If you were a child of the 80's or early 90's (and weren't some Nintendo fanboy, pft), the name Sonic probably has some deeper, almost religious meaning to you. I remember worshipping at the Genesis 16-bit altar for hours on end as a kid, and my deity of choice was the hedgehog in blue. Sonic. Sonic 2. Sonic 3. Sonic and Knuckles. Sonic CD (oh yeah). Screw Sonic 3D Blast, though. That game was bogus.
There have been 30 Sonic video games to date. Sonic 4 Episode II is number thirty-one. In recent years, Sonic has failed to generate much in the way of... anything good. Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 were two bright spots in an otherwise really dark 15 years for the franchise. Makes you feel old, right?
The precursor to Sonic 4 E2 is, of course, Sonic 4 Episode I. That game was the first widely positively-received Sonic game since Sonic Adventure 2, 10 years ago. And how was that success achieved? By going back to Sonic's roots - 2D sidescrolling action in fun environments. Because of the increasing popularity of tablets, and cheaper downloadable games on consoles, titles like Sonic are experience something of a rebirth.
So, does Episode II continue the comeback kid story? In a word, yes. In fact, on something like Xbox 360, PS3, or a PC, I imagine this game would be hugely fun. On an Android tablet, though? I'd say it's closer to "really fun" (that's to say, still really good), but there still seem to be a few kinks to work out.
Visuals / Story
Sonic 4 Episode II is a massive visual leap forward from Episode I. And I do mean massive - we've gone from a quasi-3D-sometimes but mostly 2D flatland game to something that is really quite pretty. Let me just have the screenshots do the talking here:
As you can see, everything has been 3Dified. The characters and environments are all now much, much better looking than they were in Episode I. You get realistic water, blowing snow and sand, and character models that don't harken back to 1994. It's Sonic, evolved. Of course, to get this experience on Android, you'll have to be playing the Tegra 3 version of the game (the non-Tegra 3 version won't be out for another month), which means using a tablet or an HTC One X, at this point.
Want to see how much better the Tegra 3 version looks? Just take a moment and gawk at these comparison pictures - it really is a night and day difference. I won't even have to tell you which is which:
There's a hitch, though. On my Transformer Prime, frame rates weren't stellar. I averaged (eyeball estimate) what felt like 40-45FPS, with consistent dips into the 20-30FPS range. The frame rate tended to drop during intense action or particularly complex scenes (eg, waterfalls, snow, lots of baddies). Not good, especially for a fast-moving sidescroller title like Sonic. Occasionally, this would actually cause input lag, and that... sucks. But hey, it all looks really pretty, so there's that. I've heard from Cameron that on an Acer Iconia A510 the game ran smoother, so maybe it's an isolated issue. Then again, he also had the game crash twice, including once where it actually hard-froze his tablet, requiring a soft reset - and that was after only 15 minutes of playing the game.
The mediocre frame rate isn't a deal breaker - let me be clear on that point. It just isn't as high as I'd like it to be. But given the visuals at play here, I can deal.
To change gears, let's talk about the story. Sonic 4 Episode II takes place after Sonic CD, meaning Metal Sonic is back. Personally, I always thought Metal Sonic was the best Sonic villain, so I was stoked when I heard this was the direction the game was going. Suffice to say, the simple but compelling storylines that made the original Sonic games popular are in full force here, and you'll be having nostalgia-fests left and right.
Controls / Gameplay
Tablets aren't very good for games that require really rapid and precise control inputs. While Sonic is pretty much a 2-dimensional 8-direction movement layout, I just don't like playing it very much with touch controls. Don't get me wrong - the game is totally doable with touch controls alone, but it's just not as fun as it would be with a controller. If you have a tablet, but don't have a wireless gaming controller for it, go buy one. Titles like this make it worth the investment. The touch controls are finicky, cumbersome, and I don't like them. Maybe on a smaller screen they'd be more manageable, but on a 10.1" tablet, they aren't. I don't know that there's a way to fix them, either - it's kind of an unavoidable downfall of large tablet gaming.
Beyond the control issues, Sonic 4 EII takes classic Sonic gameplay's simplicity and adds a few flourishes. You can use Tails for special combo moves (flying, super spinball, swimming, etc.) that add new facets to Sonic's decidedly old-school feel. Boss fights were typical Sonic, though involved more movement and less predictable challenges than titles of years past. Instead of forcing you to be lucky or have superhuman reflexes, Sonic 4 EII makes you learn more complex fight mechanics and adapt. Still, the game has kept a lot of the things that made the originals difficult - objects squishing you, drowning (god I hate underwater levels), and bottomless pits. It's enough to keep you from breezing through the game, but not so much as to discourage you from persevering.
You get all of the old "extras," too - Chaos Gems, time challenges, and bonus levels.
Overall, Sonic 4 EII plays like the sequel to Sonic 3 / Sonic CD should. It keeps gameplay consistent with the series, but avoids being a simple rehash with a new story and artwork.
If you have a Tegra 3 tablet (or phone), Sonic 4 Episode II should be on your "buy" list. It's a fantastically designed title from a studio we all know and love, and even at $7, it's priced to sell. It's well thought-out, visually impressive, and clearly has been developed by people who care about making something fun and polished.
Despite the situational inadequacy of touch controls, and the occasional technical hiccup, it's a great game that continues to reinvigorate a franchise that everyone thought was long dead, and I imagine I'll be playing it for weeks to come.