Let me start by sharing a secret. Lean closer so I can whisper it. That's right; there are times when we lose our sense of direction in the game of life. This might be short-term dissatisfaction stemming from a work-related incident, or a broader setback caused by failure of a personal relationship. Our internal compass stops and we can't decide what goals deserve attention as we try to make sense of unexpected change. After playing Sonic Heroes, I wonder if developer Sonic Team is going through a similar phase, lacking a clear sense of direction which causes its work to suffer. Sega has been through a lot of change since the company's transition from hardware maker to software development shop. To revitalize itself, Sega utilized the corporate practice of reorganization, with an eye to maximizing talent, efficiency and profit. One can only imagine the upheaval that ensued as Sega was shaken then stirred.
Sega reduced the number of its Japanese development studios from nine to seven in October 2003, consolidating its nine teams into five while adding two new teams. Of note for this review, Sonic Team combined with United Game Artists (Rez, Sega Rally) to focus on popular titles for more casual gamers. Legendarily creative designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi, formerly of United Game Artists (UGA), left the company. Sega discussed mergers with both Sammy and Namco over the last year or so without result. Then at the end of 2003, Sammy Corporation became Sega's largest shareholder as part of its attempt to diversify its entries in the business of entertainment. The fallout remains to be seen as Sammy orders Sega to focus its operations on the arcade game business. The company's main focus will supposedly be creating content for Sammy's Atomiswave arcade cabinet. Sega is also prepared to work on content for the Nintendo DS and Sony PlayStation Portable systems.
With all this reorganization and change going on internally at Sega, it would not be surprising if the developers in the trenches had a loss of focus. It's hard to keep grounded and look dead ahead when everything around one is different. Emerging out of this corporate chaos is Sonic Heroes, Sonic Team's creative mass-market endeavor which shows promise but fails somewhat on the delivery. The game tries to build upon a foundation of the things that traditionally define Sonic games, being a platformer at its running and jumping heart. It is level-oriented with the goal of earning the highest possible scores, by collecting rings and keeping the clock low, while Sonic and company battle the nefarious Eggman and his mechanized creations. The core premise is still heavy doses of speed—there is no tiresome "adventure" to bog down the proceedings.
The main area of innovation to the traditional formula is the introduction of three-character teams. Rather than just zipping along as a single character like traditional Sonic, the player controls the lead member of a three-person team, each having one strength: speed, flight or power. The main team's roster stars Sonic's speed, Tails' flight abilities, and Knuckles' powerful attack. In fitting with Sammy's push of Sega to embrace arcade games, this arcade-like style seems appropriate, bringing a new dynamic to the game. The option to switch characters at will adds variety to the traditional Sonic formula without slowing the whole game down (as happened with Sonic Adventure 2). It seemed intuitive and fun, based on the principle of evolution not revolution. As Sega gradually evolves, so too does Sonic Team, carefully leading the Sonic intellectual property (IP) by the hand in a new direction.
Although this Sonic update has good ideas, they are sadly bogged down by the game's implementation, which features a wonky camera, faulty collision detection and questionable physics. I felt like the developers started out with a vision or goal for the game, but got lost along the way. Given the internal slice-'n'-dice within Sega this is not surprising. Sonic Team's merge with UGA means accommodating two groups, each with a different gaming pedigree and personalities; it's hard to imagine there was no clash during that process.
At first, I was excited to see tributes to classic Sonic, from the opening "Act" screens to the multiple routes through levels. Then my horror began as issues with the game surfaced. Sonic Team has a reputation for particularly bad in-game cameras, and Sonic Heroes doesn't disprove that fact. The camera often moved to an awkward or unusable spot, inhibiting my view and therefore my capability of completing a level. The camera and physics systems are unified in causing accidental player deaths: it was too easy to plummet unintentionally, often due to the speed attack malfunctioning. I also watched my characters fall through the floor (see Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg). It would be easy to assume that the nuevo Sega employees are taking out their work frustration on the gamer.
Although there were flaws with Sonic Heroes' technical side, the levels are well designed and fun to explore. Yet as the game went on, they seemed too long and I wanted each level to come to a quick end. Here is where Sammy's arcade influence could have been helpful: arcade games need to hook the player and keep playtime short but sweet. Sonic Heroes hooked me initially, but the levels didn't stay short and sweet—I'm hard pressed to recall completing any level in less than eight minutes. On the plus side, the huge levels feature ample pointers and in-game hints for the gamer that needs them. They also offer a variety of action, from grinding on railroad tracks to swinging on jungle vines, and even a couple of casino-themed levels featuring psychedelic lights and melting dice platforms which are a sight to behold.
In general it must be a difficult time for a high-profile developer like Sonic Team, particularly when the vociferous president of Sammy is looking to reduce console development. Sonic Team now has creative thinkers from two groups, and with double the creativity they ought to produce some great games, once the growing pains of Sega's transition are complete. I think Sonic Heroes is a good step in that direction; hopefully the developers will continue to formulate visions and goals while correcting the faults which detracted from this game. I think Sonic Team needs to focus on its core values and technical competencies, to deliver the sublime experience I believe it is capable of, especially when working with the prestigious Sonic IP.