Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Sonic Adventure 2: Battle Review

            So over my holiday I’ve been submerged in a sea of older games, even with enticing new titles vying for my attention, mostly from the holiday steam sale. If this seems silly, it’s only because it is, but I can’t say I haven’t been enjoying myself revisiting past titles. One such title is one I already owned but lost track of, so I bought it for five bucks during a sale and became instantly obsessed with it again. That game will be obvious to anyone who read the top of the page. That’s right; I’ve been playing a considerable amount of Bill Hatcher and the Giant Egg Sonic Adventure 2: Battle.

            Sonic Adventure 2 was released for the ultimately doomed Sega Dreamcast console in 2001, but due to the whole doom thing it was later re-released with extra content on the Nintendo Gamecube less than a year later. This was the version my smaller self owned in the somewhat distant past, and I quite liked it at the time. I’m happy to report that the game holds up in my eyes today, but it’s still not without its problems.

The right image is the copy I remember from my childhood. The left image is the copy people with poor purchasing luck remember.

            You see, even though I personally really like this game, I can admit that nostalgia factors into that decision due to the large amount of hours I put into it as a child. However, I think the game is at least decent even when not viewed through misty eyed memories. It just has some issues that keep it from being objectively fantastic. But before I get into those, I should go over what kind of game Sonic Adventure 2 actually is.

            The transition of video games from 2D to 3D was an exciting time with a lot of new types of gameplay on display. However, games played in two dimensions as opposed to three have a lot of differences beyond mere surface visuals. The third dimension brought with it a host of difficulties that plagued early games of its kind, like making a camera that isn’t ever blocked by scenery, increased difficulty in quickly judging distances, and of course controlling a character in more directions than there had been previously. In addition, 3D environments took a lot longer to make than their comparatively simple 2D counterparts. These problems ruined a lot of 3D games, and killed off a lot of established franchises. You see the drastic changes of the added dimension meant that the gameplay of titles needed to be completely different than previous 2D games to work, and not every series made the transition intact. Sonic fared a bit better than some other now forgotten series, but he still didn’t make the transfer into 3D completely unscathed.

To be fair, when stuff like this is your competition, almost anything would look good.

            The biggest of the many problems the Sonic series faced in this new type of game was that of length. The gameplay of 2D Sonic games was characterized by use of momentum, combining slower precision platforming sections with briefer sections of great speed. But precision platforming in 3D is much harder to do well than its 2D counterpart due to the problems mentioned in the previous paragraph. As for the fast sections, the way they burned through levels meant that if the whole game was comprised of them it would be very, very short. There’s also the fact that gamers in general were demanding longer and longer games to begin with around this time.

            This is a problem that Sonic as a franchise has struggled with in every single game since 3D came around. How does a series like this make a game long enough for people to be satisfied? Some may say that they don’t need to, that the gameplay shouldn’t be any longer than it needs to be and all extra gameplay should be thrown by the wayside. Though I can sympathize from a purity of design standpoint, I can understand why Sega doesn’t like this idea. Though you might very much enjoy a game that’s only the best Sonic bits, would you pay full price ($50-$60) for it if it were only an hour long? Even if you’re diehard enough to do so, do you really think there are enough people out there to support such a short game?

More recent games in the series like Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations have tried to bring the gameplay back to pure Sonic, and have actually been pretty great. I’ll have to talk about them and the rest of the series in general (as its many twists and turns are interesting, if not always successful) another time.

            The original Sonic Adventure, the first real 3D game in the series, attempted to lengthen the game by splitting into 6 different characters. There was Sonic of course, who had the most levels and whose gameplay focused around platforming at slow and fast (with more of a focus on the fast than in previous 2D games) speeds alternating throughout stages. In order to deal with the problem of hitting enemies with precision in a 3D environment, a move was added to Sonic’s arsenal. In addition to moving, jumping, and spin-dashing as before, Sonic could now perform a homing attack in midair. This move was originally somewhat unreliable (which carried over to Adventure 2) but has gotten progressively less glitchy as the series has gone on.

            The other 5 gameplay modes were as follows: Tails had gameplay that was more or less a copy of Sonic’s, even replaying a lot of the same levels. Knuckles had to fly and climb around open 3D levels collecting hidden emeralds. Amy had levels with similar platforming to Sonic and Tails, but slower paced and less engaging, with a focus on running away from an invincible robot. A robot named E-102/Gamma had levels where he ran through firing regular and homing shots at enemies, gaining extra points for hitting multiple at once. And finally there was Big the Cat, who had crappy fishing levels that were universally hailed as the worst part of the game (hell, maybe even one of the worst parts of the whole series).


            There was some negative reaction to these extra modes of play (for some reason), and so the sequel opted to edit them slightly. In Sonic Adventure 2, three of the previous gameplay styles returned in new form. There were now Sonic-style stages, shooting gallery style mech stages, and Knuckles-style treasure hunting stages. There’s been a lot of backlash over the years about all the non-Sonic gameplay in these games being bad, but I disagree with this point of view. I’ll readily admit that the Sonic portions of these games were usually superior to the shooting and treasure hunting portions (though none were perfect). However, the other modes had their charm and even in the original Sonic Adventure only one was outright terrible.


            Sonic Adventure 2 also attempted to mix things up by splitting the game into two (technically three if you count the final level) campaigns. You could play as Sonic, Tails and Knuckles in the hero campaign, with the usual task of saving the world. Alternatively, you could see the story from the side of Shadow, Dr. Eggman and Rogue in the dark campaign. They each had their own sets of stages (totaling 30 stages between the two) as well as a final stage and multi-stage boss fight where the two sides temporarily team up for the ending. This brings me to the matter of Sonic Adventure 2’s story.

            I have mixed feelings about the plot of Sonic Adventure 2. It’s an improvement on both Sonic Adventure and a lot of the stuff that came after, but it certainly isn’t perfect. It’s definitely not what I’d call a well-written piece, with a plot that feels more like an excuse for gameplay rather than something coherent and it's riddled with a slew of low-budget voice acting and old animation. In addition, the inclusion of the darker Shadow and some more serious story aspects were part of the series transition to its absolute nadir; with future titles like Shadow the Hedgehog and Sonic 2006 plunging into full-on taking-things-too-seriously mode. On the other hand, the series is still light-hearted and over-the-top enough that this entry is rather entertaining in a cheesy way. (This was demonstrated in its entry on my top lasers article). At the very least, I’d call the story harmless, if taken by itself.

This is a game that starts with Sonic complaining about airline food and then jumping out a helicopter on a snowboard. Other moments aside, such a game doesn’t take itself too seriously.

            I still haven’t gone in-depth about the actual gameplay, have I? Well Sonic and Shadow actually control fairly well normally. However, some of their abilities, such as the homing attack and light ring dash, occasionally behave sketchily or flat-out malfunction at times. These sections are quite fun when they work but getting hit or dying can ruin your flow and irritate you, especially if it’s due to glitches. The Tails and Eggman segments have more health to deal with getting hit, which is good because their walker mechs move in a much more ponderous and generally slower fashion. These sections can be frustrating due to the movement of the mechs, and from feeling that the combat just amounts to spamming homing attacks. The Knuckles and Rogue segments have more mobility including gliding and climbing walls, which they use to explore areas in search of 3 pieces of treasure (indicated by a hot-cold type of indicator and hints if you choose to use them for a lower score). These sections can be frustrating when you can’t find a particular piece of treasure and are just wandering around bored.

            And yet despite all these complaints, I still rather enjoyed my time with the game. There are about four reasons for this. The first reason is nostalgia. The second is that despite their flaws each type of level has some individual merit. The running/platforming levels are simply fun to accomplish when they work properly; it’s fun to chain big combos in the mech levels; and the treasure hunting levels have a pleasantly surprising level of mobility to them that controls better than I remember (and gameplay based around non-linear levels is so rare these days). They all tried different things and each mode had its individual successes and failures, but at least it led to a somewhat interestingly unique type of game.

How many games can you say were 1/3rd fast-paced platformer, 1/3rd methodical mobile shooting gallery, and 1/3rd free-roaming collection quest? For better or worse, very few.

            This ties in nicely to the third reason I enjoyed this game: this is a game from a different era. Allow me to explain. Much of the video game industry and demographic today grew up with games when they were still in their infancy, primarily for children. These days, there are an increasing number of popular mature games, both in rating and general tone. But when I was growing up, games were in a weird adolescent period. Games wanted to be more mature but were still kind of tied to their childish roots. This led to a lot of awful games where shitty writers tried to be mature without the production values or script to back themselves up. But at the same time, it led to a lot games that were weird or cheesy like this one. Such games may not be objectively well-written, but I still find them lovable in their own way.

            Another result of this game being from another era is the degree of freedom the game gives you, for better or worse. The game is littered with hidden secrets, whether they’re shortcuts, side areas with hidden content like permanent upgrades or something else entirely. Things like these are in unexpected places, lying just beyond reach, inaccessible without some combination of clever platforming or necessary power-ups, or hidden by the camera. It’s not just hidden areas either, but the way the stages as a whole are constructed and connected.

            Let me give you an example. When I was a kid, I would often play this games multiplayer with my younger brother. On one of the last stages, Final Rush, there was a portion of the stage where you were supposed to grind on a rail in a downward spiral to progress in the stage. Instead of doing that, we’d jump past the rails and free fall for something like 10 seconds, hoping to land on the lowest part of the rail in an effort to save time.

Though it’s not the same part, this player appears to be employing a similar tactic in a different part of the stage.

            This type of freedom is a wonderful thing that we see less of in today’s games, which are generally more of an on-rails (not always literal rails) experience in the interest of keeping the gameplay polished. That being said, games with such loosely defined boundaries are kind of a double-edged sword. In order for a game to let the player go any direction they want to and having a game almost completely free of invisible walls, the game will naturally have more occurrences of players going places they aren’t supposed to, or things happening that aren’t supposed to. Essentially, the game has plenty of glitches, and although most of them aren’t game breaking they’re sure to irritate everyone who plays this game at some point. You’ll probably encounter camera problems, homing in on objects you don’t want to, and maybe even some sketchy collision detection before you play too long.

            How much you like the game depends, apart from how much you like the gameplay in general, upon how much you’re willing to look past these problems. Are you alright with a game having some bugs if it has open environments to explore as a result? Can you cope with the story sometimes taking itself too seriously so long as awesome shit like islands exploding occasionally happens?  Can you deal with the plot making little sense so that they can flimsily justify having levels in a wide variety of colorful locations around (and above) the world?

What do you mean why is the villain’s hidden base in the desert? We needed a desert level!

            So what’s the fourth reason I liked the game? Well, it’s that this game has a fantastic meta-game that offers a lot of replay value to it. You get a ranking of E-A on every stage you complete, and each of the 31 stages can be replayed with 4 additional challenges: collect 100 rings, find a hidden Chao, complete the stage on a time limit, and complete the stage on hard mode where the obstacles and enemies are arranged more challengingly. Each of these in turn has a ranking of E-A, and completing any of these missions earns you emblems. There are 180 emblems total in the game, earned from doing all sorts of things but mainly completing missions. Beyond bragging rights, these emblems tie in to the biggest reason to keep playing the game: Chaos.

Otherwise known as the world’s most adorable meta-game.

            In between stages or on the stage select screen, characters can go to Chao World. There they can find the Chao Garden, where they can raise (what else) Chaos. Chaos play around in the garden being generally adorable. As they get older they change, but how they do so depends on how they’re raised. The stages in the normal game have enemies dropping Chao Drives, which increase four of Chaos five stats: Swimming, Flying, Running, Power and Stamina. Stamina can only be increased by feeding the Chaos. Chaos are also effected by what type of character raises them, hero or dark.

The various stat combinations and alignments lead to dozens of different appearances, and this doesn’t even take into account the different types of Chao eggs that can be purchased in the store (which also sells various other useful items, with a stock influenced by how many emblems you have), or breeding Chaos to get new ones. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Regular levels also have hidden animals, which when given to Chaos increase their stats and change their appearance. Chao stats can go from level 0 to 99, but their stats are ranked E-A (and S in special cases) which determines how much that stat improves each level, and those ranks can be improved through various methods as well. Chaos also evolve given enough time, and evolving into hero or dark Chaos unlocks two entirely new Chao gardens.

D’awww, look at ‘im pway in da’ widdle pool of blood!

            All that stat raising pays off when you enter your Chao in one of two modes: Chao Racing or Chao Karate. In each mode, your Chao acts on its own apart from you cheering it on (which gives it a boost in races and keeps it from being lazy in karate). Racing in particular has quite a bit of depth, with something like a dozen race tracks that can all be run at different difficulty levels and facing different opponents. You can even earn emblems from these as well.

Awww, he’s so cute! DESTROY HIM!

            There are still a ton of details I’m leaving out, but I’m sure you get the idea at this point. This mode is good enough to merit its own game, and does an excellent job of tying the whole post-game content together, giving Sonic Adventure 2: Battle a great replay value.

            This review is already getting kind of long, so let me just get to something I can’t leave out: the music! The Sonic the Hedgehog series has always has excellent music, and this game is a particularly good entry in a series known for it. Let’s cut to some examples, shall we?

First we have one of the most iconic songs of the game from its first level, City Escape. Vocals in game soundtracks can be kind of hit or miss but I’ve yet to meet a person who dislikes this song.

Of course, the Sonic stages without vocals are equally fantastic, as evidenced by the excellent music from Green Forest.

There really isn’t any bad music in this game, but different characters often have slightly different types of music. Shadow’s music, like in the above Radical Highway, is pretty similar to Sonic’s but tends towards a bit of a darker feel, appropriately enough.

Tails music is a bit slower than the racing stages, as it is in gameplay, but still has some great sounding, upbeat rock instrumentals.

The treasure hunters have the most unique types of music. Knuckles stages, like Pumpkin Hill, have rap songs which are probably the most polarizing of the bunch. Though they’re not my favorite songs I think they aren’t that bad.

Rogue’s music, meanwhile, is characterized by jazzier instrumentals with horns and back-up singers (though no actual lyrics), as seen in catchy songs like Security Hall.

Eggman’s music is somewhat less upbeat than Tails but is otherwise pretty similar, so instead I’ll use him to showcase a different type of music. Every character in the game has a theme song. They’re often quite cheesy on the lyrics side but they’re still generally pretty awesome music.

I’ve included a lot of songs for this game, more than any game I've reviewed so far I believe. Even so, I can’t help but link this last song. Live and Learn, the main/ending theme to Sonic Adventure 2, is utterly fantastic, and that’s all there is to say on the matter.

            Now I understand that I just threw a crap ton of music at you. However, even with these eight songs it was quite a tough decision on what to include. Of course as always, personal taste affects what type of music people like and it’s possible these songs aren’t your cup of tea. However, I personally think that this music is, if not in the top soundtracks of all time, then at least pretty close. I think it may be that there isn’t a single bad song in this game, and there are certainly plenty of great ones. In short? I like it.

            So that’s Sonic Adventure 2: Battle. It’s a flawed game with some often odd gameplay, that makes up for it with some genuinely fun to play bits, an awesome meta-game and a brilliant soundtrack. The game was recently re-released on Steam (PC), PSN (PS3) and XBLA (Xbox 360) for a mere $10. My view of it may be tinged with nostalgia but even when I try and take the rosy glasses off I still think it’s a good game despite its flaws. To most people out there, I highly recommend you pick it up.

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