Eyes kind of rolled when this one was announced. "Sonic... WITH GUNS!" Fortunately it's not quite what you expect. This isn't edgy or grown-up Sonic. It's just, well, Sonic. Sonic Adventure, effectively - as toonified as ever.
Not even "with guns" especially. I mean, there are guns. There are vehicles too. But their role is about as central as the BNP manifesto. You can blast away happily with the guns, dropped by enemies and found in crates, but you only really need them on a handful of occasions. Admittedly there's a greater emphasis on combat than tearing around half-blindly, and you'll also hop into high-jumping robotic legs, parachute down from rockets, and even surf along acidic yellow goop, but it all feels distinctly familiar. The fundamental play mechanics are: run, jump, mid-air homing-attack.
Instead of splitting a larger number of levels between running, more precise platforming and blasting, Shadow sticks everything in the same gamespace. It's not a particularly long game - simply run from one end to the other and it's all over in a few short hours - so instead the idea is to play through repeatedly, adopting a different approach each time in order to unlock different endings. Doing so takes longer and requires more effort. So there are forks in the road, high and low routes, bonus areas to reach, and secrets to find. You can simply rush to the end and collect the chaos emerald, or you can be good or panto-bad. Goody missions involve knocking out all the evil black creatures attacking Westopolis, or chasing down a black tank. Naughty ones switch things round, so you'll be trying to wipe out the human soldiers, or activating evil-temple crystals. Your actual path to the goal doesn't vary immensely, rather it's your alignment that does.
Which is a bit of a kludge, because some of the mechanics seem to be set in opposition to this. The mid-air homing attack - crucial to dispatching enemies - is indiscriminate. To get the "pure" good ending, you'll want to be as pleasant and friendly to your gun-toting soldier chums as possible. It all gets a bit awkward when you knock one of them out through no real fault of your own. Similarly, everybody on-screen seems predisposed toward shooting at you, regardless of your motives - which, given that you can tell the game what you're aiming for by selecting your preferred alignment from the pause menu, is a little unfair of them.
Levels take you through the traditional city streets, stony-pathways-in-the-sky and lava-laden robot bases, and the act of hunting things down or gunning for specific objectives is more refined and manageable than it perhaps has been in other Sonic games. You can go off and explore an earlier section by teleporting between the reasonably well-spaced save checkpoints if you can't be bothered to loop back round on foot, and there's room to pause and have a sniff around for things like the hidden keys that unlock a secret area on each level, too. These are often hidden around the margins of a level, accessed by using a floating droid as a spring-pad to an elevated gantry, for example.
Another aspect of the good/bad divide are your hero and villain gauges at the top of the screen. By doing heroic things (like putting out fires and defending troops), you'll charge up the blue one. Naughtiness charges up the red one. When you fill one of them, Shadows transforms into his version of Super Sonic, with the ability to unleash a special chaos power.
All of which is, well, so-so. It's nothing to get massively excited about, is it? Add to that the fact that it suffers from quite a few Sonic Adventure-style problems (the homing attack sends you spinning into bottomless pits, the camera's mischievous so it's hard to judge distances and the position of hanging rails above lava, and whatnot, and Shadow's over-eagerness to sprint around excitedly whenever he notices you reaching for the analog stick, which can be, er, hazardous), and it suddenly sounds like something you could easily do without.
As to the game's other selling point - its darker edge - it's not really meant for us. The young'uns may enjoy the predictable dialogue and the voice actors' overly earnest delivery, but it's not exactly Planescape Torment. It's all "mwahahahaha" and "Shad-ooooow!" When he stands in front of Robotnik, poised to discover the truth about his origins, I, er, skipped the cut-scene. It really won't matter. Indeed, there's little point going after the different endings if you're in it for the plot - more likely you'll do it because it's fairly standard 3d platform game fodder. I have to collect five computer disks? I can only find three! I! Must! Possess! Them! All! I have to kill 45 enemies? Where are they?! I must find them! It is the way of things. In the same way nobody gasps in dismay when the Princess gets kidnapped in Super Mario Bros., nobody's all that bothered about Shadow's actual origins or his subsequent lust for revenge. Particularly given that he's a hedgehog with peculiar white chest hair.
Which is fine, except Shadow the Hedgehog doesn't really do anything new, and doesn't really give the impression anyone's trying particularly hard. You put out fires by walking up to them and pressing X. You destroy crystals by hitting them three times. You bop things on the head. Level design, combat, objectives, secrets, pacing, balance, play mechanics, difficulty curve, boss fights - even visuals - are all precisely the sort of thing we've come to expect from 3d platform games. This one isn't even particularly fast, and its secrets aren't dazzling little surprises you happen upon when you try something inventive; they're more like things you have to go and sweep up after you've made a mess. I didn't find anything overwhelmingly annoying, but then I didn't find anything overwhelmingly anything. "Hero or Villain?" the box asks. Neither, really.
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