I wasn't really sure what to make of it when Sonic Rivals dropped out of a jiffy bag onto my kitchen table. Only days after suffering my way through the agony of Sonic the Hedgehog on the Xbox 360, the unwanted appearance of yet another Sonic game felt nothing short of downright cruel. Had I done something to offend Kristan, Eurogamer's review commissioning overlord? Was this to be my punishment - an eternity of frustration at the hands of a spiky blue hedgehog? We used to be friends, man.
"This one's apparently good," he protested on MSN. That's probably what Brutus told Caesar about the knife he'd just stuck into him, too.
My diatribe must come to an end here, however - since once I'd actually popped the disk into my PSP (taking care to wipe off about six months worth of dust first), something wonderful became apparent. This one's actually good.
For the nocturnal speed-freak's new PSP outing, US developers Backbone Entertainment have done what we've all wanted Sonic to do for years - they've dispensed with the 3D gameplay which has formed the core of the series since Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast and replaced it with a system that merges 3D graphics with resolutely 2D game mechanics. So yes, the game's tracks are gloriously colourful 3D, and they twist about and curve from side to side in a manner which would give Escher a headache, but from the player's point of view everything stays fixed on a 2D plane. It's a completely natural approach for the series which allows it to recapture the speed, grace and smooth playability of the original Sonic titles, while simultaneously giving modern players the dose of 3D gratification they demand.
Indeed, if we were to compare Sonic Rivals to another game, it wouldn't be any of the recent 3D Sonic titles - it would be Namco's woefully underrated Klonoa games, which were among the best showcases for the "2D platformer, 3D graphics" approach. Indeed, Backbone seem to have been heavily influenced by Klonoa in many places; the design of the fairground levels, in particular, owes much to Klonoa, while the boss battles in the game use a circular level design (where the player runs around a series of platforms which circle around the boss) which was also used to great effect in Namco's game. The comparison is intended in the most flattering way possible; a marriage of Sonic's speed and action with Klonoa's superb implementation of 2D-in-3D gameplay is a brilliant idea.
The other "big idea" which Sonic Rivals introduces is the eponymous "Rivals" concept. Since Sonic's focus is so heavily on speed - something which has been lost in some of his more recent videogame outings - Backbone decided to introduce a strong racing game element to Rivals, by putting another character on the level with you and challenging the player to make it to the finish line before they do. Along the way, the two of you won't just try to go faster - there are also power-ups and attacking moves that can be used to slow down or disable your rival, so it's as much a battle as a race in some regards.
As a straightforward Sonic platformer, Sonic Rivals is pretty good. In fact, when it's good, it's very very good - there are large open sections of track filled with loops, jumps, zip-lines, boost gates and bounce pads which you can rip through at high speed, hitting the right buttons when you hit specific jump points to propel you onto the game's many various branching paths. Often, it's not falling off the track or dying that is the problem; it's hitting the fastest and most advantageous path which is tricky, and missing a tough jump won't punish you by interrupting the flow of the game, it'll just add precious seconds to your track completion time by forcing you to go around the long way. The overall experience of these sections is a great sense of speed and freedom which really harks back to Sonic's earliest outings at their very finest - warm praise indeed for any platformer.
However, when it's bad, Sonic Rivals can occasionally be horrid - and this most often manifests itself in blind jumps, enemies you can't see until you're practically on top of them, or obstacles which slow you down to a sudden stop unexpectedly. None of these things are exactly show-stopping problems, but they do mean that in order to beat each track, you'll have to play it a few times no matter how good at the game you are, simply because you need to repeat each track a few times in order to learn its various annoying quirks. Forcing the player to learn through trial and error isn't acceptable from the high profile game in this day and age, and it's very disappointing to see it here.
The rivals element of the game, too, is something of a mixed blessing. The focus it brings to the game is very welcome indeed; it encourages players to blast through the levels and makes the entire experience much more intense than previous Sonic games have been, and it gives you a constant target to aim for as you play (both in terms of an opponent to beat, and a literal target to aim for, as you'll generally fire off your special attacks and so on directly at your foe).
However, the AI of your rival is complete rubbish, which devalues this part of the game significantly - not least because the developers have compensated by making sure that he appears on the track somewhere really near you, and if he falls too far behind, the game occasionally even re-spots him on the track in front of you. It's one of the most blatant and annoying instances of rubber-banding AI we've ever seen (for the uninitiated, that means AI in racing games which essentially attaches the computer players to you with a virtual "rubber band", so they never get too far away from you no matter how well you're doing), and it makes the game unnecessarily frustrating.
In theory, this should be solved by head-to-head multiplayer, which the game does support - but unfortunately, despite the promise of this mode, it seems to be yet another victim of the PSP's seemingly weak Wi-Fi capabilities, because there was tangible lag in all of the game sessions we played, even when sitting right next to the other player. In a game this fast, even the slightest lag severely affects the playability - you may have better luck than we had with getting a solid connection, and if so, the game will undoubtedly be very good fun in multiplayer, as all the ingredients are there for excellent two-player action. Sadly, though, our experience suggests that your mileage may vary significantly with this feature.
Burying the Hatchet
The other core problem with Sonic Rivals is that the amount of content included in the game is surprisingly small - not only in terms of the relatively small number of tracks, but also with regard to things like power-ups and special moves. Once you've played the first few levels, you've seen pretty much everything the game has to offer in this regard (and aside from having a different visual effect, many of the special attack power-ups actually have the same effect on the game anyway). Replayability, too, isn't what it could have been - the appeal of collecting all 150 cards in the game, whose plot focuses on Dr Eggman building a machine that turns people into collectable cards (well, you weren't playing it for the literary value anyway, were you?), is extremely limited, since the best rewards on offer are some somewhat mediocre costume changes for the characters.
That being said, Sonic Rivals still stands head and shoulders over other recent efforts in the franchise - and, indeed, over many other recent PSP titles - simply because the game at the heart of it all is downright fun. Zipping around the tracks at ludicrous speed with Sonic leaving a blue blur in his wake is just how Sonic games are meant to feel - and the focus on speed is perfectly accentuated by the addition of the rival. While the tracks may be imperfect (and arguably too few in number), and the rival's AI may be frustrating, this is still a game which finally merges Sonic's 3D visuals with the rock solid gameplay of the 2D incarnations, and will provide hours of fun for bored commuters, long haul travellers or anyone else who fancies pocket-sized fun with garden fauna's answer to Richard Hammond.