Right off the bat, something sets this game apart from other Sonic games, and other platformers in general: the character selection screen doesn’t have you picking one character to play as, but a team of three. There’s a speed, flight and power character in each team, each with different abilities. Choosing who to play as adds some strategy into a level; do you want to speed through with speed characters, or be more careful with flight ones? You can level up the characters three times as well, which adds an extra layer of depth as sometimes you’ll want to level power characters up first to take down large enemies quicker, or so on.
Each team plays almost identically, but individual characters have their own unique move (sometimes two). Teams have their own Team Blasts, super moves that can kill all nearby enemies, sometimes with added perks. Team Sonic’s is just standard, Team Rose gets invincibility and a shield, Team Dark freezes time and Team Chaotix get rings. Different perks mean there’s some strategy to the best time to use a Team Blast, but this isn’t the main distinction between teams. Choosing a team to play as doubles up as a difficulty choice, with Team Sonic being normal, Dark being hard, Rose being easy and Chaotix offering a mission-based style of gameplay.
All teams run through the same stages, albeit altered depending on the team. The basic structure is mostly the same, but level length and the amount and strength of enemies differs. Each team also has a unique secondary challenge for each level which is unlocked after beating it once, such as Team Sonic’s time trials. At times this does feel like padding because you play through the same level but slightly different 8 times, but the new objectives really change how you approach each stage.
Getting 'A' ranks in all stages unlocks ‘Super Hard Mode’, which is one final – and as its name would suggest, super hard – version of each stage. Granted it’s more repetition, but playing the stages in the run-up to this new challenge is like a warm-up. Being experienced enough with each stage to know the quickest routes and best point-scoring opportunities is rewarded with this gauntlet - it gives you three lives (you can earn more) and doesn’t save your progress if you get a game over. Thankfully I didn’t game over, but I wouldn’t have been thrilled if I did. It’s almost like the challenge of early Mega Drive games, and that’s an interesting reward for 100% completion.
No discussion of a Sonic game is complete without looking at its soundtrack. For a series known for having some fantastic music, Sonic Heroes is no exception, and I honestly think has the best of the lot. Every track is distinct, even between aesthetically similar stages, and they’ve all full of energy. It makes you pumped to run through every level. Two really solid additions to the game’s soundtrack come from the special stages, especially the bonus challenge track which is heard in special stages accessed form each zone’s first act. You get transported to special stages if you collect a key and don’t take damage for the remainder of the level. If you do this in the second act of each of the seven zones, you get a shot at getting the Chaos Emerald.
For all the effort that goes into bringing a key to the end of a level, the Chaos Emerald stages are brutal. Not because of the stages themselves, but the controls. You’d think Sonic and friends were running on ice with how slippery they are in these stages, and it’s cost me massively many times. Compare Heroes’ special stages to the ones in Sonic Generations on 3DS, which use the same formula. The only major difference is the controls in Generations are perfect and don’t feel like they’re overly sensitive like they can be in Heroes. Annoyingly, all the Emeralds are needed to unlock the final boss, so if you don't like collecting them you won't be unlocking the last story chapter.
Slippery controls also happen in regular levels at times. It’s much less common, but speed characters can catch on walls sometimes because they’re running so fast, which isn’t major but a little annoying. What is major is Knuckles and Omega can sometimes just throw themselves off ledges instead of attacking enemies, even though they should move towards them. Sonic and Shadow’s Light Speed Dash fails occasionally too, and it’s beyond frustrating. Trying to A-rank a level when you’ve died even once is impossible, so control issues can make you restart the whole stage. That being said, these issues are uncommon in regular gameplay.
Something else that stands out about Sonic Heroes is its aesthetic. After the more urban and realistic Adventure games, Heroes opts for a vibrant and cartoonish style that really makes it stand out. In a way, it really brings that Mega Drive magic to 3D. My particular favourite level in terms of appearance is probably Casino Park, it’s so bright and colourful and still feels whimsical to this day, even if it is one of Sonic’s many infamous pinball levels.
As far as bosses go, some are classic Eggman fights, and honestly these are alright. Egg Albatross can be frustrating when doing the Homing Attack over a cliff to attack it. There’s also some robot gauntlets that give you boatloads of enemies to beat up, and these are decent too. Being in flight formation and pressing the attack and change leader buttons simultaneously can charge your Team Blast gauge much quicker, making these fights a breeze. This trick actually trivialised the final boss for me when I tried A-ranking it, though when I played it legit the first time I thought it was a really fun boss fight that made full use of the team gimmick.
There are also battles where you fight another hero team due to a silly misunderstanding. Some of the pre-fight cutscenes still make me laugh, if only for how cheesy they are. Sonic literally says “let’s show that creep the real superpower of teamwork” before the final boss. It’s so cheesy you can’t not love it. Team battles themselves aren’t anything special, they’re basically demos for the multiplayer battles. That’s right, this game has multiplayer. I’ve not played it since I was a kid (I remember me and my brother really enjoying it then), so I can't say much about it, but it’s seemingly a bit more varied than Sonic Adventure 2’s multiplayer. More multiplayer content is unlocked with single player progress, a system I both like and dislike. That being said, this game’s just crammed with content. The only thing I wish it added was the Chao Garden from the previous games.
All in all, revisiting Sonic Heroes is always a great time. Sure, it’s not perfect, but it’s fun and charming in ways a lot of the modern entries in the franchise can’t quite live up to (except Sonic Mania, which is phenomenal). From its vibrant aesthetic to its phenomenal soundtrack and genuinely unique gameplay style, it’s no wonder why it’s still a joy to play so long after its release.