Sonic Team, for the longest time, seems to think that Sonic is all about speed. To be fair that’s what all the marketing for the original games was pushing, but in reality speed in Sonic is a reward for playing well, not the standard staple of each game in the series (in terms of the old school classics, at least).
And so you can probably tell where we’re going with these first impressions. Yes, we’ve played Sonic Forces and yes, it’s just what you’d expect if you're a pessimist. It's a modern Sonic game that disappoints at nearly every turn. We played three different levels with three different characters, namely Modern Sonic, Classic Sonic, and the infamous custom-created Avatar.
The Classic Sonic stage was a boss fight, starting off as very typical and straighforward, and then immediately getting carried away by having Robotnik (no, we're not calling him Eggman) enter a giant mech, which he naturally uses to throw rocks from a great distance. You know, rather than just stamping on the blue blur’s face repeatedly which a giant mech usually lends itself rather well to. For the most part gameplay for this level was fine, although the controls and weight of Sonic felt slightly off. No doubt this is either just your scribe playing too much Sonic the Hedgehog 2 recently or a small error that can easily be resolved before release. On the whole though the boss was relatively boring to fight.
Modern Sonic’s affair is precisely what you’d expect; a cookie-cutter modern Sonic-style course more akin to the ‘mach speed’ sections in the 2006 reboot we daren’t mention by name, although thankfully hitting a wall doesn’t result in a ridiculous and instant death. Run as fast as you can collecting rings if you want, jump every so often and then after a moment stop dead still and kill a group of characterless robotic minions. This kind of gameplay - although perhaps not entirely to everyone's taste - can work, and we’ve seen it do so in games like Sonic Colours, but the entire level felt overly short and had nothing in terms of secrets or hidden paths that we could find, likely because the game kept encouraging us to speed through without taking the time to absorb anything of any detail.
The Avatar’s stage, on the other hand, was even worse. Speed is put on the back burner - which is a good idea in theory - but there’s no speed at all beyond a handful of CPU-controlled manoeuvres that have plagued Sonic games for well over a decade now. Instead you have to use your weapon - the demo we played offered a choice of a flamethrower or an electric-like whip - to swat away foes like wet tissue paper, and each activation of said weapon slows you down, meaning the core mechanic of the Avatars has nothing to do with speed. It feels worryingly similar to Shadow the Hedgehog on the GameCube, which isn't something to be too thrilled about in this writer's opinion.
Plenty are excited for Sonic Forces, thinking that perhaps Sonic Team has learnt - from approving Sonic Mania and just generally being a group of humans who enjoy video games - that substance is far more important than style. Unfortunately the Sonic Forces demo falls down flat in almost every regard. On the Switch it runs like an asthmatic slug through a salt mine (by Sonic standards, of course), and the gameplay is bland and utterly predictable. Developers have proven that Sonic in 3D can work with the likes of Sonic Colours, Sonic Generations, and even the Sonic Adventure series, providing of course you ignore all the levels that aren’t Sonic or Shadow orientated.
It may be unfair to judge Sonic Forces harshly considering that the game’s not even finished, but if this truly is representative of the final game then we have serious reservations. Classic Sonic feels just about fine, although we didn’t get to play anything outside said boss battle. Modern Sonic feels dry and boring, forcing you to take no time to appreciate anything. Finally the Avatar stage feels like an afterthought, as though someone at Sonic Team suddenly had the great idea of letting people insert their own characters into the game (not an inherently bad idea in theory, despite all the jokes) late on in development and some poor sod had to create an entirely new gameplay system to incorporate them.
Nothing feels like it has any focus or passion behind it; it’s more as if it’s a game being pushed out to make money in a hurry, and as soon as something passable for a game is there SEGA is ready to just throw it out, consequences be damned. It’s worrying, and unless the final release manages to pull something out of the hat we’re looking at ‘just another modern Sonic game’, and not in a good way.