Booting up Sonic Adventure 2, I conjured up fond memories of time well spent playing Dreamcast games. Regardless of how people perceive the system's life (and death), the Dreamcast was truly a shining star in the gaming sky. The system hosted more "must have" titles in the shortest amount of time than any other console I can recall, even my precious Super Nintendo. And while I won't say that SA2 is a fitting conclusion to the DC's legacy, let's just say that it's a glorious curtain call.
Sonic Adventure 2 picks up after the events of the first DC game, strangely enough, with Dr. Eggman breaking into a military facility after having read through the journals of his deceased grandpappy Dr. Gerald Robotnik. Seems old granddaddy had a project known as "The Ultimate Lifeform" planned, and far be it for Eggman to let good plans go waste. However, inside the base of the military group known as Gun (A funny pun, because "Gun" is actually Japanese for military) our skinny legged Dr. Wily wannabe gets more than he was expecting, in the package of a jet black, rocket-skate equipped hedgehog who calls himself Shadow.
After the professor and Shadow's escape from the military prison, Sonic finds himself on the run from the government. Smells like a case of mistaken identity...
While normally a summary of a game's story serves mostly as an introduction to the review itself, I'd like to take this chance to comment on it. While a lot of people were up in arms about the adventure parts of SA1, it gave the game a chance to tell a story, at least in a lot more sensible fashion than previous Sonic games. That tradition continues here, and while the story is glossed over, largely in part to the game's more action-centric focus, what little that's there is fairly intriguing. However in the game's later portions, and especially the ending, Sonic Adventure 2's story picks up the pace quite a bit, and arguably surpasses the original. The final confrontation alone justified my purchase, and made up for all the little pesky nitpicks, which I will now delve into...
The problem with Sonic Adventure 2, as many gamers have pointed out time and time again, is that it's not quite Sonic Adventure 2, as much as it is Sonic, Knuckles, Tails, Eggman, Shadow, and Rogue adventure. Though Sonic (and subsequently, Shadow) have the most stages, the number isn't that much higher than the other characters, meaning that altogether, you'll be playing at least two-thirds of the game as someone other than Sonic. This is opposed to the first Sonic Adventure where 2/3rds of the game was spent as Sonic, and the remaining third was split up between Tails, Amy, Knuckles, Big the Cat (who makes several cameos in SA2), and E-102.
There are two problems with this: The first being that, arguably, the main reason people buy Sonic games is to play as Sonic. The classic, loop-running, speed-dashing, ring collecting antics of the blue blur is part of the Sonic franchises' key appeal, and by taking the focus away from said gameplay style, it takes away from the enjoyablity of this sequel for more than few people. The second problem is that the stages for Tails, Rogue, Knuckles, and Eggman aren't quite as enthralling as the Sonic/Shadow levels. Tails and Eggman's stages are all fairly repetitive, and consist of platforming/shooting very similar, with only the final stages throwing a little variety into things. Knuckles/Rouge's stages, however, are not uninventive as much as they are just plain frustrating. Consisting of the typical 3D platformer paradigm (i.e., "Scavenger hunt") Knuckles and Rouge glide around stages hunting for pieces of the Master Emerald. While an element of challenge is appreciated, sometimes the pieces are placed in such a fashion that your radar will be going wild, you'll be in a perfectly open room with no hidden spots, and you'll still be unable to find the emerald fragment. I often found myself committing suicide so that the piece would be repositioned (as the pieces are placed in different respawn points after each time you die) in a more easily accessible spot. All in all, some of these stages are fun, but on the whole the frustration dulls your enjoyment.
Another prevalent problem in SA2 is the camera. Allegedly, when the original Sonic Adventure came out in Japan, there were camera problems that were improved upon, but not quite eliminated, for the US release. Well, apparently Sonic Team didn't have that liberty this time, as often you'll find yourself quite frustrated with the notably static camera. Although there is an option to rotate the camera around your character, more often than not this feature won't work when you need it the most. Are camera problems crippling? Hell no. Especially if you've played Sonic Adventure and have gotten somewhat used to them. But they are significant enough to mention.
You'd think that with these two glaring faults, SA2 would fall under my expectations as a Sonic fan. Unfortunately, you'd be more mistaken than Knuckles after being snookered into stealing the Chaos Emeralds from Sonic for the 10,000,000,000000,000,000th time.
First of all, the game's graphics are stupendous. While not the quantum leap seen in Sonic Adventure (as can be expected, because SA1 was the first AAA 3D platformer that wasn't made on the blur-tastic Nintendo 64) , SA2 has a quality of graphical refinement that shows that Sonic Team really knows what they're doing with the Dreamcast. Characters have much higher polycounts, as evidenced by their much less disturbing looking facial expressions during the game's cinemas. The frame rate runs at a smooth 60 FPS, providing a realistic sensation of teeth jarring speed. The game's lighting, as well, has been improved to the point that you can see the glow of Eggman's monitor on his face as he pilots the Egg Hopper. The most impressive graphical sight I can recall, however, is the quality of the textures on the last boss-crystal clear, almost photo realistic. Let's hope that the next-next generation systems are capable of keeping up DC's record of graphic excellence but for some reason, I'm a little suspect.
The game's sound, in keeping with the theme of "mixed bag", is a lot more "hit and miss" than the graphics. A lot the key sound effects are present, but one thing is noticeably missing-the classic "bweeop" Sonic jump sound. This, however, is a minor quibble compared to the music. The music for the stages varies from "eh" to "Ooooooh", but a more interesting quandary is the character themes. Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles all have the same themes as they did in Sonic Adventure, but they've been "remixed" to the point where they barely resemble the originals, and mostly for the worst. I was a huge fan of the music in first edition (SA1), but I'm in no hurry to get the soundtrack for the sequel - what I was in a hurry for, however, was to find MP3s of a scant few tracks which are genuinely awesome, not the least of which being Shadow's theme.
Which brings us to gameplay, which, for the most part, not all that different from Sonic Adventure. In fact, one could wager to say that it's exactly the same for most of the characters. Most of the changes come from the way the levels are now designed-particularly the grind-happy levels that Sonic and Shadow inhabit, which would give the cast of Jet Set Radio wet dreams. Also, in SA1 a lot of the time levels were pretty simple to complete simply by pressing down, and holding down, forward. But Sonic Adventure 2 has quite a bit heavier platforming quotient, which provides a welcome challenge.
And so in conclusion, how much do the downers in Sonic Adventure 2 detract from the game's greatness? Well, I have to say after playing the game through all the way, very little. The game as a whole is good enough to make the problems, in hindsight, seem a bit minor. And while I have to say that as, broken down to it's components, it's a weaker game than its precursor, but on the whole, Sonic Adventure 2 manages to deliver a worthy sequel. Good stuff.
And perhaps, next time we see our blue hero and friends, they'll be running around in loops on the Gamecube!
· · · Riisuke