E3 06: Sonic the Hedgehog Hands-On

Sonic's got a new friend on the PS3 and Xbox 360, and for once, it's actually another hedgehog.

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Sega is showing off a 40 percent complete version of Sonic the Hedgehog for the PS3, as well as a nearly identical Xbox 360 version that appears to be just as far along, here on the show floor at E3 2006. Sonic has had no shortage of company on his past adventures, often bringing along enough anthropomorphic pals to have a pickup game of basketball. For his E3 demo, though, he's brought along just one new buddy, and a new one at that--Silver the Hedgehog.

The demo itself is divided into two separate parts, each of which shows off Sonic and Silver's unique abilities. The Sonic level, as you might imagine, is all about speed, and though the look of the Sonic demo level is much more realistic and detailed than you might expect from a Sonic game, the feel is still unmistakably Sonic, with lots of lush greenery, crumbling, ancient ruins, and waterfalls. There are still plenty of familiar Sonic accoutrements as well, including the ubiquitous collectible rings, grindable rails, pinball-inspired bumpers for Sonic to bounce off of, checkpoint gates, and those helpful red-topped power-up pods.

The level is also filled with menacing robots, most of which Sonic can make pretty short work of with his homing attack, which is executed by simply jumping in the air, aiming in the general direction of your enemy, and hitting the jump button again. As fans of the recent 3D Sonic games will know, you can quickly chain these homing attacks together to give whole groups of robots the business, though we noticed that Sonic was now sporting a pretty sweet little mid-combo spinning flip animation that, while not making the homing attack any mechanically different, definitely made the combat more visceral.

As we sped our way around the level, we also discovered plenty of alternate paths. At several different points, there were glowing green orbs attached to pillars that we could knock with our homing attack, which would reveal a wind path that Sonic could hop on and ride, similar to how the grind rails work. While we rode the wind, we noticed a few rainbow-colored looks nearby that, with a properly timed jump, would work as a shortcut. Sonic also proved his worth as an acrobat by hopping on lengths of rope that were suspended horizontally at different points, and then launching off of them to get to a higher point in the level.

There were some speedy moments to the first half of the Sonic level, though once we hitched a ride with a giant bald eagle (!!!) that flew us out of the valley, the pace definitely picked up. The second half of the level started suddenly with Sonic rocketing down a basically straight path that featured incredible walls of water along each side. We guided Sonic between pillars and over gaps in the path while also avoiding marauding robots that tried, mostly in vain, to keep up. Eventually we found ourselves actually running sideways along the walls of water that flanked the path before quickly springing off a series stone and water surfaces. The sensation of speed was good, though we found ourselves falling to our deaths pretty often due to some touchy controls.

The second half of the demo put us in control of Silver the Hedgehog, whose go-to power is telekinesis, and his level was much more slow-paced, with a greater emphasis on platforming and puzzle-solving. Apparently Silver was in the middle of The Rapture, as he stood on the meager remains of a city that had been all but reduced to gigantic pits of lava and a huge, swirling column of flames. His telekinesis allowed him to hover in the air for extended periods of time, making otherwise hard-to-reach platforms readily accessible. It was much more impressive, though, when he used his telekinesis in combat to grab gigantic nearby items like wrecked cars and gigantic crates and then launch them at enemies, all with his mind. This ability was also useful for stopping bullets launched at Silver by his enemies, Matrix-style.

The telekinesis came in handy in providing us with new paths as we made our way through the level. Early on we walked out onto the end of a steel beam where there was a glowing green mark on the surface. Activating Silver's telekinetic power caused the beam to bend down, and then launch Silver across the level. Later on, we were able to use the telekinesis to lift a huge slab of concrete into the air, giving us access to another, otherwise unreachable platform. The telekinesis took some getting used to, but we had some cool moments in the Silver half of the demo, and could see it making for some rather inventive platforming action.

If nothing else, it was a good-looking demo, and easily the best looking Sonic the Hedgehog game we've ever seen. Though the two versions were nearly identical, the PlayStation 3 version had a more stable frame rate. All in all, Sonic appears to be making his way to the next set of platforms in style. The game is expected to be released near the end of this year.

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