Episode I : The Phantasy Menace
The good news from Sonic Team is that the Cube versions, overseen by Shintaro Hata, have now both entered the beta testing process. As expected, the four-player online mode is the developer's main focus, but Hata-san, speaking to Dengeki magazine in Japan, says that players of the offline mode "won't miss out". It is the online sections though - accessed via either the promised broadband or modem adapters - that will come under closer scrutiny by the gaming press.
Once Episodes I and II exit the testing process, necessary changes will be made, which probably means no more major gameplay alterations. The version in the test includes half of each of the Episodes, with level limits so that players will be forced to try out several of the characters to get the most from it. This will obviously mean that Sonic Team will end up with more quality feedback for each of the nine character classes, and the level of diversity in the game's range of characters has been greatly improved, so the team will need players to go to great lengths to test them out if they hope to garner any useful feedback at all.
On the plus side, as you might have guessed, with the Cube's increased memory capacity over the Dreamcast has come the much-needed facility to keep more than one character per game on the go at any given time. Up to four can be used, Sonic Team has said, and the character creation process has been finely tuned (eliminating the jerkiness of the DC versions for a start) and, amongst other things, age is now a consideration. Newcomers won't find it so much of a lottery this time, because the game has seen a lot of balancing. Hunters are no longer so dominant, character-specific items have been added and old favourites improved upon. Sonic Team is confident that PSO Episode I is the original game, the way it should have been.
Feedback from players of the original games has been the driving force behind a lot of the changes made to Episode I in its transition to the Cube, and has contributed directly to the development of the new stages set to appear. These have also been geared to take advantage of the Cube's extra processing power, rewarding progress through areas of tense, close-quarters battle with visual treats ranging from luscious, rolling vistas to the watery sections seen recently at E3.
In fact, the watery sections came about precisely because of the Cube's power. Each of the new levels has been designed around one or more of the Cube's strengths, with the whole beach level beginning simply with a member of Sonic Team speaking to an open design forum and pointing out that the hardware excels at rendering liquids. The developers have been keen to point out that each of the new levels was geared directly towards contributing to the overall experience, and not just at showing off new technology, but whether or not the end product stands up to this remains to be seen.
Both Episodes of the game are due out in the near future, and Sonic Team is promising that cohesion between the two is going to be central to their success. Episode II will be harder to play than Episode I, not through sheer weight of odds, but through the way you have to play it. They hope that the first game will act as a good starting point for players new to the series, whilst veterans can go straight for Episode II and reminisce quietly in Episode I on rainy Sunday afternoons.