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Sonic Generations revisited: better than Forces, runs beautifully on PC

A low-cost, high-thrill 4K 60fps experience.

2017 could so easily have been the Year of the Hedgehog thanks to the arrival of two high-profile Sonic releases. It goes without saying that Sonic Mania is something truly special, a brilliant return to classic 2D platforming for the franchise - but on the 3D side of things, Sega came up short. Sonic Forces was a disappointment, a real shame bearing in mind just how good Sonic Generations was - especially on PC. The game has aged remarkably well, has exceptional modding support and runs well and looks wonderful at full 4K on GTX 970-level hardware.

Sonic Generations was released on PC back in 2011, a few weeks after the console versions. Unlike those 30fps efforts though, the PC version allows for smooth 60fps gameplay and higher resolutions. It's powered by the Hedgehog Engine and offers visuals that still hold up beautifully even in 2018. Indeed, in our opinion, the sheer quality of workmanship in the visuals makes this game stand up better than its successor.

The visual quality stems from a combination of great art direction, an accomplished post-processing pipeline including a soft-focus depth of field and good quality motion blur, detailed models and rich texture work. The star of the show is its solution to global illumination - a feature created for the original Sonic Unleashed, designed to simulate realistic light bounce across these expansive stages. The lighting data is pre-calculated, stored in textures and then streamed in during gameplay while characters are blended into the scene using a technique dubbed 'light field'. For an engine that began development in 2005, it's an impressive achievement.

As PC hardware has scaled in power over time, Sonic Generations locks in step. GTX 970-class hardware can run the game not just at 4K resolution, but also with max settings at something approaching a 60fps lock, only losing frames in areas rich in alpha textures, and even then, only fleetingly. Overclocking can help stability, but even here, there are still very rare drops. Overall though, this class of GPU (we tested Radeon RX 580 too with similar results) delivers the goods and it looks magnificent.

Want to see how Sonic Generations looks and plays at 4K60 on today's mainstream PC gaming hardware? Look no further. And check out the Unleashed mod for more.Watch on YouTube

Here at Digital Foundry, we've championed a number of great 4K experiences you can achieve on mainstream PC hardware - but it often requires a great deal of configuration work and testing to ensure a consistent experience. However, Sonic Generations is the one of the most basic games we've featured yet in our '4K on a Budget' series. You can crank it up and it runs mostly without issue, which is just as well as the two options which can be lowered have little to no impact on performance on modern hardware. The overall experience you get from this title is simply fast and beautiful to behold.

So the game is looking great, you've played through it and you're now looking for more. That's where the Unleashed Project comes in. Its current iteration includes all the main levels created for the Xbox 360 and PS3 title, Sonic Unleashed, but incorporates them into Generations' refined engine. This project is the work of many talented people over the course of several years and the results are frankly incredible, with players able to experience the main action stages - levels that served as the original basis for the modern Sonic stages in Sonic Generations.

Previously 'trapped' on last-gen consoles, Unleashed was an ambitious project in its day and the first Sonic game to be created using the Hedgehog engine. Considering it was released in 2008, it's amazing how well the art holds up, transplanted into a 2011 PC release running on modern PC hardware at 4K. These 'bonus' stages modded into the game are simply gorgeous.

What's interesting about this conversion is how the improved mechanics and features of Generations were adapted into these older stages. Things like the QTE sections from Unleashed were replaced with rainbow rings, for instance. Not to mention that you get the tighter controls of Generations and overall more polished gameplay.

Sonic Forces was Sega's attempt to update the 3D side of the franchise. It's not without merit, but in our view, it's not a patch on Generations.Watch on YouTube

We're fans of Sonic Unleashed but there's no denying that it has its fair share of issues and this mod manages to focus on the best parts of the game. This means no Werehog, no overworld and no Eggman Land - the final stage of the game that makes use of multiple characters (essentially ruling it out for insertion into the Generations game).

OK, so even when you get everything up and running, what makes this game worth checking out? Sonic has a bad reputation for 3D gameplay, but we maintain that Sonic Generations is one of those times when the blue hedgehog really shines in the third dimension. The first thing to consider here is that this title is part of the 'Boost Sonic' design and does not hold close to the original 16-bit games. Things like momentum don't really apply and level design more closely resembles a series of forked racing tracks more than anything else, but once you get it, the game is a lot of fun.

Playing any Boost Sonic level can be an exhilarating experience once you learn the ropes. This game is all about reacting quickly to challenges to execute increasingly complex strings of platforming and movement. A good run through a level in Sonic Generations can give you that same feeling you might experience while nailing a run in a classic Tony Hawk game. This also means that failure can feel more frustrating than a typical platform game since the pacing can grind to a halt at any moment should you fail to execute - but when you do nail it, the experience feels great and immensely satisfying.

Sonic Generations possesses a potent mix of high-speed gameplay that rewards reaction time and skill. When paired with its gorgeous visuals and superb soundtrack, everything clicks in a way that Sonic Forces simply can't capture. But what really surprised us here is how well a 2011 game scales its assets to 4K displays, hitting 60fps with PC hardware that doesn't have to break the bank. The fact that additional levels based on 2008's Sonic Unleashed also look so cool on today's display tech, while still playing so well only adds to the appeal. If you're looking for more Sonic after the incredible Sonic Mania, we reckon that this is the way forward.

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