Sonic Frontiers
Image: SEGA

Soapbox features enable our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random stuff they've been chewing over. Today, Stuart takes a look at the upcoming open-world Sonic game and ponders the promise it has, and pitfalls it has to negotiate...

The Game Awards were a double-header for us Sonic fans. A full trailer for the blue blur’s second movie and, more pertinently, our first real glimpse of the next major Sonic game, one Sonic Frontiers. And it’s been met with somewhat scornful comparisons to the absolutely exhausted benchmark of the “open-world” mega-genre, one The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Never mind the fact that Sonic was traversing big, open spaces back in 1991. What are “sandbox” locations if not extrapolations on the wide-linear likes of the original Green Hill Zone, eh? Riddle me that, Zelda. Maybe we could have a Sonic game where his sneakers break every fifteen seconds and you have to keep replacing them.

Obviously – obviously – Breath of the Wild is a benchmark for a reason, but I don’t feel as though Sonic Frontiers necessarily invites comparison to it beyond its blue skies and green lands, at least based on what has been showed so far — not much more than a few fly-throughs of greenery and ruins.

So far, so Sonic, but the promise of freedom is extremely appealing. Rather than recalling BOTW, for me it called to mind a particular piece of promo art from (gulp) the Xbox 360/PS3 title known as Sonic ’06. It depicted the beloved vermin himself launching out over a vast, endless forest as seen in the reveal trailer. It spoke to the promise of complete liberation in both speed and gameplay. And, as we all know, it delivered — delivered a full bladder of conceptual urine through my metaphorical letterbox, that is. But now, but now, we once again have that potential ready to either flourished or be cruelly squandered.

Sonic 06
Just imagine if the game had been anything like as cool as this looks... — Image: SEGA

And yeah, no. I’m not super hopeful, either. Based on the general ups and downs of the Sonic series and the constant “fixing” of what wasn’t broken (look at the marvellous Sonic Generations and the rotten Sonic Lost World), I think I can be excused for assuming that Sonic Team aren’t going to reach a Breath of the Wild-tier experience. But, then, would anyone expect as much? Should Sonic Team’s effort even be compared to one of the most important games of all time? Why is Sonic, of all things, being held to such a standard in the first place?

it’s the freedom of Sonic Adventure that makes me think Frontiers may actually deliver an experience well worth my time

Let’s go back a little. I content that the majority of non-2D Sonic games offer either first-class movement/mechanics or first-class level design. Please note that the loss of one of these is not necessarily crushing to a game’s quality, but all the same I find it to be mostly true. It’s my view that the only 3D Sonic to truly deliver on what makes the Mega Drive games so great is Sonic Adventure, a game that even its biggest fans will agree is riddled with flaws. As good as Sonic Generations is, it’s far more prescribed and linear than the Dreamcast classic, and it’s the freedom of Sonic Adventure that makes me think Frontiers may actually deliver an experience well worth my time.

Even in the relatively small fields present in Sonic Adventure – and the action stages, for that matter – it’s very rare that you feel tethered to the floor, with several routes becoming available without locking you to specific pathways. While it’s a straight A-to-B, think of how many ways you’re able to cut corners in Emerald Coast. Think of the buildings you can cut across in Speed Highway.

Now imagine that freedom splashed onto a much larger canvas. It’s pretty intoxicating to imagine a Sonic game that finally recreates the feel of the opening cinematic that heralds Sonic CD. When I saw the towers in the Sonic Frontiers key art, the first thing that popped into my head was that sequence in said animation in which Sonic ascends an enormous mesa, only to perch on the very top of it to get himself a good look at the Little Planet. It’s that “Toot Toot Sonic Warrior” autonomy that the series has always been chasing and – at its best – reliably delivers. Imagining Sonic Frontiers as a full game of such moments, occurring organically as opposed to within short, bespoke “Action Stages” is incredibly appealing.

But as with Breath of the Wild, it’s the physics that make or break Sonic – in this case the application of gravity and momentum in order to make the speed you achieve worth something rather than just hitting the 'Y' button to “boost”. That’s not to dismiss the boost games – Colors, Generations and (yes) Forces all have their moments – but consider, for example, an area atop a sheer cliff that Sonic has to reach in order to progress. A spin dash isn’t enough and there’s no boost button to shortcut you up there, but if you retreat a little, find a high spot with a consistent and relatively obstacle-free downhill run, you’ll be able to dash down, build up speed, curl into a ball, reach an exponentially higher speed and launch your way up the rock face to your goal. Doesn’t that sound more fun and rewarding than just pressing a button?

Sonic CD
Image: SEGA

Sonic games are ultimately about traversal, but the traversal in them is rarely interesting. The levels can be fun, yes, but the actual getting around is all too often a source of frustration, a nightmare of homing attacks, speed boosters and grind rails. A proper marriage of a large, diverse open world with unrestrictive, momentum-based platforming could be the absolute dream Sonic game, one that rewards skill as much as the others clearly do, but is also naturally enjoyable just to move around in.

When I pick up the PlayStation 4 Spider-Man game, which is often, I can pour an hour or so into it at a time. I’ve owned the game since launch and have yet to progress even halfway through the story. I just don’t care about it. The web-swinging feels so good, so vibrant and so liberating that I simply spend my time doing it; just traversing, but with no major goal in mind.

What if a Sonic title could offer that kind of experience? A game wherein the joy of simply interacting with it is its own reward. For the first time in years, it feels like such a revolutionary take on the nippy needlemouse could be within the grasp of the community who sticks with him through thick and thin.

Sonic Adventure
Image: SEGA

Now, Sonic Team, I implore you – please don’t balls it up.