Saturday, June 07, 2008

Sonic and the Secret Rings

Sonic's been coasting on his past successes ever since 1993, and in Sonic and the Secret Rings for the Nintendo Wii the little blue bludger has once again turned in a game that only a myopic and brain-damaged mother could love.

In Secret Rings, Sonic is tasked with venturing into the 1001 Arabian Nights to defeat an evil force who's tearing the classic storybook to pieces. The plot is told via still-picture cutscenes between levels, narrated by a hideously annoying voiceover. (Changing the voices to Japanese at the main menu makes the voice acting tolerable.)

The 1001 Nights turn out to be a bit more varied than you might have thought; while you'll naturally visit some deserts and crumbling ruins, there's also dinosaurs and pirates involved, if you can stand to play long enough to see them.

Each level plays a little like a rail shooter - Sonic runs at full-tilt down a fixed 3D path, and your interaction is limited to making him sway to the side, jump, and do his Sonic-spinball thing into the evil craniums of the various enemies.

There's a couple of things the game does right. For a start, Secret Rings looks gorgeous. It's over a year old now and it's still one of the most visually attractive Wii games available. Secondly, there's really a sense of speed here. You'll once again believe that Sonic is the World's Fastest Hedgehog. He zips around the place like a hummingbird on amphetamines.

Now that we've dealt with both of the game's strong points, it's time to move on to the nearly endless list of crippling flaws.

For example, the controls. Oh sweet Jeebers, the controls. You steer Sonic by tilting the Wiimote left and right. That was pure gold in Excite Truck but here it's like you're trapped in a horrible motion-sensitive nightmare. You jump with the A button - a small tap results in a miniscule hop, while holding it down to "charge" your jumps results in more height. Charging makes Sonic run slower. In midair you can thrust the remote forward like you're having a seizure in order to get more distance. This is also the same motion used for attacking enemies, but you can only do that when you're both locked on and in midair, and seeing as you're always moving forward and you have to charge to jump, that lock-on window can at times be frustratingly tiny.

Nothing in the control scheme is intuitive, except maybe the steering, and it's particularly frustrating considering that some of the concepts involved would have been reasonably decent with a few changes. Jumping should have been "tap A for a small jump, hold A for a large jump" without the charging nonsense. Extending jumps and attacking enemies should have been mapped to the other face buttons. It's exactly what a lot of people were afraid of when they heard the Wii would have motion sensitive controls, but thankfully the abundance of games which use the Wiimote well make it clear that this is just Sega's incompetence rather than any intrinsic property of the system.

Another annoyance is that the game frequently swings the camera around on you in pursuit of a "cinematic" feel. Trying to steer left or right while the camera is also moving is clumsy, and makes you feel like your input is redundant. Sometimes this can result in you running straight into an obstacle . Actually, the whole game is significantly more entertaining to watch than it is to play.

The game compensates for its comparatively smalll number of levels by making you run the same levels again and again, with different goals. Most of these goals are of the "one mistake and you fail" variety, such as courses where you have to avoid colliding with even one clay jar. Failure means restarting the course from the beginning, which gets old pretty fast. These levels should have let you continue to the end while counting how many times you've "failed", and then challenged you to beat your record. In fact, the game actually does hand out bronze, silver and gold medals for each course but they're based on completion times, which isn't very handy when you're struggling just to finish.

There's also a whole system of looking for hidden "fire souls" in levels, and acquiring "special skills" which level up as you finish courses, but enjoying either of those mechanics would require you to actually be masochistic enough to play for more than a couple of hours, which seems unlikely.

Don't be fooled by the appealing visuals of Secret Rings; this whole thing is just a trap laid by Sega to lure you into a Sonic-themed torture chamber where drills will be applied to your internal organs. Sonic and the Secret Rings is just another in a long list of hedgehog-flavoured disappointments, and all-up I'd say barricading your doors in order to keep it out of your house is probably not an overreaction.

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