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'Sonic Boom: The Rise of Lyric' (Wii U) preview: A whole new 'hog

Screenshots of 'Sonic Boom: The Rise of Lyric' for Wii U.
Screenshots of 'Sonic Boom: The Rise of Lyric' for Wii U.
SEGA of America

This may not be the popular opinion, but I was quite pleased with SEGA’s initial reveal of Sonic Boom. I thought the reveal trailer was exciting, fresh, and fun, and the knowledge that this new Sonic series would exist alongside Sonic Team’s “mainline” games rather than replace them set my mind at ease with regard to the series’ future. I was ready to embrace this new take on Sonic, or at least not immediately dismiss it. After all, I’ve been a big fan of the hedgehog’s recent titles, like Sonic Colors, Sonic Generations, and Sonic Lost World.

The main cast of the 'Sonic Boom' series. From left to right: Sticks, Knuckles, Sonic, Amy, and Tails.

So when I attended a SEGA pre-E3 event in Santa Monica, California a couple weeks ago, I was quite eager to take both versions of Sonic Boom for a spin. I got to spend a good couple of hours with the Wii U version of the game, subtitled The Rise of Lyric, and now I can finally tell you about it.

Sonic Boom: The Rise of Lyric is being developed by Big Red Button, a Los Angeles-based development studio made up of ex-Naughty Dog employees, in collaboration with Sonic Team. Given such a high pedigree, you’d think the game was destined for greatness. Unfortunately, while there is potential on display here and it’s clear the development team has big ambitions for the game, my main thought throughout and after my time with the game was “Do they really think this game is ready to be shown off to the public?”

Because at least based on my time with the game, it isn’t. While it’s important to keep in mind that this is of course an early build of the game, it’s not that early: the game is due for release in November, just a few short months away, and yet the demo was plagued with major framerate issues, severe texture pop-in, game-ending glitches (I fell through the floor into limbo twice), and a visual presentation that gives off an overall last-gen feel (I’ve seen far superior visuals on not only the Wii U, but the PS3 and Xbox 360 as well). This was quite a shock, to be sure; Sonic is by far SEGA’s most important brand, and E3 demos of the azure hedgehog’s upcoming titles are usually polished and gorgeous to behold even if it’s clear they’re early. Not so with Sonic Boom: The Rise of Lyric; what I played felt more like a prototype than a preview build prepared for E3.

It doesn’t help that the core game being made here is mostly not what people generally expect – or what, I think, want – from a Sonic game. The demo was divided into four parts: two main “adventure” stages, an in-between “speed” stage, and a boss fight with beloved series villain Dr. Eggman.

The adventure stages form the core of the Sonic Boom gameplay experience. These are levels in which Sonic and one or more of his friends (depending on the stage) explore environments on foot, making use of their distinct abilities to explore different areas of each stage, fight enemies, find collectibles, and reach the end of the stage. These levels are packed with areas that can only be reached and routes that can only be traversed by specific characters as communicated (rather conveniently, I might add) by specific environmental elements: Sonic gets blue ramps that he can Spin Dash up as well as airborne nodes that he can use the Homing Attack on to traverse large gaps, Tails has fans that will allow him to fly upward to new areas using his twin tails, Knuckles can climb up specially-textured walls and burrow through soft ground, and Amy can triple-jump up to bright pink ledges that only she can reach (after which the action temporarily shifts to 2D platforming).

Each character also has access to what is known as an Enerbeam, an energy tether much like Samus’s Grappling Beam from the Metroid series. This has multiple uses, from moving objects in order to solve environmental puzzles to lassoing and throwing enemies and swinging across chasms. It’s a curious but welcome addition and is generally well-implemented, even at this early stage.

On paper and mostly in practice, these are all good ideas. Both adventure stages in the demo, "The Pit" and the "Ocean Purification Plant," are cleverly designed with multiple routes tailored to different characters’ abilities, so you can choose the route that suits your favorite character or even explore all of them in search of out-of-the-way, rare collectibles. But the main problem here is that in taking on such a dedicated third-person adventure bent, the all-important “Sonic feel” is all but lost. Sonic Adventure and Sonic 2006, for example, encouraged exploration but still retained the hedgehog’s signature speed (possibly too much of it, the argument could be made). Here, however, the gameplay has been slowed down to feel like a normal adventure game; indeed, more often than not, playing Sonic Boom’s adventure stages really just feels like you’re playing a Ratchet & Clank, Jak & Daxter, or Epic Mickey game with Sonic characters in it. It’s jarring and I often found myself desperately holding down the Wii U GamePad’s right trigger button in the hopes that Sonic would break into even a modestly fast run, á la Sonic Lost World. Unfortunately, “slow trot” is the only speed at which Sonic and his friends travel in this game outside of scripted chase sequences and the aforementioned speed stage. Even Sonic’s trademark Spin Dash doesn’t get him anywhere fast in this game.

So the level designs and exploration elements do show promise, even if they feel surprisingly unstable and unpolished at this early stage and come at the expense of the speed Sonic is known for. There’s no defending the combat, though, at least in its current state; fighting enemies isn’t engaging in the least and is an exercise in button-mashy repetition. While the four characters do technically have different combat moves - Sonic has kick combos, Tails uses gadgets and throws grenades, Knuckles is a brawler, and Amy has her trademark Piko Piko Hammer – it doesn’t really feel like it matters in the end. All of the non-boss enemies in the demo eventually went down no matter which character I was using after I mashed on the attack button long enough, and I wasn't really encouraged to try different combat tactics beyond sometimes using the Enerbeam to throw enemies into one another (which, to be fair, feels fairly rewarding when your aim is true) and pull the shields off of particularly well-armored enemies. Each character can do a dodge roll, but I hardly found it necessary to use. All that said, it’s always possible (if not expected) that the final game will have multiple unlockable combos and attack moves for each character and that combat will yet be expanded in a big way. I honestly hope that proves to be the case, because in its current form, it’s outclassed even by Sonic Unleashed’s clunky Werehog combat, and that’s saying something.

The demo contains three boss fights: two minor ones with giant robots in the adventure stages and a major one with Dr. Eggman in one of his signature mechs. They’re fun enough, if not particularly challenging – the Dr. Eggman fight is a standout – but even at this early point with only three bosses to fight, I saw early warning signs of repetition. Each boss is brought down in the exact same way: by using the Enerbeam to throw enemies or the boss’s own projectiles back at them, thereby stunning them and leaving them open to regular attacks (if not outright defeating them). It’s fun enough the first time around, but I definitely found myself concerned about that being the main method of attack for all three boss fights, and this is an area I hope to see expanded on greatly in the final game.

Two major high points of both the adventure stages and boss fights are the quick character-switching mechanics and your allies’ surprisingly competent AI when playing solo. Switching between characters is as easy as tapping a direction on the d-pad, and the game will quickly and competently take over the actions of whatever character you were just using. AI-controlled allies are quick to catch on and automatically assist you when you’re trying to, say, solve an environmental puzzle that requires the use of multiple Enerbeams, and the game does a great job of making you feel like Sonic and his friends are in this together, even if you’re only controlling one of them. Your allies visibly take care of themselves in combat and you can clearly see them taking on their own enemies and fighting alongside you. I couldn’t really tell if they’re actually helping or if the game just makes it look like they are, but even if it’s the latter, it’s an important illusion given the game’s overall thematic message of teamwork and one that Sonic Boom sells beautifully. In fact, it’s quite reminiscent of how Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows handled partner AI in single-player gameplay – right down to the characters’ entertaining banter back and forth during the proceedings - and even if that game had a ton of problems, that’s one thing it did very, very well.

The demo’s “speed stage” was another high point of my experience with the game. These stages were described to me as “in-between” areas that connect the world’s hub areas to the various adventure stages, so you’ll be running through these whenever you want to get from one major location to another in the game world (though I suspect you’ll be able to skip repeat runs of previously-completed speed stages). These segments play very much like Sonic’s recent 3D titles such as Sonic Colors, and that’s not by accident: the developers on hand told me they wanted to include these stages as a means to connect with long-time fans who might be feeling put off by how different and foreign to the franchise everything else in Sonic Boom feels. These on-rails areas move fast, look good, and seamlessly switch between 3D and 2D perspectives throughout their duration, keeping the action varied and unpredictable. These areas also make excellent use of the Enerbeam, allowing characters to tether themselves to rails on the fly and swing from side to side in order to avoid obstacles and collect rings. These stages also incorporate multiple paths that you can take if you’re quick enough to see them coming, so you’re not forced to stick to one linear path to get from point A to point B.

Disappointingly, the Wii U GamePad’s screen does little more than mirror what's on the TV screen, at least at present. The lone exception is an icon that, when touched, launches something akin to the Detective Mode seen in the Batman: Arkham series games. This special view changes the color of the surrounding environment and highlights previously invisible footprints which lead to hidden artifacts that are being sought out by Sticks, Sonic and his buddies’ recently-revealed new friend. What purpose these artifacts serve is currently unknown, but it’s an amusing enough side diversion and is just one of many sidequests Sonic and his friends can receive from Sticks and other NPCs in the various hub areas, according to the development team.

Though it was not available to try at the event, Sonic Boom is being designed from the ground up for co-op play. When playing with a friend in this manner, the screen is not split as one might expect; rather, one person uses the TV while the other uses the GamePad as their own dedicated screen. This, according to the developers, allows each player to fully explore areas at their own pace, encouraging them to go off on their own and see what they can find rather than always stick together, though at some point they’ll also be required to use their characters’ unique abilities to help one another progress. While this is all tantalizing and could be great fun if executed well, we have heard in the past from various developers (and even Nintendo themselves) that the Wii U struggles with resources when it’s required to render two completely separate instances of a game between the TV and GamePad, and I find myself speculating that the reason for Sonic Boom’s rather humble visuals is the fact that it’s being built specifically for this co-op support. If so, I can’t help but wonder if that’s a fair trade-off; I could maybe see co-op being somewhat popular with younger players, but without online play (Sonic Boom is couch co-op only, though it will include Miiverse support and connectivity with the 3DS version), its appeal will be limited while the graphics are compromised either way. Of course, this is all speculation and one may have nothing to do with the other, but it’s worth thinking about.

One last high point I’d like to touch on is the audio presentation, or at least the voice acting part of it. While I couldn’t hear any of the game’s music – certainly one of the most anticipated elements of any new Sonic game – at the event, I was able to listen to some of the voice acting, and it is both inspired and excellent. This isn’t a surprise given the similarly wonderful voice work heard in Sonic Lost World and its immediate predecessors, but it’s nice to have confirmation that the familiar voice cast for Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Amy, and Eggman is back and in fine form in Sonic Boom. The ongoing banter between the characters is natural and fun and will put a smile on the face of any long-time Sonic fan who’s grown familiar with these characters over the years.

Sonic Boom: The Rise of Lyric serves as the opening chapter of the story SEGA wants to tell in this entirely new Sonic universe. It’s a prequel to the upcoming Sonic Boom cartoon, and the 3DS version of the game, Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal, takes place alongside the The Rise of Lyric as a sidestory. This game introduces us to the Sonic Boom universe’s new villain, Lyric, who the developers say will be quite a bit darker and more threatening in nature than what fans are used to with Dr. Eggman. For his part, the mad scientist will be spending his time in The Rise of Lyric learning from this new villain how to become the world-threatening nemesis to Sonic fans have always known him as. This version of the game will also introduce us to Sticks, Sonic and friends’ highly-promoted new ally.

In all, it’s clear that Big Red Button has taken on a huge effort with Sonic Boom: The Rise of Lyric, and sadly it’s not yet clear that they will be successful in this endeavor. A host of performance issues, decidedly last-gen visuals, uninspired combat, and severe glitches, as well as a notable lack of speed for which Sonic is known – even by his adventuring standards - have all considerably hindered my early impressions of the title and made me concerned about where the final game is headed. “Epic Mickey with Sonic characters” is not, I suspect, what many people want from this game, and besides that, it just doesn’t feel like Big Red Button was ready to show off this game quite yet. That said, the divergent level designs on display make good use of the characters’ different abilities, switching between characters is fun and fast, the partner AI is excellent, the speed stage is a blast, the Enerbeam is a well-implemented new gameplay mechanic, and the voice acting is up to the series’ high standards. Sonic Boom: The Rise of Lyric is definitely not a lost cause and still shows some promise, and a few months may make all the difference, but check your expectations for now.

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