E3 06: Sonic the Hedgehog Preshow Report: Sonic Goes Next-Gen

We see how Sonic's debut on next-generation platforms is shaping up.


It's hard to believe that Sonic the Hedgehog will be turning 15 this year. As one of the last mascots to appear during the heyday of platformers, the speedy blue hedgehog shook things up with his feisty attitude, blistering speed, and cutting-edge visuals. It's a testament to the character's appeal that despite the leap to 3D not being an easy one for the franchise, Sonic is still around. For the little guy's 15th anniversary, developer Sonic Team is aiming to have Sonic's next-gen debut revisit his roots for this new era in gaming, marrying the classic Sonic elements of graphics and speed with the power of the new boxes. We got a taste of how this is going to happen at Sega's recent pre-Electronic Entertainment Expo event via a demo of the game with Sonic Team and a brief chat with the veteran developers.

The demo of the game began with an overview of the project by the team. With Sonic's 15th anniversary taking place this year, the team opted to revisit the hedgehog's roots for his next-gen incarnation. In reflecting on the hog's history, the team viewed Sonic's speed and visuals as the key components to a new game. The power available, thanks to the new consoles, posed a new challenge, which the team has embraced, with physics and artificial intelligence opening all manner of possibilities. The biggest challenge the team has wrestled with, though, is how to craft a game that matches the widespread appeal of Sonic's early Genesis games.

In the years since the franchise's splashy debut in 1991, the series has wound up taking all manner of detours, for better and worse, which have resulted in a loss of focus. These days, Sonic games are viewed more as kid's titles than anything else. To revive Sonic's appeal to both kids and adults, the team is taking the speedster into the more realistic setting of the human world. How this is being done was illustrated by a CG video that set up the new game's premise and showed off the new look for Sonic and company. The cinematic showed a seaside town at night and segued to a scene of Dr. Eggman doing his menace thing, with some informative monologuing illuminating his intentions. While the realistic city was an obvious nod to the team's intent to "real" things up, Eggman's new look offered a more dramatic display of the new direction. The good doctor has shed more than a few pounds and no longer looks like a Weeble. Though the doc was looking pretty trim, at the moment it looks like his makeover only appears to be in the weight department, as he was still rocking the red and black jumper and sporting the goggles he's had since his debut.

Sonic's appearance in the video and in still images shown during the presentation also revealed a sleeker look, one that's light on the baby fat of his early years. In fact, Sonic's looking like he grew quite a bit in height as well, resulting in longer legs and a track-runner-esque appearance. His spiky coif has also seen some work, keeping him from suffering from any big-hair issues. The final two characters in the cinematic show were a princess, who featured a very realistic look that's more in line with character designs seen in a Square Enix game and a mysterious white hedgehog with a big, wispy white 'do.

So who are these new faces, and how does this all fit into the game? We have precious little to share due to the team's caginess on info getting out too soon. The basic gist of it, though, is that the city seen in the cinematic was the seaside town of Soleanna. The town's protector is the young princess Elise, who apparently has a secret she guards with her life from fear of it being used to affect the world. Of course Eggman finds out about it and makes plans to seize it. As you'd expect, Eggman's plan entails a little kidnapping (it had to right?) and finds him snatching the princess. This, of course, pulls Sonic into the adventure, as the hedgehog has never been one to turn his back on a damsel in distress (except, possibly, Amy Rose, but she's more of a stalker). The adventure is guaranteed to have complications, thanks to the presence of a mysterious albino hedgehog, who seems to view Sonic as something called an "Ibliss trigger" and is willing to use the supernatural powers at his disposal to stop our hero. If this all sounds a bit convoluted, fear not: Sonic Team is intentionally keeping mum about a fair chunk of the story until later so as not to spoil anything.

So how is all this going to translate into a game? Following the set up, Sonic Team reps showed off a demo of the game on the Xbox 360 to give those in attendance an idea of what this new entry in the Sonic saga is bringing to the table. The first demo showed off what's currently being dubbed an "action stage" set in an area currently known as "Kingdom Valley." The area should look familiar for those that have seen the Tokyo Game Show Sonic demo from Sega's booth, as the area appeared to be based in part on the craggy mountainside area shown in Japan last year. The demo followed Sonic as he navigated paths that ran through and along a mountain, which included ricocheting to and from floating land masses. The sequence showed off familiar mechanics, such as bouncers and rails. Also, there were some new twists on familiar ways to get around, such as riding trails of rings, hitching a ride with an eagle, and riding gusts of air. When faced with foes, Sonic did his standard homing attack to take them out. In addition, we were able to see him use a skid attack that was handy for taking out enemies and breaking crates. During the demo, the team pointed out that like Sonic's old-school adventures, how you go through an area is up to you. The vast mountain area apparently contains several different paths through it, which will let players either plow through at high speed or thoroughly explore the area.

The next part of the demo focused on a part of the level that featured a splashy showcase of Sonic's trademark speed. Sonic Team was quick to point out that the work-in-progress version of the game they were demoing was running at reduced speed--roughly half of what the final game is being expected to move at. The level was set in a massive tube of water, which Sonic, due to his speed, is able to move along without falling in. The main focus was obviously on moving forward at breakneck speed by hitting various speed boosters strewn throughout your path. The reward for navigating the watery course was the familiar end-level ring.

The two demos offered a good idea of what to expect from the upcoming game, but they didn't show everything. Fine details, such as lighting effects and weather, weren't fully implemented in the demo yet. In addition, the two demos didn't show off the town stage, though it seems as though they'll play out close to the bug areas in the original Sonic Adventure but with more meat to them. The town will be a free-roaming environment, which you can freely explore and interact with. You'll find humans to speak to who will play a part in scenarios that unfold there, as well as offer submissions that you can take on. In a quick chat with Sonic Team following the presentation, we learned that the town stage will be more than the simple hub from Sonic Adventure. In fact, you'll wind up going to different towns during the game. Even more intriguing is the team's description of the towns, which they described as being dynamic environments that are bustling with activity.

Following the demos and explanation of the town stages, the team touched on content that would be shown at E3 and offered a bit more info on what to expect from the game. The town stage will be shown in the E3 trailer, along with a stage where you'll play as the mystery albino hedgehog and get a feel for how his supernatural powers work. The team also confirmed that supporting characters from the series would appear in the game, and that the plan was to have a PlayStation 3 version playable at the show. Even more interesting was that the team is considering online support for the game, though they remained mum on the details. In a private chat with Sonic Team, we pressed for more info on Sonic's abilities, which yielded some interesting nuggets of info. Though they couldn't fully answer our query on Sonic's abilities (that is, whether he'd be fully powered up or gradually gain abilities as you play) they did mention that he will be customizable to a certain degree. Apparently, you'll have some degree of control over which powers Sonic will use in his adventure, though the team wouldn't elaborate on how.

As far as the visuals in the game go, the CG cinemas were nicely produced and showcased the new look for the series. The new character designs may take longtime fans some getting used to (a skinny Eggman? a tall Sonic?! Madness!), but they do look quite good. The in-game visuals really play up the speed, and the large scale of the environments gives you plenty of room to play in. Sonic's character model, though not quite complete, was looking sharp, with clean detail and rich color. The robotic foes we saw were detailed and well-animated, albeit a touch generic. The environments themselves were vast and showcased a sharp level of detail and interactivity. The water tunnel was extremely eye-catching, and despite being incomplete, featured some dazzling water effects. Though the game was running at reduced speeds in places, the game's potential was obvious.

The demo of Sonic the Hedgehog showed a considerable amount of promise. Though still early, the elements you'd want to see in a Sonic game--the speed and the visuals--are well on their way to meeting our lofty expectations. We're pleased by what Sonic Team is doing and are anxious to see more of the game at E3. Look for more on Sonic the Hedgehog next week and in the months to come.

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