While the gameplay shown so far doesn't look exactly like any one Sonic game, it conjures up memories of two of the strongest titles from the 'hog's recent past: Sonic Adventure for its diverse ground-burrowing, monkey swinging, tail-propelling, multi-character gameplay and Sonic Heroes for the fact that several characters are on-screen at the same time and must be used together to progress. Quite how you'll switch between them remains to be seen, but the three-character mechanic of Sonic Heroes was one of that game's greatest strengths, resulting in impressive and devastating displays of spiny attacks at a moment's notice. It's probably no coincidence that both those games appeared on GameCube; this is a Nintendo fan's Sonic title and no mistake.
The new game should also fix some of the missteps that multi-character Sonic games have made in the past. Sonic Adventure 2 Battle suffered from trying to make each character the star of its own smaller game, with gameplay quality veering from sublime - Sonic's sprinty bits - to eye-gougingly terrible - we're looking at you Tails' vehicular combat levels (or at least we would if it wasn't for the aforementioned eye-gouging). In Boom, characters bring unique powers to the same world. Sonic is the athletic all-rounder, Knuckles is strong, Tails gets his gadgets and Amy, well... she's really good at hammers. Not all special abilities are born equal.
If Boom sounds like every mascot-driven action-platformer ever made, it boasts a magic ingredient in the form of Big Red Button. CEO and visual director, Bob Rafai, tells us the studio acquired talent from Naughty Dog, High Impact Games and Heavy Iron Studios, all of which have worked heavily with third-person character action. Rafai himself hails from Naughty Dog, whic h, with Jak & Daxter, Crash Bandicoot and Uncharted under its belt, is arguably the finest purveyor of cartoon mascots outside Nintendo. After years of seeing the 3D platformer dragged through the mud by movie tie-in abuse, it's great to see a sincere effort to do it right.
More than that, it's an effort to show us what Wii U can do, thanks in no small part to its use of CryEngine 3 for its physics and visuals. With Sonic Team's Hedgehog Engine created for the blue blighter (it powered last year's Lost World), why the sudden shift? As Sega of America producer, Stephen Frost, explains, "You associate CryEngine with lush, tropical, beachy things. These are also things with which Sonic is associated, so they work together."
The results speak for themselves. The trailer shows off some stunning visuals, coupling Sonic's instantly familiar, sunflower-studded lawns with a denser, more lush foliage. We've seen neon-lit interiors of factory complexes, sun-kissed beaches, stretches of chequered racetrack (complete with stomach-lurching loops) and bays of glittering water, sprinted across in an impossible feat of supersonic speed straight out of The Incredibles. How free we are to explore this world is yet to be fully shown, though it already looks far more open than the linear platforming gauntlets of Mario's recent efforts.
Interestingly, it's not the standard version of CryEngine 3 used here, but one that has been enhanced by the team. According to Rafei, the technology's usual spec can't traditionally do split-screen gaming, yet Sonic Boom will feature a twin split-screen display, one on the TV screen and the other on the GamePad. "We worked in close contact with [CryEngine creator] Crytek in Germany," explains Rafei, "and the team there is pretty excited about that as well. In the end, it was simply the right choice for the project."
While the exact use for the split is yet to be shown, we do know it will enable local, two-man co-op throughout the game (not unlike recent LEGO titles). Additionally, the team has confirmed there will be some optional four-player modes accessible from special hub areas. Either way, you'll never be alone, even in single-player. The idea is not just to build that sense of teamwork within the group, but also to get gamers and their families playing together, which is something the Wii U absolutely stands for.
Another feature that's yet to be explained completely revolves around the rays of energy - EnerBeams - that the characters are wielding. One screenshot shows Sonic and Amy apparently working together to tug at some scenery, while the trailer shows the beams being used to traverse rails of energy in the sky, like neon ziplines. There are rumours that these might even tie two characters together, revisiting the tether mechanic of the cancelled Sonic Crackers and Knuckles' Chaotix on 32X. Looking closely at the trailer, there doesn't appear to be evidence of this, but if ever there is a way of ensuring two characters don't stray too far from each other in co-op, it's tying them together with a piece of electric string.
There's one last exciting piece of news in terms of who's making the Wii U game. Big Red Button currently employs a man called Chris Senn as its lead level designer, who was heavily involved in making Sonic X-Treme, the cancelled 3D Saturn game that pre-empted so many of Super Mario Galaxy's ideas. This, then, is Senn's chance to show the world exactly what he didn't get the chance to show it last time round. The stage is set for something very special.