The last time we checked in on Sonic Team's upcoming multiplatform game, Shadow the Hedgehog, it was still coming together. Our experience with the game was brief, but it showed promise and left us curious as to how Sonic Team was going to marry the core gameplay in a Sonic game with the new ideas it had dreamed up for Shadow's adventure. Well, we've finally had the chance to see how the Japanese developer has fared, thanks to some exclusive time with work-in-progress versions of Shadow's upcoming solo adventure.
The game's story is arguably the most complex tale we've seen in the Sonic series yet, standing a cut or two above the standard "collect chaos emeralds, defeat villain" template that has been integral to the Sonic the Hedgehog titles. Shadow's story actually has some texture to it, courtesy of the dark hedgehog's tortured past. The tortured antihero is at a crossroads as the game starts because of some hardcore memory loss that finds him trying to figure out who he is and what he's about. Unfortunately, he doesn't have much time for existentialist musings, as the world he's currently chilling on is attacked by the forces of the Black Arms army, led by the festively named Black Doom. The menacing leader of the invading alien forces apparently knows our hero in some capacity, but Shadow's faulty memory has left him unsure of the nature of his relationship with Black Doom. Were they drinking buddies? Did they date in the early '60s? It's a mystery for Shadow. Obviously the Black Arms army is being opposed by local military forces, the G.U.N. Federation, who aren't huge fans of destructive invading hordes. As if all this wasn't hectic enough, Dr. Eggman throws his hat in the ring, as all the fighting is threatening his pet project, which is to create a private utopian society, unfortunately named Eggmanland. Your goal will be to guide Shadow through this three-way powder keg of fighting and snag the Chaos emeralds so he can get his memory back and save the world. The interesting thing is how you go about doing this, as the game will make use of an honor system that will let you take a light or dark path to your goals.
Shadow the hedgehog's gameplay ends up being about as dense as its complex story, because of a plethora of new mechanics that have been added to the core elements seen in your typical Sonic game. As a hedgehog, Shadow will have the innate ability to zip along at high speeds, collect rings, and look like a badass when posing. Of course being an artificially created hedgehog, Shadow has some additional abilities to help him out on his adventure. He'll be able to wield a wide array of firearms and blast everything around you to kingdom come. Though running around is a hedgehog's preferred mode of transportation, Shadow will also be able to hop into vehicles, such as car and mechs, which he can use when the need arises. In addition, he'll be able to curl up into a ball at specific points and ride trails to new areas. However, the most significant abilities Shadow will use in the adventure are his light and dark powers. As we mentioned, the game will feature a rudimentary morality system that tracks your actions as you go, so if you attack Black Arms soldiers you'll accumulate light points, whereas if you clock G.U.N. soldiers you'll rack up dark points. Each point type will be tracked in onscreen meters, and when your meters are full you'll have access to a powerful special move. The light move, called chaos control, lets you zip through your current stage at high speeds, while the dark power, chaos blast, is a radial, concussive force blast that doles out mega damage to anything within range.
The mechanics work so-so as a whole. The classic Sonic the Hedgehog-style moves--running, jumping, railsliding, and so on--work as well as they did before. However, the additional mechanics take some getting used to and don't feel very polished in their implementation at the moment. The shooting mechanics are manageable, although aiming is a bit of a chore. Vehicles run the gamut from traditional vehicles, such as jeeps, which don't feel quite right, to high-jumping mechs that handle well. The light and dark powers are an interesting twist that sounds cool in theory, but feels a bit awkward in practice right now.
You'll get ample opportunity to try to get a handle on Shadow's control as you go through the game, which is broken up into your standard mission-based structure. Your goal is to make it to the end of the level and complete what goals you can. Whatever you can't complete you can go back and retry later. Your progress through the game is also tied to the light and dark system, as you'll be able to access alternate levels depending on which way your actions are aligned. Sonic fans will get a pleasant surprise while playing, thanks to a lengthy list of cameos from the Sonic universe. Besides the expected appearances from Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Amy Rose, you'll see some lesser-known faces such as Charmy the bee. Besides the single-player experience, Shadow also features a two-player mode for you to enjoy with a friend.
The visuals make use of a new graphics engine that, while impressive in spots, still shares many of the same fundamental strengths and weaknesses of the previous 3D Sonic games. You'll explore the archetypal environments you'd expect to find in a Sonic Team game starring a hedgehog, such as ruins, jungles, and forests, as well as some new ones, like an urban environment. The areas you'll race through are impressively large, although they make use of the time-honored Sonic gimmick of showing you a vast environment and then keeping you confined to a fairly narrow path while moving through it. The action is fast paced and can get extremely hectic due to a great sense of speed and a plethora of crazy special effects. The graphics are marred a touch by the game's camera, which is spastic when the action speeds up, resulting in awkward camera angles that can make it tough to keep your bearings. As far as the platform breakdown goes, Shadow is looking pretty comparable across the board, with each platform having its own unique quirks. The Xbox is obviously the best looking of the bunch, while the PlayStation 2 and GameCube are basically neck and neck for second place. The Cube has a slight edge over the PS2 due to a richer color depth and a crisper overall look, but it's not so dramatic that it makes the PS2 game look bad. The one thing that's consistent on all platforms is the exceptional CG work done in the rendered cinematics, which is some of the best looking we've seen in a Sonic game.
The audio is turning out to be solid but unspectacular. The voice acting is mostly decent. As always, you'll hear a few stinkers in the bunch, mostly due to an overabundance of enthusiasm and inflection, but nothing appears to be set to ruin the whole experience. The soundtrack veers away from the catchy nature of a normal Sonic game and leans more toward "edgy" rock music that's fast paced and plenty hectic, which suits the action. The audio package is rounded out by the full passel of Sonic sound effects that are taken straight from the canon, as well as original effects created just for the adventure.
Based on what we've played, Shadow the Hedgehog is shaping up to be a promising, albeit uneven, adventure. The ambitious additions made to the core Sonic gameplay are commendable efforts, which were made to offer a fresh experience and to differentiate Shadow from his blue-hued cousin. But they just don't appear to be gelling. That said, there does appear to be some fun to be had for fans of Sonic and 3D platformers. If Sonic Team can smooth over the rough spots we've mentioned and give the game a good layer of polish, Shadow the Hedgehog has the potential to be an engaging entry in the Sonic family tree. Shadow the Hedgehog is currently slated to ship next month for the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and the Xbox.