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Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice hands-on preview – let’s get this over with

Over-the-shoulderAs well as playing an early build of Sonic Mania, attendees at Summer of Sonic were able to get hands on with the 3DS version of Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice.

Now, full disclosure, I had very little experience with the original Sonic Boom. I’ve played a little bit of both the Wii U and 3DS games, but my feelings were reflected by many of the reviews around the game at the time. Frankly, what I did play, I didn’t enjoy at all and so didn’t bother playing more than a couple of levels.

So, with that in mind, my hopes for Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice were not high, not high at all.

Note: It was hard/virtually impossible to get good screenshots of the game itself – recording directly off the screen was strictly prohibited and SEGA’s ‘heavies’ were out in force on the day – so after a few shots of the display, I was left with very little to take photos of.

The inevitable come-down

Sonic-Mania-queue
The (rough) queue for Sonic Mania – the place was packed and Mania’s snaking line is hard to see in this image – but follow the arrows and you get a rough idea of the size. Then compare it to Sonic Boom’s queue…

After my high of playing Sonic Mania and feeling that SEGA was once again in control of its flagship IP, I strolled over to the queue for Sonic Boom – one that was significantly shorter than Sonic Mania‘s (which should give some idea of the general feelings towards Sonic Boom, even at a Sonic fan show).

A few minutes later, I held the 3DS XL in hand and within a few seconds my face was frowning.

The levels available were ice-based (I didn’t get their names) and I was instantly faced with one of those lovely ‘Help’ icons that tell you how to move.

From there I mish-mashed my way through the level, trying to remember the controls, while keeping the gameplay flowing.

Boom-queue
… this is genuinely the extent of Sonic Boom’s queue. It didn’t ever get much longer than this throughout the day.

Throughout the level you have to switch between two powers that Sonic has, fire and ice. These powers allow you to move past obstacles to progress through the level. Most of the obstacles were giant blocks of ice, which you activate your ‘fire power’ to turn into water, to move through. Then you had water that you need to turn into ice (using your ‘ice power’) to create platforms to stand on.

A gameplay mechanic to return from the original Sonic Boom is the lasso, that let you swing across gaps and spike pits in the level I played.

The game also made use of its pseudo-3D design, with Sonic using springs to jump to sections of the level in the background or foreground.

If I’m being vague here, it’s because it was an entirely forgettable experience. Unlike Sonic Mania, where I felt myself exploring an interesting level with a unique theme (Studiopolis Zone – which was a TV/media themed level), in Sonic Boom I felt like I was playing a generic ice level, one without any character or substance to it. I just wanted it to end.

We need to talk about modern Sonic

My view from the back of the queue! (Hey I'm a poet and I didn't even realise those words rhymed)
My view from the back of the queue! (Hey I’m a poet and I didn’t even realise those words rhymed)

And this is where I come to the crux of the problem: Sonic Boom suffers from many of the issues that I dislike about modern Sonic titles. No matter how polished the game might be, modern Sonic games are fraught with gameplay issues.

You have gameplay gimmicks that feel redundant, special moves that break the flow of the game and an overuse of springs/grind rails that take the control of the game away from the player.

In Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice, you have the fire/ice powers mechanic – granted I’ve only played one level – but in the level I did play I felt that these powers were totally pointless. Yes, you needed them to make your way through the level – so by that regard, they are essential. But when you’re forced to use powers to get through a level naturally, those powers are no longer special.

Sonic Colors is an example of SEGA doing it right – in that game you could complete the majority of levels just playing as normal Sonic, with no need to use any power ups. Furthermore, you had to unlock Wisp powers to be able to access new areas later on – those Wisp powers had a limited use, making them feel special as you needed to explore the game properly.

Boom-in-line
Caution: That guy in blue is a prolific queue jumper! I saw him wangle his way ahead in at least three queues during the day, just by talking to people and then starting conversations with people ahead and moving forward. And that’s not even his book! He nabbed off another guy in the queue and used it to strike up a conversation a SEGA rep.

If you had unlimited access to those powers through the game, a lot of the challenge would be lost and the Wisps wouldn’t be an awesome power-up.

In Sonic Boom, the use of the fire and ice powers feel forced – I found no alternate path to take, to progress through the level and was made to use my powers; running along I was suddenly faced with a series of ice blocks and was told, by the help icon, to turn on your fire power and keep running through.

Most of the people I spoke to at Summer of Sonic about Sonic Boom shared the same sentiment that I did about the powers -saying it felt forced, broke the flow of the game and made it feel linear, especially in comparison to Sonic Mania.

There’s one last thing to bring up about modern Sonic games: the hints. The level I played was filled with tip icons telling you how to play the game, what to do and when. Luckily they didn’t stop the gameplay and you could just run past them. But at what point in time did we need help icons to teach us how to play a freaking Sonic game?

The old Sonic games just dropped you in a level and you had to make your own way through – they didn’t even tell you the purpose of the Chaos Emeralds, you had to work them out yourselves and understand that to truly complete the game and defeat Eggman you required all the Emeralds.

Breaking Sonic’s flow

Well one thing you can say for Sonic Boom - it certainly likes to make use of all the buttons on the 3DS!
Well one thing you can say for Sonic Boom – it certainly likes to make use of all the buttons on the 3DS!

Regardless of what people think, Sonic’s games were not just about going fast. You had level exploration and finding your perfect rhythm through the zones. Once you figured out your favourite routes, you could really get the speed going and, using the game’s unique physics engine, enjoy the thrill of avoiding traps and bouncing along lines of enemies.

...the controls for Sonic Mania as a comparison. I'll let you decide which you prefer.
…the controls for Sonic Mania as a direct comparison…

That just doesn’t seem to happen with games like Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice. Aside from the forced special powers, you have the lock-on attack – which takes away a lot of the skill needed from the player.

With the lock-on, you have no worries about facing enemies, even bosses become cannon fodder and getting across traps is too easy. For example, in Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice there were spike pits that you get across just by constantly tapping the jump button; Sonic would jump, double jump and then lock-on to a breakable rock on the other side.

And it’s not like the lock-on attacks are smooth and keep Sonic’s fluid movement going, they do the opposite and break any rhythm you have built up. Sonic jumps, locks on and smashes the enemy/object, hovers for a second in mid-air and then lands – meaning you have to try and build your speed up again.

On top of this you have the wall-kicks, Sonic has his ‘speed dash’ power – which is needed to break through special walls. Again, this made for a very jarring experience, especially when compared to the slickness of Sonic Mania.

Splitting Sonic fans in twain

Ran out of Sonic Boom photos, so here's Robotnik attempting to drink something without ruining his moustache.
Ran out of Sonic Boom photos, so here’s Robotnik attempting to drink something without ruining his moustache.

I put out a tweet during Summer of Sonic, giving a brief overview of my first impressions of Sonic Boom, stating that it was “everything I dislike about modern Sonic games”. We received a couple of responses saying “it’s not that bad” and another simply asking: “Why?”

Here’s the thing about Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice, if you enjoy the gameplay found in modern Sonic games, then there’s a strong chance that you will also enjoy this.

If, like me, you really don’t enjoy the awkward mechanics Sonic seems to have adopted over time, then you won’t like this either.

When you look at Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice from a pure graphical and game design perspective – there is very little wrong with it (at least from what I played). The game doesn’t appear to be buggy, the visuals are good and the game runs very smoothly.

But I just can’t say it’s a good game from what I’ve played: it wasn’t enjoyable for me.

While I know there are Sonic fans out there who do enjoy these types of games, everyone (and I mean everyone) I spoke to at Summer of Sonic had the same sentiment towards Sonic Boom – which was pretty much “Meh!”. Whereas everybody also had the same smile and look of glee after playing Sonic Mania for the first time – which I think should show SEGA exactly where gamers want to see the series progress.

Summary

Looks like Sonic Boom was too much for some... (note: he was genuinely crashed out next to the Sonic Boom kiosk - I think the game really did him in, it was only about 12:00pm by this point)
Looks like Sonic Boom was too much for some…
(note: he was genuinely crashed out next to the Sonic Boom kiosk – I think the game really did him in, it was only about 12:00pm!)

As you can probably tell, I’m not approving of Sonic Boom Fire & Ice. It’s taking Sonic further way from his routes, bringing along some bad habits with him.

And yes, I realise Sonic Boom is technically a spin-off series, so SEGA normally goes a little crazy, mixing up the gameplay – but they can still make a good game, like they did with Sonic Colors.

The thing is, I’m not against all modern Sonic titles. There have been quite a few that are enjoyable – and I think that SEGA could quite easily create a modern Sonic game, but keep the character to his routes; remove all the gimmicks and game-breaking mechanics.

As this wasn’t the final version of the game, it may be too early to totally dismiss Sonic Boom as being a bad game.

I actually don’t think it will end up being a terrible game, but with SEGA sticking firmly to the questionable gameplay mechanics seen in the previous series’ title and adding in some new ones, my hopes for Sonic Boom are not high at the moment.

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Graham

I'm the European Editor of SEGA Nerds and co-founder of the original SEGA Nerds website with Chris back in 2004 or 2005 (genuinely can't remember which year it was now!). I've been a SEGA fan pretty much all my gaming life - though I am also SEGA Nerds' resident Microsoft fanboy (well, every site needs one) and since SEGA went third party, I guess it's now ok to admit that I like Nintendo and Sony too :0) I'm also the Content Manager of the big data company, Digital Contact Ltd, in the UK: http://digitalcontact.co.uk/company/team/

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