Sometimes, you have to be cruel to be kind. So, allow me to do just that.
Sonic Forces, based on everything I've played so far—one three-dimensional level as Sonic, running through a city in the middle of a robotic invasion, replayed again as a whip-lashing custom avatar; and a classic-styled 2D boss fight against a twin-staged Robotnik with a penchant for chucking bloody great rocks the way of Sega's speedy mascot—is not good. Like, really not good. Like, potentially a genuinely bad game in waiting. Like, I have been watching everything I can of it, reading articles by the dozen, and have sat down with people from Sega about it, and I still cannot fathom who the heck this game is for.
Forces mixes old-school left-to-right play with more contemporary—and considerably less critically acclaimed—third-person 3D motion, and stars both the thin-limbed Sonic we've seen in recent releases, and a shorter, portlier alternative more akin (but not identical) to the 16-bit original. It wants to be another Generations in that respect, a clear sign that Sega understands that of all its modern Sonics, 2011's was probably the least hated. But Generations wasn't that good, and Forces, right now, is offering zero indication of being an improvement. All it really appears to have going for it is its custom character creation option, sure to give DeviantArtists ideas.
Okay, that's the cruelty mostly out of the way. The kindness being, hopefully, the service of saying: guys, this game, it's really not shaping up too great. So maybe don't bet the farm on it (or, y'know, pre-order the damn thing).
Sonic Mania? Yes! Be excited! The August-due collaboration between Sega and indie devs Christian Whitehead and Simon Thornley (and a select few others) shows that, with cooperation from outside its parent company itself, from fans schooled on the Genesis games, the Sonic series can still thrill, albeit in a firmly retro-colored capacity. Everything I've played and seen of Mania, from its sparkling level design to its sumptuous, Sonic CD-recalling soundtrack and the revised drop-dash move, I am 100% sold on.
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Waypoint caught up with Nintendo's Reggie Fils-Aimé at E3 2017
Which just serves to highlight, by contrast, just how lost Forces feels—neither here nor there in terms of which Sonic era it can hang onto, and failing fans of both the 2D and 3D games by coming across as just barely competent in each discipline. And how I first play the game completely hamstrings its chance of leaving even the most underwhelming of impressions. I go "hands on" with Forces mere minutes after playing beautiful demos of both Super Mario Odyssey and the unexpectedly ace Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle.
Now, I need to add some environmental context here. I play all three games at Nintendo—in their UK office, with reminders of the company's heritage at every turn. And as someone who used to buy all the Sega mags he could, wore a badge claiming "Mario Sucks" every now and then (a free gift, possibly from Sega Pro, possibly Mean Machines Sega), and who didn't own a Nintendo of any kind until the N64, I can't help but think that, y'know, presenting the games in the order that they did might have been a very deliberate move to show Sega's old-timer up. Obviously, that's not the case, but the 14-year-old me has a heart of blue.
Then again, a bad game is a bad game, a great one a great one, whatever sequence they're shown to you in. And even if Forces wasn't bound for Switch, and wasn't a part of Nintendo's upcoming software slate for 2017, it'd still be crappy in comparison to the sublime Odyssey and the surprise package of Kingdom Battle.
The latter is exactly what you think it is—an XCOM-like tactical affair in which you maneuver Mushroom Kingdom and Rabbids characters around a field divided into squares, overcoming cover-grabbing enemies in sectioned-off encounters or avoiding them entirely in order to reach a goal area of the map. It is terrific fun, and even the bits of it where there's no combat at all, when you're just steering Mario and pals around the environment, everyone following behind a Roomba-looking thing called Beep-o, feels so nice. It's so pretty, so quirky, so adorably outré, I love it.
Odyssey, meanwhile, is exactly what you hoped it'd be—a mix of Sunshine and Galaxy flavors, with Mario's usual moveset present and correct, expanded with all the new capabilities afforded to him courtesy of the sentient headpiece, Cappy. He's got his long jump back, too, FYI, which leads to him rolling into a ball on landing—great for swift traversal of downhill areas (oh hi, speed-runners). Speaking of which, the two zones I get to check out—the E3-previewed Metro Kingdom, aka New Donk City, and Sand Kingdom—are never not a joy to bounce and dash across, tossing Cappy onto humans, statues, Bullet Bills and more to take control of them and make progress.
I don't really want to break it down further, into technical this and mechanical that, because it spoils the magic, doesn't it? Man, Odyssey is great. I can't wait.
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Forces, though, yeah. Tough one. All the nostalgia-fueled optimism in the world might not be enough, there. Like Odyssey, it's destined for a quarter four release, although unlike Mario's latest it's yet to get a specific release date. I wonder if it'd be better to not put it into direct competition with Odyssey, and hold off until early 2018, so as to prevent a Sega vs Nintendo scenario that's more dramatically one-sided than ever before.
Kingdom Battle and Mania are both set for August, but they're very different games, which should be able to coexist quite contently. I'll be wanting to play both, switching (har, har) between them on the move, to best suit whatever mood I'm in—Kingdom Battle for thoughtful chilling, Mania for pulse-raising speed. But put Forces and Odyssey side by side and you've got an either/or in which there'll only ever be one winner.
And that's hugely illustrative of where these icons are today, when exclusively in the hands of their makers—one finding new adventures of veritable intrigue and invention, the other resigned to painfully familiar play styles and fan art. (And FWIW, the new Mario has a better theme tune than the new Sonic, too.) To be kind, again, it's of course worth remembering that we're a way out yet from the final games, for both Odyssey and Forces. But first impressions count a bunch, and they're a damn cruel mistress.
Send your Sonic drawings to Mike on Twitter. No, really, he loves them.