Anyone who has known me for awhile knows that I'm a huge fan of Sonic. His Genesis games were a huge part of my childhood. When Sonic 4 Episode 1 was released back in 2010, I was giddy as a schoolgirl waiting for Sonic's console return to 2D. When I finally played it, I found myself slightly let down. While it is an enjoyable game, it still had some flaws that kept it from being an instant classic in my heart. This past weekend, I got the chance to play a demo of Sonic 4 Episode 2 at Sega's PAX East booth. Does Episode 2 improve upon what the first episode started? If what I sampled is any indication, the answer is a resounding yes.
First off for anyone who had issues with the physics of Episode 1, let me say that yes they have been improved for the most part. Sonic now retains his momentum even after you release the d-pad. No more stopping nearly on a dime after running; Sonic will not look as if he ran into an invisible wall mid-air if you stop holding forward in mid air. I was able to pick up the controller and start playing it like I would the Genesis games. The feel and control of this latest Sonic is very close to how it feels in the classic games, which is to say fantastic.
One of the biggest "new" features for Episode 2 is the return of Tails. While in the classic games he was mostly relegated to just trying to chase and keep up with Sonic, Tails in Episode 2 is more integrated into the experience. A the press of the square button (X on the Xbox) with Tails next to Sonic will initiate a context sensitive team action: in the air, Tails will grab Sonic and fly for a short period of time (ala Sonic 3); on the ground, they will combine for a sort of rolling attack that plows through enemies and some environmental objects. Both moves really open up accessibility to branching paths in the level design. I had found myself using the rolling attack to gain lots of speed down a hill, launching off a quarter-pipe into the air, and landing on a high ledge I don't think I would be able to reach otherwise.
Speaking of levels, Sega had two different levels playable at PAX. First there was Sylvania Castle Zone, which thematically reminds me of Aquatic Ruin Zone from Sonic 2, but it also had some elements of Marble Garden Zone from Sonic 3. In general, it features stone structures with the lower portions submerged in water. While obviously the high path keeps you dry, there are moments in the level were you can actually run across the top of the water if you're running fast enough. I didn't get much of a chance to try this zone, from what I saw it seems very promising.
The second playable level was White Park Zone. This one I did get to play, and it was quite fun to play. The level is styled as a festive, snowy theme park and featured several spots that showcase the usefulness of Tails. There were caverns that were blocked off with snow, but with a use of the rolling attack Sonic and Tails easily plow through it. It's not just as simple as starting the rolling attack and letting go. The player will still need to time jumps over pits and platforms lest you run into a wall and the surrounding snow collapses on you. There's also sections were Sonic will find himself chased by an avalanche, and other times where he's riding a snowboard that you actually need to keep your balance on. It keeps you on your toes, and not doesn't let you just run on auto-pilot through the level.
On a separate screen, Sega showed off their latest trailer for Episode 2 that showed off a new unnamed zone. Visually, this new zone seems very reminiscent of Oil Ocean Zone and Sandopolis Zone with it's oil and sand slides, a background featuring a desert filled with oil drilling equipment, and even sections where Sonic is climbing a shaft in order to avoid being crushed by a rising pile of sand. This zone should prove interesting, and I have a feeling that it will end up being one of the harder zones in the final game.
Also noted at the end of the trailer is a special bonus for players who have both Episode 1 and 2. As long as both games are purchased on the same platform, Episode 2 will recognize that Episode 1 in there, and will unlock a special "Episode Metal". This extra content will allow players to play as Metal Sonic in four levels based on the Episode 1 zones. The Sega representative told me that this special episode serves as a tie-in of Metal Sonic's revival between Sonic CD and Episode 2. Also while Metal Sonic will control similarly to Sonic, he will have some differences that will keep it from feeling too similar. I'm curious to how it will turn out.
In the end, my brief hands-on time with Sonic 4 Episode 2 has me rather excited for the final product. It's made improvements to the control and feel of Sonic, Tails actually feels more useful than ever, and the levels are shaping up to be fun and varied. If Sonic 4 Episode 1 was a warmup lap for the blue hedgehog, then Episode 2 is looking to be the real race. Come on May 15th, I'm ready to lace up my red sneakers and dash to my PS3 for Sonic 4 Episode 2!