Yuji Naka, Sonic Team, and Sega took a "back to basics" approach to developing their first tri-platform game, 2004's Sonic Heroes. Previous 3D Sonic the Hedgehog games were heavily influenced by Super Mario 64; they featured a hub world, multiple goals based on collecting items, and large open areas to explore at one's leisure. Unfortunately Sonic isn't built for leisurely exploration, he's built for speed and plenty of it. While Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 are great games, they lack the specialness that the original Sonic games from the days of the Sega Genesis contained. Sonic Heroes corrects some of the flaws from past 3D attempts and manages to get so much of the Sonic formula correct: levels are straightforward and designed for rapid action; level designs are based on classic locations such as the forest, the casino, the factory, and others; and the graphics are crisp and brightly colored. There is something new added to the gameplay, however. Instead of controlling only a single character, you're now tasked with controlling three characters simultaneously. Each team of three characters consists of a "speed" character, a "power" character, and a "fly" character. Players can rotate through the team members as they please and the various combo and team-up attacks add a new level of strategy to the series. While in the various formations the characters line up in different ways. In speed formation they line up single file, in power formation they line up side by side, and in fly formation they line up in a vertical stack. Choosing the proper formation can determine just how many rings you pick up and other such strategy considerations.

There are four teams in the game, each one containing three characters. Each team has their own difficulty level and their own storyline, so to experience the complete Sonic Heroes plot you'll have to play through each team's story. So who's on the teams? Let's go to the breakdown...

  • Team Sonic - Sonic, Knuckles, and Tails reunite when they learn that Dr. Eggman is only three days away from taking over the world. Working together the team sets out to track down the doctor and put an end to his plans. Team Sonic levels are set for a medium difficulty.
    • Sonic the Hedgehog - He's the speed type character (of course) and aside from his fast feet, Sonic is able to whir up a tornado capable of flipping enemies onto their helpless backs. He can also perform the Light Dash, a special move that collects rings rapidly and automatically once initiated.
    • Knuckles the Echidna - He's the power type character. He's lost the ability to climb walls, but he's able to toss his teammates at the enemy with an explosive force. He also can initiate the Triangle Glide, a three-character variation of his famous glide maneuver.
    • Miles "Tails" Prower - The two-tailed fox is the fly type character. In addition to giving his teammates some height, he's able to toss them at enemies to inflict damage in the form of the Thunder Shoot.
  • Team Dark - Shadow the Hedgehog, Rouge the Bat, and Omega-123 all have a grudge against Dr. Eggman. When Rouge goes to the doctor's lab to plunder its treasures, she accidentially activates the robot Omega who promptly begins blowing up the lab in anger over being deactivated by Dr. Eggman. During the explosions a stasis tube containing the assumed-dead Shadow is activated and the dark hedgehog is revived, although without any memory of his adventures from Sonic Adventure 2/Sonic Adventure 2 Battle. The three of them team up to deal some pain to Dr. Eggman. Team Dark is for advanced players.
    • Shadow the Hedgehog - Shadow is the speed type character on the team. His moves mirror Sonic's in every way, right down to the tornado and the Light Dash abilities.
    • Omega-123 - Filling the role of the power character, Omega can throw his teammates at enemies and blast the baddies into little bits with his powerful arm cannons.
    • Rogue the Bat - As the flying characer Rouge also commands the Thunder Shoot and flying skills.
  • Team Rose - Amy Rose, Big the Cat, and Cream the Rabbit all miss their friends (Sonic, Froggy, and Chocola, respectively). When they see a photo in the newspaper one day of their missing friends, they team up to track down their elusive buddies. Team Rose is for beginner players.
    • Amy Rose - Amy is the speed type character on the team. Armed with her Pico Pico Hammer she can whack baddies, stir up a tornado, or glide for brief periods.
    • Big the Cat - Armed with his fishing pole, this power character can whack his teammates at enemies or swing his fishing line around like a wrecking ball. A mighty belly flop is also in his bag of tricks as well as a parasol for slow descents.
    • Cream the Rabbit - Along with her Chao companion, Cheese, Cream is the fly type character of the team. She can fly, toss the Thunder Shoot, or command Cheese to attack the enemies.
  • Team Chaotix - Espio the Chameleon, Vector the Crocodile, and Charmy Bee (from the Sega 32X game Knuckles Chaotix) apparently run their own detective agency now and a mysterious prospective client sends them on a series of collect-a-thon missions in which they must obtain objects located around each level. Team Chaotix missions are more based on exploration then speedy completion and feature a variety of difficulties.
    • Espio the Chameleon - The speed type character, Espio can also conjure up a whirlwind that turns him invisible to the enemy, giving him a stealth ability.
    • Vector the Crocodile - His mighty bite makes him the power character for the team, plus he's able to blow both fire and bubbles for both attacks and graceful glides.
    • Charmy Bee - Like the other fly types Charmy can both fly and toss the Thunder Shoot, plus his stinger can open flowers that serve as warp points.

Sonic Heroes features fourteen very long levels (plus some hidden goodness in the form of a final mission and the possibility of a hidden level from Sonic CD) with levels being arranged into groups of two plus a boss battle. For example, the first two levels of the game take place near the beach, while the next two take place in the city. Boss battles are either fights against one of Dr. Eggman's creations or a skirmish against another of the teams. Team battles are not fights to the death, but merely battles to knock the other team members off of the floating platform upon which the fight occurs. Add to all of this the extra objective in each level for each time (collect a predetermined number of rings, destroy a certain number of enemies, beat the clock, etc.) and it's a sure bet that you'll journey to each level multiple times. Each level can take up to ten minutes and beyond to complete, believe it or not. The game saves your progress between levels. Special bonus stages can be accessed after each level by collecting the key hidden away in each level and bringing it to the end goal (taking a hit destroys the key). Special levels are a revamped version of the special stage from Sonic the Hedgehog 2 in which you must race your characters down a full-pipe, collecting spheres, dodging spikes, and trying to outrun one of seven Chaos Emeralds. Luckily collected emeralds are pooled together, so it's not necessary for each team to collect all seven emeralds. For example, Team Chaotix can collect one, Team Dark can snag two, Team Sonic can pick up four, and there's your seven emeralds.

Completing the various levels and objectives earn you emblems which, in turn, unlock the special multiplayer modes. The more emblems that are collected, the more modes become available. Two-player modes include races across levels and special stages, team battles, bobsled racing, and much more. There are a grand total of 141 emblems to be collected and the game unlocks a new feature for every twenty that you collect (the 141st emblem unlocks metal character mode). Other unlockables on the disc include the game's music and sound files plus the on-demand play of animated movies that play between levels to advance the storyline. Completing each team's storyline gives way to Super Hard Mode, in which the entire game starts all over again with increased difficulty.

Sonic Heroes is Sonic Team's first game to be released on all of this generation's major consoles: Nintendo GameCube, Sony PlayStation 2, and Microsoft XBOX. The GameCube version was released in early January 2004 and is considered to be the best of the three versions. It features gameplay at 60 fps, smoother graphics, support for progressive scan televisions, and an anti-flicker graphics filter. The PlayStation 2 version runs at a scant 30 fps, whereas the XBOX version retains the 60 fps speed and adds HDTV support; these two versions were released near the end of January 2004. All three versions sport the same voice samples (the characters chat with each other nonstop, often reminiscing about past games in the series) and neither game has more levels or teams than the other. Also, contrary to rumor the GameCube version does not link up to the Game Boy Advance, nor do the PlayStation 2 or XBOX versions feature online multiplayer modes. Feature-wise, the three versions are identical. No matter which version you choose, Sonic Heroes is not to be missed. The team-based play brings something new to the series and the fast-paced gameplay is not to be missed. Miss this one and you risk being left in the dust.

Portions of this writeup were used in a similar work of mine for http://www.gamingworldx.com

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