Sonic Forces focuses on PS4 with clear issues on other systems
Xbox One and Switch have big downgrades, while Pro and Xbox One X deliver meagre improvements.
Earlier this year, Sonic Mania ushered Sega's flagship mascot back into the limelight with with a game every bit as good as the original 16-bit Mega Drive titles. It answered the question of whether Sonic's core 2D gameplay would stand up over time with a resounding 'yes!' and came as a breath of fresh air after decades of uneven 3D Sonic releases. Sure, there've been some great releases - like Sonic Generations, for example - but many fell flat. The new Sonic Forces though? Hopes were high, with initial footage suggesting we were looking at a full-on Generations sequel with a revised theme.
The final result doesn't quite live up to our lofty expectations, but that's not to say that the game doesn't have some great features. Sonic Forces is a gorgeous release with a great soundtrack. From the very first stage, it's clear that we're looking at the latest evolution of the internal Hedgehog Engine - dubbed Hedgehog Engine 2. Truth be told, it's not a significant departure from Sonic Generations on the PC, but it does offer some great visuals on current generation consoles.
The Hedgehog Engine is quite capable, offering support for features like pre-baked global illumination, advanced post-processing and large, expansive stages. With the speed Sonic moves at, the engine's ability to render huge levels is critical to its design.
Sonic Forces certainly delivers on the promise of the technology. The lighting remains excellent, stages stretch far off into the distance while LOD popping is kept to a minimum and there are great new effects like excellent water reflections and some remarkable shaders. The only thing lacking this time is the removal of the excellent motion blur seen in Generations, which has been replaced with a much cheaper effect when using boost.
There's certainly nothing to complain about on the visuals front then - at least in terms of raw asset quality. However, Sonic Forces is available across a range of platforms including PS4, Xbox One and Switch - with refined editions out now for Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro. Plus there's a PC version too, meaning that everyone is covered (unfortunately we didn't have access to PC at the time of testing though).
As you would expect, the scalability of the engine is crucial when assessing the multiple ports, but it's safe to say that the sweet spot lies with the base PlayStation 4. Scale up to Xbox One X and PS4 Pro and the advantages are limited. Drop down to base Xbox One or Switch and you lose a lot. The standard PS4 offers a full 1080p resolution, but so does PS4 Pro. In fact, placing the two versions side by side, you'd be hard pressed to spot any difference at all. Sonic Forces may 'support' the Pro, but that doesn't mean it offers anything in terms of tangible improvements.
In that sense, this is a release very much like Prey released earlier this year - the box promotes PS4 Pro enhancements but the game itself does not appear to offer much in the way of real improvements. Even 1440p would have been a huge jump for this game as image quality is not its strong suit. Things scale back dramatically on Xbox One, which renders at just 720p, taking us back to the dark days of the hardware launch. Dramatically lower image quality is the end result, though the same texture and detail levels persist.
Xbox One X is the wild card then - and there is a noticeable upgrade over both its base counterpart and all PlayStation versions, but the improvement isn't as consistent as you would expect. Xbox One X selects a fixed resolution on a per-level basis, meaning that at best some stages render at 3200x1800, while others stick to the same 1080p as PS4 and Pro. Unfortunately, those full HD stages are badly scaled, resulting in a messier presentation than its Sony counterparts. To be frank, it's somewhat baffling - hopefully it's a bug that can be fixed. After all, how hard can downscaling to 1080p actually be? Also, jumping between 1080p and 1800p is just strange - it adds an unwelcome inconsistency to the experience.
The Switch version (a Japanese demo is available that we used for testing) is curious. It runs at the same 720p resolution as Xbox One, but the detail level is dramatically reduced in some cases with reduced texture quality, simpler lighting and pared back geometry detail. There's also a frame-rate cut too: the other versions target 60fps, while Switch is locked to 30fps instead. This feels more disappointing considering that Sonic Team managed to pull off Sonic Lost World on the Wii U at 60fps.
With the downgraded visuals on Switch in place, Sonic Forces really doesn't look much better than its Wii U predecessor, yet runs at half the frame-rate. Of course, that was built from the ground-up for Wii U and this is a port from a multi-platform project designed primarily for PlayStation 4, so it starts to make more sense but that doesn't mean it isn't disappointing.
Other versions of the game have their own quirks. Xbox One operates at 60 frames per second and manages to maintain this level of performance most of the time but there is one major caveat - screen-tearing. Sonic Forces uses an adaptive v-sync solution and when the frame-time slips just over 16.7ms and then drops back down again, you get momentary screen-tear. The good news is that this allows the game to remain very near its 60fps target most of the time and the game feels ever so slightly more responsive than the triple-buffered PS4 version and certainly the 30fps Switch version.
Unfortunately, the 30fps cut-scenes suffer from significant tearing at almost all times in what appears to be an issue with the way adaptive v-sync has been implemented. It's especially noticeable during the pre-rendered cinematics. On Xbox One X, it's much the same but things are slightly improved. The 1080p levels all run without a hitch now offering a completely stable 60fps with no torn frames or hitches. It looks and feels great to play during these moments.
However, the high resolution 1800p stages can exhibit some noticeable slowdown and tearing in very select circumstances. It's kept to a minimum most of the time but is noticeable when it pops up. Still, Xbox One X performance is largely excellent, but the overall improvements compared to the base PS4 experience are lacklustre. PlayStation 4 and the Pro exhibit a couple interesting quirks of their own. Not only are the two versions essentially like for like, if you use the system's rest mode and return to the game over a period of time, issues start to pop up on both systems, resulting in degraded performance. Closing the game isn't enough either - a complete reboot is required to fix the issue.
Overall, when looking at all three versions, it's safe to say that they each have their own issues but, ultimately, PS4 and Xbox One X offer the best experience here in terms of frame-rate and visual features. You might run into the hitching issue on PS4 or slight tearing on the X but it generally feels great. The Switch version is fine for what it is but, honestly, it's hard to go back to 30fps after experiencing it at full-fat 60fps.
Regardless of which version you play though, the presentation is its strongest feature but the game itself is somewhat of a letdown. Regardless of their quality, by and large, we like the post-2006 Sonic 3D titles. These games all have their critics, but we greatly enjoyed everything from Unleashed and Generations to Lost World and Colors. We genuinely had hoped that Forces would deliver a proper follow-up to Generations. Instead, it feels like a half-baked effort. The core mechanics are there and at its best, it still feels great, but the level design and pacing ultimately left us cold.
Most stages are very short weighing in at one to two minutes tops and most of these levels focus on very simple boost-to-win mechanics. Rarely are you required to deftly navigate challenges as in previous 3D Sonic games - Forces is afraid to challenge the player. Beyond that, large portions of these stages feel as if they are built from simple building blocks - almost like it's Super Sonic Maker rather than a carefully designed platforming game. The elegance seen in Generations simply isn't here.
While Xbox One X is the best version right now, it's clear that PS4 is the 'prime' edition of this release - the one that Sega put the most effort into. While Xbox One X is marginally better thanks to its selective boost in resolution, you certainly aren't seeing its six teraflop GPU put through its paces throughout the game. Meanwhile, both Xbox One and Switch fall short of what they could have been - the notion of Microsoft's console getting a 720p port four years into its lifespan is just not good enough, and it's a remarkable state of affairs.
After the magnificence of Sonic Mania, we had high hopes for this one. Sonic Forces isn't bad, but whether it's about the core game or its multi-platform implementation, it should have been a whole lot better.