Sonic's best friend/groupie Tails rejoins the fray this time around and, just as he did back in the 90s, he actually adds a few interesting wrinkles to the formula. The duo can team up for a handful of cooperative maneuvers, with Tails making use of his iconic appendages as a propeller to fly through the air or glide through the water. The pair can also join together to form a spinning ball of death, mowing down enemies and bursting through obstacles in their path.
These sound like simple additions, but these abilities offer a deeper level of exploration in levels, allowing Sonic and Tails to reach higher places or go in different directions. Also, the helicopter ability in particular is great for saving Sonic from an unexpected fall into a bottomless pit. Tails also brings multiplayer back into the mix, allowing a second player to join in either online or off.
Episode 2 also generally lacks the inventive locomotive gadgets that have been a trademark of the series. There is the occasional moment of cleverness, especially toward the end when Sonic runs along walls in the background, blasts out of energy cannons or hurtles through halls that reverse gravity and rotate the screen along every curve. Beyond that there isn't much: No swinging ropes, no ratchets and pulleys, no hang gliders, no massive bolts threaded by equally preposterous nuts.
Boss battles are inconsistent, with the Metal Sonic encounters being particularly off balance. In the first encounter with Sonic's doppelganger, a single misstep can result in instant death. In the second, what should be a thrilling battle atop Tails' iconic biplane essentially boils down to constantly running to the right and repeating the homing attack. Don't worry if Sonic gets hit, because there's an infinite supply of rings to keep him healthy. If you'd like to spice things up a bit, you can do what I did: Just dodge Metal Sonic's attacks and collect enough rings to earn an extra life – then kill him. (Side note: Robotnik boss battles are accompanied by terrible music that loops approximately every nine seconds.)
Another oddity: Collecting every Chaos Emerald doesn't alter Episode 2's ending one bit. Upon first completing the game and watching the credits, I was told to try again after finding all the emeralds. After defeating Robotnik for the second time, the same ending played again, the credits rolled and ... nothing. For a game supposedly steeped in Sonic traditions, you'd think Sonic Team would get that one right.
In the end, it feels like Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2 is merely going through the motions (most of which involve spinning). As was intended, it's reminiscent of Sonic's best-remembered adventures, though it never manages to live up to them. Episode 2 makes improvements over its predecessor, with better visuals, useful co-op maneuvers and great special stages, but the inconsistent boss battles and uninspired level design keep it from recapturing Sonic's glory days.
This review is based on review code of the Xbox 360 version of Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2, provided by Sega.
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