Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2 is the belated follow-up to 2010's Episode 1, featuring four new stages inspired by classic Sonic levels. As well as fan-pleasing tweaks to its physics and art direction, a second player can join the fun as Tails through local co-operative play and online.
While Episode 1 was praised for finally delivering a 2D Sonic adventure following years of competent to awful 3D Sonic games, it was also heavily criticised by its fan base for its strange physics and feel when platforming. Sonic Team has taken this on board for an adventure closer to the Sonic games we all know and love.
Learning from past mistakes: Better physics, improved visuals
Episode 2 addresses one of the core complaints of the first episode, and that's the physics. While you had to really play around with Episode 1 to discover most of its oddities, you didn't have to be the most hardcore Sonic fan to find that there was something a little off about the way Sonic controlled.
Now it's much closer to the Mega Drive originals, with a more weighted jump, more natural movement from a standstill to a sprint (in both animation and speed) as well as when running around the environment. For example, you can no longer run up a wall with no momentum - you now must have some speed or a spin dash behind you to make it.
Another change is that Episode 2 has been given a redesign. While Episode 1 was certainly a good looking game, its visual style was basic and bold, closer to the New Super Mario Bros. games than classic Sonic. Here, environments are far more detailed - instead of bright green blocks, platforms how have individual shards of grass - while Sonic himself looks less shiny and cartoon-like, matching the personality of his 16-bit days.
The return of Tails
Mirroring the progression of the original Mega Drive series, Episode 2 sees Sonic joined by a second character with the trustworthy Tails. Just like Sonic the Hedgehog 2, a second player can pick up a controller and join in the fun alongside you, and you can even have someone play online for a co-operative session.
When playing solo, it's also pleasing to find that Tails's behaviour is still basic and accident prone. He often leaps into spike pits without thinking and comically bounces off springs out of view, before dropping in alongside you with his tails between his legs.
He does much more than add a bit of company, though. Tails adds three new abilities that change how you explore stages. The most obvious is flight; leap up into the air and tap X (or Square) and Tails will grab hold of you for a short amount of time, allowing you to reach distant ledges or save you from falling down a deadly chasm at the last minute. Doing this on the ground performs a large whirlwind of a spin dash that can break through specific walls (or in White Park Zone, through compacted snow) and in water allows you to swim faster, handy when you're running out of air.
Aquatic Ruin and Ice Cap return in spirit
In terms of content, expect the same amount of stages as Episode 1; four levels with three acts each, and presumably a boss for each one. We sampled Sylvania Castle, a cross between Aquatic Ruin from Sonic 2 with its multiple moss-covered paths, one of which was submerged underwater, and Marble Garden from Sonic 3, with rock walls that must be moved by spin-dashing brightly coloured switches.
The other was White Park Zone, a blend of Sonic 3 favourites Ice Cap and Carnival Night zones (without the incredible music, unfortunately) for a stage with several interesting ideas. Multiple points in a stage see you escape from a wall of snow on a snowboard, while snow caverns saw slower exploration and routes blocked off by giant snowballs that could be pushed away.
Sonic Team appear really keen to placate fans who weren't a fan of Episode 1's foibles, from the changes to Sonic's movement and momentum to its art direction. It's essentially an adventure that's far closer to the original Mega Drive games than any other Sonic game to date, and with some smart remixes of classic stages and added co-op, Sonic 4: Episode 2 looks to be nothing short of a superb follow-up.
Sonic 4: Episode 2 will be available on Xbox Live Arcade, PSN, PC, iOS, Android and Windows Phone later this year.