main area of innovation to the traditional formula is the introduction of three-character teams. Rather than just zipping along as a single character like traditional Sonic, the player controls the lead member of a three-person team, each having one strength: speed, flight or power. The main team's roster stars Sonic's speed, Tails' flight abilities, and Knuckles' powerful attack. In fitting with Sammy's push of Sega to embrace arcade games, this arcade-like style seems appropriate, bringing a new dynamic to the game. The option to switch characters at will adds variety to the traditional Sonic formula without slowing the whole game down (as happened with Sonic Adventure 2). It seemed intuitive and fun, based on the principle of evolution not revolution. As Sega gradually evolves, so too does Sonic Team, carefully leading the Sonic intellectual property (IP) by the hand in a new direction.
Although this Sonic update has good ideas, they are sadly bogged down by the game's implementation, which features a wonky camera, faulty collision detection and questionable physics. I felt like the developers started out with a vision or goal for the game, but got lost along the way. Given the internal slice-'n'-dice within Sega this is not surprising. Sonic Team's merge with UGA means accommodating two groups, each with a different gaming pedigree and personalities; it's hard to imagine there was no clash during that process.
At first, I was excited to see tributes to classic Sonic, from the opening "Act" screens to the multiple routes through levels. Then my horror began as issues with the game surfaced. Sonic Team has a reputation for particularly bad in-game cameras, and Sonic Heroes doesn't disprove that fact. The camera often moved to an awkward or unusable spot, inhibiting my view and therefore my capability of completing a level. The camera and physics systems are unified in causing accidental player deaths: it was too easy to plummet unintentionally, often due to the speed attack malfunctioning. I also watched my characters fall through the floor (see Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg). It would be easy to assume that the nuevo Sega employees are taking out their work frustration on the gamer.
Although there were flaws with Sonic Heroes' technical side, the levels are well designed and fun to explore. Yet as the game went on, they seemed too long and I wanted each level to come to a quick end. Here is where Sammy's arcade influence could have been helpful: arcade games need to hook the player and keep playtime short but sweet. Sonic Heroes hooked me initially, but the levels didn't stay short and sweet—I'm hard pressed to recall completing any level in less than eight minutes. On the plus side, the huge levels feature ample pointers and in-game hints for the gamer that needs them. They also offer a variety of action, from grinding on railroad tracks to swinging on jungle vines, and even a couple of casino-themed levels featuring psychedelic lights and melting dice platforms which are a sight to behold.
In general it must be a difficult time for a high-profile developer like Sonic Team, particularly when the vociferous president of Sammy is looking to reduce console development. Sonic Team now has creative thinkers from two groups, and with double the creativity they ought to produce some great games, once the growing pains of Sega's transition are complete. I think Sonic Heroes is a good step in that direction; hopefully the developers will continue to formulate visions and goals while correcting the faults which detracted from this game. I think Sonic Team needs to focus on its core values and technical competencies, to deliver the sublime experience I believe it is capable of, especially when working with the prestigious Sonic IP.
As a critic, I don't like to admit that I'm wrong but I can, and do. Still, that doesn't mean I like it. Naturally, I try to be wrong as little as possible—but today, I need to 'fess up big-time. See, I used to think Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg was a bad Sega game, but that was only until I played Sonic Heroes. Now, I see lil' Billy as a virtual masterpiece by comparison, practically the digital equivalent of a Guernica, or Starry Night. Why? Because Sonic Heroes has so much wrong with it, that three lefts couldn't make it right.
I think they started off on the right track, and the use of "team" is a great concept. But, I'm going to have to disagree with Jason and say that the implementation just doesn't work. In essence, the level designs aren't conducive to using all three character styles effectively. Since Sonic's speed clearly overshadows the rest of the trio, every time you actually need to use strength or flight, it feels like the game stumbles over an unwanted speedbump. More annoying than justified and valuable, the three-way mechanic seems highly unbalanced, and not very well thought-out.
The levels are also far too lengthy, as Jason mentioned. I consistently found that there was plenty of road left to travel after the novelty of each area had long worn off. Besides that, the patented Sega "BrokenCam" (originally debuting on the Dreamcast) is still with us today, showing that even after Billy and the other Sonic platformers, it's still impervious to any repairs no matter how badly needed.
Sonic Heroes looks like a good thing on paper. It's a fresh concept and seems like it should work, especially given the characters involved. However, the fact is that Sega still hasn't managed to polish their 3D skills to an acceptable level despite several disappointing attempts. If you really need a Sonic fix, pick up the GameCube's Mega Collection instead.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Mild Fantasy Violence
Parents should know that this game's content is appropriate for children, although younger children might find it difficult. The game provides many hints to help players progress through each level (too many hints for experienced gamers), which will balance that out, particularly on the easy team mode.
Fans of Sonic may or may not like this game, depending on how forgiving they are of implementation flaws. The game is worth trying because it does have genuinely enjoyable parts, but sadly it won't be for everyone.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers will be happy to know that all dialogue is subtitled. Although it's not always evident which character is speaking (names aren't indicated), this doesn't really affect gameplay or the hokey story, and in-game hints have matching text—but can be hard to follow when the action is heavy.