It tries to recapture the classic vibe, but falls flat on it's face as many times as it succeeds.
Sonicteam was singing the same old song. After the mixed reaction to the original Sonic Adventure, Sonicteam vowed that for Sonic Adventure 2, the game would return to a more "classic" style - in the end, all that really meant was they removed the Adventure Fields; Sonic Adventure 2 was perhaps a greater breaking of the tried-and-true classic Sonic formula than the original Sonic Adventure before it. But this - from Heroes' first screenshots, Sonicteam made it loud and clear: Classic Sonic was back. Checkerboard hillsides stretched as far as the eye could see, Sonic was no longer navy blue - instead, he was back to the regular shade he always was; and one thing was for certain, everybody certainly looked a lot more rubbery.
Of course, at the time, I owned neither an Xbox, Gamecube, nor a PS2, so Sonic Heroes was unfortunately out of reach for the time being. Even worse, the reports I was hearing from my friends were not good - never-ending tales of general frustration on multiple levels that continue even now as I write this review. My hopes were slowly whittled away, inch by inch, until there was only a very small dying ember - but that ember never really died. No matter what I was told about Sonic Heroes, from whatever cynical, jaded fanboy, I would never openly accept their opinion as my own until I had actually played the game myself. Thus, when Sega of Europe announced they were porting Sonic Heroes to the PC (and then Sega of America and Sega of Japan followed suit), my heart leapt - this was it. This was my chance.
I'll be up front with you: Sonic Heroes is flat average. This is a step up from Sonic Adventure 2, which, to this day, I still can't decide if I like or despise; but at the same time, Heroes is very disappointing. The game, in general, feels rushed. Very rushed. There are fundamental gameplay mechanics in Sonic Heroes, bits of levels and design, that make you scratch your head and question, "Somebody thought this would be a good idea?" It seems that for every good, fun part of the game, there is one of equal that completely drags it down and is tedious and boring; the two literally balance themselves out. The saddest part of this is the fact that the stuff that drags the game down is really simple and basic stuff that by no means should game designers be able to force upon gamers.
Visually, the game is a mixed bag. As with Sonic Adventure 2, the framerate for Sonic Heroes is locked at 60 frames per second. (there is also options in the PC version for 30fps, and 15fps) Draw distance on the level itself is impressive, but enemies and objects can pop-in at times. Textures are roughly average: Nothing is terribly high-resolution, but it looks better than most PS2 games. Player models are okay, but not amazing: Sonic and the gang still seem to have stepped out of a late-generation Dreamcast game. And, overall, that can be used to describe the visuals in Sonic Heroes (or, dare I say, nearly every Sonicteam game this generation): A late generation Dreamcast game.
Sound effects are, as they always have been, a mixture of old Sonic sound effects (the classic ones, such as that ever familiar ring chime) and new sound effects, culled from newer games or crafted entirely just for Sonic Heroes. Music tries to rely less on the "random guitar chord" wailing of Sonic Adventure 2, and, while containing some very good music, also contains some very terrible stuff, as well. The theme song music in particular is embarrassingly cheesy at times. Voice acting is, as usual, Sega voice acting: At times, fitting, with some bad voices here and there to muck everything up. Overall, this game contains some of the best voice acting in the series, but honestly, that's not saying much, as the acting is still pretty sub-par compared to a game like, say, Metal Gear Solid.
In terms of gameplay, Sonic Heroes once again puts you in the red shoes of Sonic the Hedgehog and his pals. The character roster for Sonic Heroes more than triples the amount of playable characters from previous Sonic Adventure titles - which I find to be painfully and endlessly amusing after the complaints from Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 primarily involving that Sonic's friends were stealing the spotlight from the main character himself. The catch here is that all the characters are parts of a team: You cannot play as individual characters, only teams. Team Sonic is made up of the "triple threat" - Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles. Team Rose is designed for younger players looking for an easier game, with members including Amy Rose, Cream the Rabbit, and Big the Cat. Team Dark is the polar opposite of Team Rose - those looking for more challenge and longer levels should hook up with these guys: Shadow the Hedgehog, Rouge the Bat, and E-123 Omega. Bringing a close is the fourth and final team, Team Chaotix. Their stages are primarily about exploration, seeing as how Vector the Crocodile, Charmy Bee, and Espio the Chameleon are part of a Detective Agency.
Each team's characters are categorized into three separate skills: Speed, Flight, and Power. Speed characters are obviously the fastest; Flight characters have the limited ability to fly (and carry the other two characters around), and Power Characters are the best choice when combating enemies. As you play, you switch between Speed, Flight and Power "formations" on-the-fly; controls are set up so that each formation is no more than a single button press away. The idea is that you swap around between formations depending on the situation; certain obstacles can only be cleared by Speed Formation, or Power Formation. However, forcing players to switch formations rather than giving them the option of tackling situations on their own terms slows down the gameplay a bit. It's not terrible, but it's not really sound level design, either; if you're like me, most players will play as Speed Formation for 90% of the game - switching only to the other formations when there is no other choice (and then immediately switching back to speed formation once the task is complete). Another new addition is the possibility to "level up" your skills by picking up "Power Cores". As you level up, your attacks get stronger, allowing you to defeat enemies in less hits.
The real fun lies within the combat: Each formation handles combat in different ways: make them dizzy with Sonic's Tornado Whirlwind, stun them with Tails' Thundershoot, or just plow right through them with Knuckles Fire Dunk, and, once combined with the level-up system, combat gets a little deep for a platformer. I don't mean beat'em'up depth here, of course, but it's certainly an added bit of spice; and with Sonic Heroes gameplay, you need as much spice as you can get, especially when you consider the lackluster bosses the game forces you to do battle with.
I don't really understand how Sonicteam could've ever expected they could've gotten away with a travesty such as this, but here it is. In all, you only actually face four real bosses. Now, pause for a moment; Sonic Heroes follows the classic Sonic formula: Two acts per "stage", with the third act being a boss encounter. Sonic Heroes features 7 stages total, and at two acts each, that's a total of 14 levels. Do the math with me: Outside of the "two" final boss encounters, you only face two bosses in story mode. The rest of the bosses are either the stupidly-hard or insultingly-easy Character vs. Character battles, or "Robot Storm" levels, where you do nothing but sit around and fight off hundreds of oncoming enemies until they are all defeated (which, needlessly to say, is less than exciting - combat might be fun, but it's not THAT fun).
The game is further made to look broken when you realize all four teams play nearly identically save for a few very minor adjustments to each; and, even if each team goes through an altered version of the same level, it's still the same level you've already been to: Besides item locations, it's still the same place you already memorized with the other three teams. What this means, is that any replay value to be gotten from going back through the levels is completely sucked dry by the game already forcing you to play through the same stage four separate times. This is a habit the game develops early on, a tradition carried over from previous Sonic games: It stretches itself way too thin. It was during one of the most unlikely playthroughs that I realized this.
It involves Team Rose: a combination of some of the most annoying Sonic characters, all in one team. This team is intended for gamers just starting out: Children, etc. As such, the levels are almost devoid of enemies, and are only half the size of regular stages. And you know what I realized? I liked that. I liked being able to go through a stage in 4 minutes, rather than 14. Gameplay was much more focused like this, too - fast areas for Speed Formation were still present, but most levels never took longer than 5-6 minutes to complete. If, by chance, Team Sonic went through these levels (and they were populated with more enemies), I have a feeling the game might've actually been better - easier to balance, easier to focus. Ten minutes to complete a level was always the limit in the old games. So why is it that levels like Egg Fleet can take more than 15+ minutes to complete? That's absurd, especially when you consider the only reason a lot of these stages are so long is because Sonicteam subscribed to the "Halo school of level design" - the exact same sections of one level are repeated two or three times at times, serving no other purpose than to add 2-5 minutes to the level length (and throroughly bore the player).
And I haven't even mentioned Special Stages yet. As if half the game already didn't feel like an afterthought, here comes the Special Stages: Complete with your typical, Sonic-Advance-Style "Stupidly Difficult to Enter" mechanism. The idea is that you find a key laying around a level, and you have to carry this key all the way to the end of the level without getting hit. If you get hit, you lose the key and are forced to try again. That's laughable. Special Stages themselves play like some deranged twisted son of the Sonic 2 Special Stages, while also forgetting the "Special" part of Special Stages - instead, you just hammer the Dash Button in a race to beat the Chaos Emerald to the finish line using the normal in-game engine. Whatever happened to the part where Special Stages were more like mini-games rather than poorly thought out challenges involving the same gameplay I already got enough of in the normal stages?
I hate to sound like I'm painting this as a terrible game, though, because honestly, there are shining moments where everything clicks - where you're in the zone, trashing robots as a fast, speedy hedgehog. Some of the best levels in the game are the first four and the last two. Six stages out of fourteen total. That's almost half the game that's worth playing, as long as you're willing to tolerate the bad with the good. If only the entire game received the amount of polish it deserved. As a related note to just how rushed Sonic Heroes is - no matter what the game, Sonicteam always manages to fit a NiGHTS cameo in to each of their games. Billy Hatcher, Phantasy Star Online, Sonic Adventure, Sonic Adventure 2 - NiGHTS turns up in all of them, in some form. He's even in Sonic Shuffle, and that wasn't even directly developed by Sonicteam. And yet, curiously, NiGHTS is entirely, totally missing from Sonic Heroes. Not a single hint of him remains. And to me, that speaks in volumes as to the respect Sonicteam gave Sonic Heroes.
It's worth a rental, for most gamers. Sonic fans undoubtedly have already bought it.