The Box Art Says “The Difference is Night and Day.” It’s Right.
I was one of the lucky ones.
I didn’t have anything even remotely close to a next-generation console until I purchased my Nintendo Wii last year, early on a Sunday morning in the early Springtime at a Virgin Megastore in New York City. Before that, the short lived revival of TSSZ News late in 2006 managed to just squeak by the destruction. The two events combined managed to allow me to avoid the disaster that was the 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog.
That was the title that shamed so many veteran Sonic fans, on the Internet and off. As the negative reviews kept pouring in for the game, it became increasingly evident why Yuji Naka left Sega shortly before its release. How could the company betray us? How could fifteen years of great two-dimensional and decent three-dimensional Sonic gameplay culminate in this? The franchise felt broken. The fans’ spirits were crushed.
Now, Sonic Unleashed is supposed to be the game that fixes both.
For me, Unleashed is both a blessing and a curse. It is cursed in that it is not a game that will completely mend fences on both aforementioned fronts–let’s make that clear right now. In this edition of the game, at least, I see plenty of developer promises broken, and a lot of parallels with Super Mario Galaxy that are completely unnecessary in a Sonic game. But as a reviewer, the game is a perfect example of why this site chooses not to give a numerical or letter score to anything we put under the microscope. Given what this game does well and what it does poorly, not having to put that to some sort of average and, hence, avoiding the firestorm of all time makes me feel blessed. You know what else makes me feel blessed? When all things are considered, this edition of the game, despite some serious flaws, is actually fun to play.
I didn’t always feel that way. Upon first booting the disc, I was greeted with the pretty lengthy CGI scene of Sonic, and then Super Sonic, getting zapped by Eggman, with the Werehog flying back to Earth. It’s quite cartoony, and I’m not going to totally hold that against this game and the franchise, as I realize I’m out of Sega’s target audience for Sonic these days. Explanations of how any living being can survive a fall that high notwithstanding, the plot is established right out of the gate, and after a few sometimes insulting tutorials, with some dialogue here and a CGI scene there, you’re on your way, speeding right through Apotos.
That’s where the big problems of Sonic Unleashed first begin to mount. Visually, this is not Hedgehog Engine based. In fact, I’m not sure if there’s a decent engine behind this at all. The game lacks some serious polish. This may be the edition for both the Wii and the Playstation 2, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen first-generation PS2 titles look better than this, if not Dreamcast games in the heart of that console’s lifespan. The visuals may not be noticeable on a regular television, but make the jump to the component cable and 16:9, and you can’t avoid the jaggies–something that, these days, is almost inexcusable. On the flip side, the frame rate does keep up, even when traveling at supersonic speeds.
Visuals aren’t everything, but control mechanics certainly are as close to everything as a game can get. At the beginning of my experience, this was Sonic Unleashed‘s near fatal flaw. Sonic in the daytime is too loose for his own good, and while there are buttons to press for cutting sharp curves and avoiding obstacles, a lot of times you’ll be going too fast and you won’t have a lot of time to react. More often than not, that results in slamming into something. Sometimes you’ll get a comical laugh out of it, but in later levels, that can lead to a bottomless pit. Once you’re back on your feet, kiss that S rank goodbye.
The Werehog doesn’t fare better at all. In the night, Sonic’s controls are actually too tight. I understand the premise behind the lumbering Werehog, and I know he’s not supposed to be fast, but far too often I had problems falling to my death, either because my L stick wasn’t exactly where it should have been, or I had problems constatly holding down the R button as I moved. This problem becomes especially evident in later levels, when the Werehog’s stretchy arms are needed to traverse tight spots. Fighting also suffers from some collision issues, as well as some arguably cheap shots.
And speaking of the Werehog, forget the ratios the developers discussed between day and night for this version. For each unique daytime stage repurposed for time attacks, ring attacks and the like, there are anywhere from three to four unique Werehog stages. Really, Sega? Screwing players with the sometimes clunky creature? This is supposed to get the veteran fanbase excited about Sonic again?
I was ready to put the controller down and declare here on this site the end of the Sonic era–at least, the Sonic that I knew and have grown up with for now 17 years. This wasn’t the revival promised. This was just Sega’s response to Super Mario Galaxy–right down to the overworld theme and premise of globetrotting–with yet another gimmick to appease the kids.
Then, I played some more this past weekend.
As I progressed, I started not to mind some of these flaws, however frustrating they initially were. As I unlocked more missions and enjoyed more of the daytime, the game started to feel more like the Sonic I enjoyed in days of yore. The areas kept getting more challenging in both day and night, and if you can stomach the first few Werehog levels, the latter ones focus more on platforming. (It probably also helps that the Werehog uses an RPG style system of gaining experience points, allowing leveling up on health, attack, and other things.) When I got to the point of Act 4s in the night, the nearly ten minutes it took to complete them did not feel as cumbersome and frustrating. Eggmanland, though a chore to complete (a final level that’s challenging…perish the thought!) maintained a pretty healthy balance of speed and skill.
Even with the lack of Mazuri proper and Empire City, there’s still plenty of emphasis on replay value. Collecting Sun and Moon medals can unlock secret missions and new power-ups in the Gaia Gates, such as extra lives. The better you do in the game, the more medals you can collect, and the more stuff you can unlock. There are also plenty of special items to gather all around the world, including music, art, movies, and “secret documents” that can help you maximize your potential in both day and night.
I soon found myself focusing not so much on completing the core game, but trying to get enough medals to unlock secret areas in the Gaia Gates, and exploring the environment in both day and night to grab secret items, hopeful for an extra mission or two (or several.) With that, I was playing the game for hours at a time–something I haven’t done for a Sonic game in years. Yes, there were times where I cursed the controls, but there were also times where I felt rewarded for my hard work.
In this edition, content in-between gameplay is quick and painless. You don’t have to wander aimlessly through Adventure fields, and you can sometimes jump right to a stage for play and replay. “Mandatory” replays of entire levels will only be necessary if you’re going for S ranks across the board. Otherwise, one could get through the base game in a day or two.
Is this game going to please everyone? No, absolutely not. Still, this edition is going to get a mild recommendation from me, with the caution to just be patient with it. The beginning stages will throw a lot of people off, as it did with me. But, as with most things in this world, if you stick with it, don’t mind sub-par graphics (this is a Wii and PS2 title, after all,) and can tolerate sometimes spotty controls, you will find plenty to do and see. What feels like a curse will ultimately flip to a blessing in disguise.
I guess some things on this planet act just the same for Sonic’s world…and his creators.
We’re not done yet–be sure to check back soon for Ryan Bloom’s review of the XBOX360/PS3 edition.