For over a decade, this is the one game that Sonic fans have been waiting for. A true sequel to Sonic 3 & Knuckles and not some gimmicky adventure into the realm of 3D. But with so much disappointment in recent years, Sonic 4 presented both Sega and Dimps, the developer, the opportunity to bring Sonic back to the forefront of gaming - something they probably didn't quite achieve. They did achieve one thing though, they made the the best Sonic game for a while.
The older Sonic games weren't exactly know for their gripping story, but in light of the modern era, a very small story has been added to Sonic 4. Following on directly from Sonic 3 & Knuckles, Sonic decides he wants to do some exploring without Tails and Knuckles - he just wants some alone time for once. However, little does he know that Dr. Robotnik (now known as Dr. Eggman) survived their encounter and is back to reek havoc once again - this time with some modified machines.
Despite the premise being about Sonic exploring new zones, each of the zones has an air of familiarity about it. Whether this was done to make older Sonic players feel at home or not, it would have been nice to see a bit more originality or at least a few more zones. While previous Sonic installments did have a bit of sharing, it was generally in the first zone, with the rest all offering something unique - that doesn't happen here at all, save for one zone in Lost Labyrinth.
Having said that, the levels themselves are very well designed and flow nicely and whizzing through them can be an enjoyable experience, save for the annoying placed badnik which appears to be just before the end of the level, on every level. It's just a shame that a lot of the elements throughout levels are simply taken from previous installments of the franchise - especially in Mad Gear Zone, which strongly resembles Metropolis Zone from Sonic 2.
The same can be said for the bosses at the end of each stage too, which, as explained by the story, are just slightly modified versions of bosses from Sonic 1 and Sonic 2. Even the Special Stage is a slightly modified version of the Special Stage featured in Sonic 1.
The gameplay of Sonic 4, one of the main aspects of any Sonic game, is a mixed bag. There will be some people that love it and there will be some people that aren't so keen on it. Why? Well, because it's perhaps not the most fluid of experiences. Sonic can still dash around at speed, but momentum seems to be almost non-existant. If you take your finger off the controller when running, Sonic will almost stop dead on the spot. The same also applies when using his spinning dash. Take your finger off the controller and he'll slow down, often in places where it's baffling. The crowning moment of this though, is probably when jumping. Again, while performing a jump if you take your finger off the controller Sonic will stop dead in mid-air on a six-pence.
If you're from the camp of older Sonic games, this will be rather jarring. However, if you're more liberal and have a new school of thought it doesn't make for a bad experience. It just means you have to re-learn and not expect things to work how they used to. And that's probably how best to approach it. It does make for a slightly stiff experience though, but the levels have been somewhat designed with this in mind, and it's still possible to speed through from start to finish at break-neck speeds if you know what you're doing.
Graphically, the game looks great. The enviroments and character models are presented with lush HD graphics and the colours are very vibrant - what you'd expect from a Sonic experience. The music is where most of my focus will go though, as there are some really great tracks here. Jun Senoue, the legendary Sonic composer, has decided to give the soundtrack a retro feel, akin to the older games. It works really well and some of the melodies are fantastic. Splash Hill Zone Act 3, Lost Labyrinth Zone Act 2 and Mad Gear Zone Act 1 are probably the stand-out tracks.
Sonic 4 offers a ton of replay value, just as the Mega Drive versions did, purely because it's so easy to pick-up and play. The World Select screen has made this even more accessible, as you can just pick a stage and jump right in. Leaderboards are now present though, so you can rate your performance against the world's best Sonic players from the perspective of time and score achieved. It'll probably take a couple of hours to run through the game, but achieving everything in the game will take much more time.
Sonic 4 Episode 1 goes a long way toward revitalising the franchise, but it might not entirely be what everyone was expecting. The gameplay feels a bit sticky at times due to some annoying physics and a lot of elements are just borrowed from previous games. Neither of these things stop Sonic 4 from being an enjoyable experience, but they stop it from being a great experience and that's the real issue here. There are some elements, like the music, which are fantastic, but they're being held back. Hopefully these issues can be addressed in Episode 2 so that we can get a game that truly succeeds the older generation Sonic titles.