By now I expect my stance on Sonic's adventuring is firmly established. If not, it's with one foot firmly planted on Tails' throat and the other kicking him repeatedly in the head. While, er, complaining loudly about Sonic's propensity to launch himself into an abyss - thanks to a homing attack that seems to view infinity as a more appropriate destination than the next sequence of platforms and blocks.
The Sonic the Hedgehog demo on show at E3 this year certainly wasn't short of abyss. Infinity was in plentiful supply, and Sonic still seemed happy to take up more than his logical allocation of plunges - albeit usually spinning away from one of his homing attacks, which allow him to take out a collection of enemies in one aerial burst, rather than just for the hell of it. Split into two parts, and available in near-identical form on both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, it was more of a next-gen scene-setter on the Sonic side and also took the opportunity to introduce his new, more cerebral partner-in-lurking-under-sheds, Mr Silver the Hedgehog, whose raison d'ętre is telekinesis.
Thematically it was green hills and valleys for Sonic and a fiery dystopia for Silver, but graphically both were firmly in tech demo territory. Where platformers like Ratchet, Jak and even Mario have carved themselves a graphical niche, with room for manoeuvre, SEGA hasn't really struck upon a next-gen tone yet. Instead both heroes come off as shinier, more polygonally sure-footed versions of old, both extensively animated - Sonic, in particular, picking up some impressive new frames in combat - but lacking in personality, to be blunt. Both levels were detailed, delivering crumbling masonry and exploding machinery capably in impressively lit environs - particularly Silver's simmering cityscape, which looked almost as muggy as LA's Convention Centre felt - but neither rose above the perfunctory, shifting plenty of polygons but doing so rather unimaginatively. A shame.
Expect that to change though. There's still quite a way to go - both demos bore "40%" markers - and with so much headroom it's a not exactly an outside bet that SEGA will find its range before the game ships. Besides, it's more interesting to take note of what's going on under your thumbs.
Sonic's was a familiar toil - screaming along vast highways in the sky, grinding along paths funnelled out of wind with the option to branch off in different directions with well timed jumps, and smashing up robotic enemies and crates. The collapse of a bridge to form a pathway and a scattering of crates hinted at the more advanced physics computations going on behind the scenes, too - and the prospect of more versatile environments bodes well for the hedgehog.
As it does for Silver, who more positively embraces it. Silver's stage unfolded at a slower pace, with a greater concentration of projectile-tossing enemies to destroy - by launching your own projectiles in return. Using a telekinesis shoulder button, Silver can grab control of nearby objects - not just crates, explosive and otherwise, of which there were many, but burnt out cars and other debris, too - and target them at enemies within his line of sight. It's all handled very straightforwardly, without relying on the player to do much more than point the camera.
Silver can also rearrange the environment to make progress. By standing on specially lit circles and clasping the telekinesis button, Silver can direct the scenery to uncrumple itself and form platforms - calling to mind the way the player can direct shiny block structures to reassemble themselves in Lego Star Wars - and although fairly rudimentary in the E3 showcase, as part of a suite of telekinetic tools it was rife with potency. As was Silver's ability to halt bullets in the air and fire them back to sender.
We spoke to plenty of people at E3 who remarked that Sonic seemed to have lost his way, but frankly that's a bit unfair. While neither demo screamed excellence the way some of the other E3 showfloor fare did, a fairer assessment might be that there's plenty of room to move into. Infinite amounts, if it's not labouring the point. Frame rate drops and slight control issues spoke of a game still early in development, and SEGA's recent track record in this genre is inconsistent at best, but with physics playing a more central role and at least one new character to get to grips with on a far more technically able platform, there's still reason to be upbeat - if for no other reason than Sonic's Wii outing, Wild Fire, demonstrates SEGA's keenness to stretch the concept in new directions.
Not to mention the fact that Tails was nowhere to be seen, which is potent symbolism as far as this writer's concerned.
SEGA's lining up Sonic the Hedgehog's next-gen outing to launch on PS3 and Xbox 360 this year - as part of a wider celebration of the hedgehog's 15th anniversary.