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November 16, 2017

Let’s “discuss” Sonic Forces.

When I was nine years old, my mom got me an electronic thesaurus/dictionary to help me with my homework.  See, my third grade class tossed out tons of vocabulary assignments week after week; since we didn’t have a good computer or internet connection at the time -- and I wonder if was even a thing -- my mom got it for me one Christmas to slash homework time down to a fraction.  It worked, and it continued to work for years afterward.  I’ve actually still got it within a foot of me as I type this; it needs batteries, and I suspect the display is busted, but it makes for a good memento.

I’ve always had this theory that whatever you had or did as a child would decide what you’d do in the future.  I’m pretty sure that theory’s been debunked, but I think back to that from time to time.  If I hadn’t gotten that thesaurus as a snot-nosed baby afro, would I have ever wanted to become a writer?  Probably, given that stories helped inspire me, not just tech.  Either way, I’d think that having that gadget around pushed me toward developing stronger diction.  Toward choosing the right word for the task.  Toward saying what needs to be said.

What does any of that have to do with Sonic Forces?  It’s simple.  I don’t need any gadgets or reference materials to give my thoughts.  I can sum up the game in one word.  And unfortunately, that word is flaccid.

I’ll be upfront, though: I’m writing this post without actually playing the game for myself.  That kind of automatically disqualifies me from being a credible source, so if you need someone to analyze every aspect of the gameplay, look somewhere else.  What I can do, at least theoretically, is tackle the story of Forces.  Having watched an archived stream of both the main game and the Episode Shadow DLC, I think I know about as much as I can know for now.  And barring a look at the tie-in comic, but you know the rule ignored by Final Fantasy 13: put your story content in the story, not in side materials.

In any case?  No matter what I say next, bear in mind that my opinion is slightly tainted here.  My observations are more indirect than what I usually go for with games, and it’s critical to know how a game feels before passing any final judgments.  On the other hand?  Being an observer didn’t stop me from tearing into Beyond: Two Souls, and it’s still possible to judge Forces as I would a movie.  And on top of all that?  I’ll be sure to give credit where it’s due when I can.  If I can.

So very quickly, let’s talk about the gameplay.

It’s a continuation of the boost mechanic/system from some of the recent Sonic games.  So in theory, if you’ve played Unleashed, Colors, or Generations, you should feel right at home; stock up energy in your boost meter by bashing robots and grabbing rings, and you’ll be able to blast ahead with incredible speed and virtual invincibility against enemies.  It’s not a system I’m opposed to, because it didn’t hamper my enjoyment of Colors or Generations one bit.  Sega (and the fans) want Sonic to be about speed, so here’s a mechanic to give players that speed.

Even if that’s the case, I can see why people have raised complaints over it -- mostly because those lingering problems and complaints have hit critical mass in Forces.  Even if the levels have plenty of aesthetic flair to them, it doesn’t matter if the foreground stuff isn’t interesting enough to match.  So not only are the stages -- about thirty of them in total -- much too simple and railroaded for comfort, but they’re also exceedingly short.  The stream I saw had most of them cleared, on average, in about a minute and a half.  That’s a generous estimate, if not a downright gimme; the ill-fated demo had levels you could clear in just over a minute, and that’s the case for a decent-sized chunk of levels here, too.

I remember Sonic Adventure 2.  I have Sonic Adventure 2 (or the Battle version of it, at least).  The third Sonic level there is Green Forest, where you’re tasked with reaching the goal within eight minutes or else the island you’re on will blow up and take you with it.  You don’t really need to worry about hitting that time limit, though; between my memories and YouTube videos as reference materials, it’s possible to complete the stage within three minutes assuming you make use of shortcuts and spin dashes. 

That’s not a super-huge amount of time, but the stage still had more going for it -- decisively-alternating paths, a greater emphasis on the high/low paths, a little cinematic flair via swinging and bungee jumping on vines, upgrades to find, etc.  Forces’ levels have their moments too, but they’re fewer in number and don’t do enough to offset the apparent tedium of each stage.  I would go into detail, but I feel like I’ve already forgotten huge swaths of the content.  Well, except for the half-pipes that consistently sent players in multiple YT videos careening into oblivion.

I don’t understand how this happened.  Forces just came out here in 2017 Land, but it already feels outdated and forgettable.  How does it seem like Sonic Team has managed to take a step back, and one that’s made it look as if they’ve jumped nearly twenty years into the past?  And what does it say when a big-budget (?) mainline entry can’t even produce levels of the same length -- and certainly not the same level of thrills -- as what’s two shakes away from being a glorified romhack?

Even though it’s not 3D, Sonic Mania pretty much makes Forces redundant.  You won’t get a sprawling story or next-gen graphics (are they still on the Hedgehog Engine?  *callous shrug*), but with Mania you’re guaranteed to get some great gameplay with moment-to-moment surprises past every chunk of pixels.  Where’s the excitement in Forces?  Where’s the stuff that makes that first playthrough so jaw-dropping that you’ll want to replay it ASAP?

You get a couple of things, sure.  The Avatar gets to dodge a train with his/her grappling hook.  One of the stages gets infected with Infinite’s illusions, which mixes up the flow a little.  And even if the last boss -- and several other bosses -- isn’t what I’d call awe-inspiring, the music is.  So in that sense, it’s not a total loss.  Even so, it’s really telling when I did my best to dodge any info about the levels in Mania, but went ahead with a full LP of Forces.  I may not be able to comment perfectly on the physics of either game, but even as a passive onlooker I can sense that Forces somehow manages to be slower and clumsier than its predecessors, even with the boost mechanic.  How do you mess that up?

All right.  So how’s the story?

Short answer?  Not good.  All told, it’s pretty bad -- not bad enough to become rage-inducing, but bafflingly poor in its execution so that it’ll leave you scratching your head.  The setup, when pared down to a single sentence, is this: Sonic loses.  Eggman teams up with his new comrade, Infinite, and has his henchman deliver a sound thrashing to the blue blur.  So after that, Sonic gets taken prisoner, and Eggman takes over the world…pretty much offscreen thanks to a timeskip, a black screen, and a few lines of text saying “Eggman took over the world, so just trust us on this one.”  Now the rest of Sonic’s pals have to rally together and fight back, with your Avatar playing a pivotal role (despite being a rookie and someone Infinite pegged as not worth killing, as awful villains are wont to do).

There’s a lot to unpack here, but I think there’s an easy way to sum everything up -- and I’m kind of surprised I haven’t seen this anywhere else.  So here’s the thing: even if you get to play as Modern Sonic and Classic Sonic, and even if your Avatar is a remixed version of Sega’s trusted hedgehog, the story is crafted in such a way that you’re not really playing a Sonic game.  There is overlap, to be fair, but my gut instinct tells me that you’re playing something different.

You’re playing Call of Duty.

Mercifully, you’re not called the Avatar in-game; you’re “Rookie” at best.  Even so, that doesn’t stop the cast and the game at large from slobbering all over your created hero.  It’s unabashed wish fulfillment; you go from a nobody with a tragic-ish backstory to the one soldier that the resistance can (or will) count on to single-handedly resolve every single problem thrown your way.  Everybody’s eager to sing praises about you, including Sonic, AKA the spirit and symbol of the resistance.  And naturally, it’s the rookie who ends up being the one who gives the good guys a fighting chance against Infinite.  The game wants you to know (or believe) you’re a badass soldier whose efforts earn the respect of Sonic (the idol of idols).  Coupled with the wartime narrative and mid-apocalypse underpinnings, it really does feel like a generic CoD campaign.

It’s part of the reason why I say Forces is so flaccid.  Its story has a ton of ideas -- concepts, outlines, sketches, whatever you want to call them -- but does little to nothing in order to flesh them out properly.  Eggman takes over the world or whatever, but what does that entail?  For starters, it seems like “world domination” boils down to “spawn lots of robots to bumble around locales and smash stuff”.  What’s the scope of his plan?  What’s the scope of his damage?  I only ask this, because I don’t feel like I’ve gotten a good snapshot of the destruction he causes.  It’s lip service.  It’s trying to make the story seem darker and more serious than it actually is, which helps create some damning tonal issues.

After Sonic’s beatdown at the hands of Infinite -- and the return of enemies like Metal Sonic, Chaos, Shadow, and Zavok -- the implication is that the blue blur is dead. And everyone treats him as KIA.  Supposedly, it’s reached a point where Tails is emotionally broken.  But then seconds after that setup, it’s revealed that Sonic is alive and the rookie has to go save him.  What?  Like, you could’ve gotten a good story, or at least some strong plot beats, out of that if you didn’t go full ham.  But they did.  So then you find out that Sonic has been tortured for six whole months -- but when you see him again in a cutscene he’s no worse for wear and still eager to crack wise.  Again, what?  You could’ve gotten so much out of that -- including a darker story -- but you immediately decided to run it back, Sonic Team?  For what reason?

I will be fair, though.  I kind of like Sonic’s characterization here; the fact that he’s still willing to keep his cool and crack jokes goes a long way towards proving why he’s the resistance’s symbol of hope (while Knuckles takes over as the responsible leader).  His optimism and carefree spirit makes him different from others, even before you factor in his speed.  He’s the embodiment of freedom, so it’s not that much of a stretch to see how the resistance got pushed against the ropes without him.  It was all too easy to fall into despair without his smiling face.

Unfortunately, that’s where my praise ends for this game.  The only thing Forces has going for it is setup -- and as nice as that is, it’s basically useless without payoff.  Classic villains from the canon are back!  Except they’re only VR illusions and you don’t even get to properly fight two of them.  Classic Sonic is back to lend a hand!  Except he’s still mute and contributes very little game-play or story-wise.  You’re helping the resistance push back Eggman’s forces!  Except it feels arbitrary, given that the only proof of your “advance” is that you see a bar fill in your favor, and parts of the map turn blue. 

Your friends are here to help!  Except they all just hole up in a single room, cutscene after cutscene; hell, I don’t even know what Team Chaotix’s role is besides stand around.  It’s war!  Except you only get to see the scale of the conflict (if one could call it that) in a single cutscene featuring randos versus clones.  The Avatar lost everything thanks to Infinite and Eggman’s invasion!  Except all it takes to get over it is a pep talk from Sonic and the power of believing in yourself.  Because that’s how war dramas work.

It’s the kind of thing that makes me wonder if the whole premise was doomed from the start.  Forces is the kind of game that needs time to fully flesh out its ideas, yet it seems like the devs didn’t agree.  Thanks to that, the game that could have gone on for a bare minimum of six hours is beatable in three -- which also takes the stages into the runtime’s account.  The darker elements aren’t given the time they need, which highlights the lighter parts on accident -- and makes the drama more farcical than intended. 

Given how he acted in Colors (and to a lesser extent Generations), how am I supposed to view Eggman?  Is he a legitimate threat to humanity and the manimals of the world?  Is he a goober who stumbled ass-backwards into greatness?  I don’t know if I’m supposed to laugh at him or fear him, and neither does the game -- so I’m inclined to do neither.  Fortunately, I have other ways to get the most out of Eggman.

The real loser of this game is Infinite.  (Tails is right up there with him, though; most of his screen time is spent cowering in fear, playing the damsel, and messing with gizmos instead of helping out Sonic -- even in the midst of a brutal beatdown.)  Certainly, the blueprints are there for a solid villain; his power to create illusions and distort reality could be used in all sorts of ways, especially since he’s a character obsessed with forcing his foes to face -- and embrace -- their fears.  It’s a shame that he was executed so poorly.  He’s got nothing interesting going for him besides “Look at how powerful and menacing I am” even though -- like most Sonic characters -- he’s a manimal who should be taken in for public indecency.

We barely learn anything about what makes him tick or why he does what he does -- that is, unless you play Episode Shadow, which pretty much ruins the character.  Even though you still don’t get a lot of information about him (which might actually be a blessing), it turns out that his entire shtick is based on him losing to Shadow, being super butthurt about it, and screaming to the heavens that he’s not weak or afraid.  That’s exceedingly lame, especially since Infinite was legitimately afraid of -- and shaking thanks to -- Shadow.  As a reminder, Shadow is a bipedal hedgehog with rocket-powered shoes.  It’s kind of hard to take him seriously, is what I’m saying here

Sure, Shadow is the so-called “ultimate life form” and has access to guns Chaos Control, but has he ever done anything that would make him legitimately terrifying to us humans?  It’s debatable, I guess -- he tried to help Eggman use a space colony to blast Earth --but my gut says no.  So now we’ve got a character trying to play the villain, who comes off as a child throwing a tantrum, who plays to the OW THE EDGE meme without proper characterization, AND who ends up getting beaten unceremoniously so that Eggman can be the final villain again.

I don’t get it, Sonic Team.  I don’t get you.

Watching Sonic Forces from start to finish has gotten me thinking: is it too late for Sonic?  I’m speaking mostly from a story perspective here, because going forward it’s going to be critical.  I don’t think Forces’ story works at all beyond the skeleton of some interesting ideas, but I wonder how much of that has to do with tonal clashes.  Should Sonic be dark?  Should it go towards heavy territory?  Colors and Generations suggested that you could get something serviceable -- even likable -- with a more lighthearted, comedic route. 

On the other hand, the Adventure games suggested that you could also succeed by going dark, and introducing weighty plot beats you wouldn’t expect from a canon starring a Technicolor mammal.  So what’s the right approach?  How do you reconcile the Sonic games of the past and present, knowing that different people want and expect different things -- knowing that the franchise has been at odds with itself for years?

And to be clear: of course that question extends to the gameplay.  Sonic has been through a lot over the years, facing highs and lows while maintaining relevancy.  Maybe the reason why people hold the 2D games (Mania included now) in such high esteem is because they were consistent.  They started from a base level and refined until they became the stuff of legends.  Where’s the consistency with the 3D games?  Did the devs think Sonic R was the future? 

I guess not, because then we had Adventure 1 and 2 -- and even if they’re the most similar, they’ve still got massive departures built in.  Then you’ve got Heroes with its team mechanics, Shadow with its gunplay and branching objectives, ’06 with [REDACTED], Unleashed with the Werehog (and the birth of the boost mechanic), Colors and Wisps, Generations and Classic Sonic, and Lost World with, well, everything as far as I can tell.  Again, how do you reconcile all of that?  How do you make something that’ll please everyone?  Beyond that, how do you decide what was good and what wasn’t when fans are pulling you in every direction?  Which path do you choose?

Maybe that’s the wrong question to ask.  Maybe the real key is that you have to make a path, not choose one.  And with Forces, that’s where the devs screwed up big time.

Quality in the present is more important than the pedigree of the past.  Personally, I don’t care what Sega and Sonic Team do with the franchise -- whether they make it light or dark, Modern or Classic, 3D or 2D.  I just want it to be good, and I don’t think I’m alone on that front.  The golden rule is that whatever you do, do it well.  How?  That’s up to you.  At the very least, there are expectations on quality and technical skill that should be met (and exceeded, of course).  Jump through that hoop, and nobody’s going to come marching to your doorstep.

That makes the whole Forces incident all the more baffling.  Not counting Boom and Mania, it’s been four years since the last Sonic game.  Four years.  There was time to figure out what needed to be done -- how to blaze forward on a new, brighter, and solid path.  So what happened?  If rumors are to be believed, Forces only spent a year in development -- and if that’s true, it means that the devs haven’t learned a single damn thing since the ‘06 debacle.  Take time to figure out what you’re going to do (especially if you insist on starting over from scratch), iron out all the kinks, and don’t rush for a near-holiday release date.

And most of all?  Have some self-respect, for God’s sake.  The name “Sonic” used to mean something.  It didn’t just belong to a fast food chain; it was a symbol of top-notch speed and exploration, thrills and wonder, skill and freedom.  IT WAS NOT JUST A GIANT MASS OF MEMES.  And I feel like telling Sonic Team to buck up and stand tall is redundant because over the years they’ve shown that they have the courage to try something new.  They’ve tried to rewrite the book on Sonic.  The fact that they didn’t this time around -- that they had to become an internet joke to “survive” -- is as baffling as it is disappointing. 

So I guess that’s another word you could use alongside “flaccid”.  Disappointing.

Yeah.  That’ll do nicely.  I’m disappointed.

…Good job on the soundtrack, though.

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