Too little, too late?
It was difficult to suppress my optimism when the first material on Sonic Unleashed was accidentally leaked to the internet. Though the framerate was questionable, it was undeniably a very different direction compared to the last “canonical” Sonic game: (the now infamous) Sonic 2006. The gameplay footage for Sonic Unleashed, evoking the best elements of Sonic Rush and Sonic & The Secret Rings, had many people declaring that Sega had finally “gotten it right”. There were some, though, who warned the rest: There would be a catch. There’s always a catch. Some would call this progression of events a “Sonic Cycle”. Too many Sonic games have come and gone where initial media impresses, only to find out weeks or even months later that, “Oh yeah, did we mention? You have to go fishing as Big the Cat.”
Sonic Unleashed’s catch, as it turned out, was Sonic the Werehog, a mutant transformation of everyone’s favorite blue hedgehog. Immediately, hopes were dashed as the Werehog clawed and punched his way through massive crowds of enemies with his long, bizarrely rubbery arms. The Werehog, as most people would tell you, did not belong in a Sonic game. Initially I agreed with these statements, but over the months I began to realize that the Werehog wasn’t any more or less unfitting of the Sonic franchise than E-102 Gamma was in the original Sonic Adventure; if a new Sonic game today announced the ability to play as one of Dr. Eggman’s robots – armed with a gun – most people would probably reject it, much like they reject the Werehog. To me, E-102 Gamma’s section in Sonic Adventure actually turned out to be an unexpected surprise that was really fun. Would it be possible that the Werehog might not actually be that bad?
Or was this simply my bias towards the Sonic franchise speaking? When faced with the prospect of a game that might be better than one of the worst games of 2006, would I over-exaggerate the quality of the game simply because it was not total garbage? As the game’s release date drew near, my expectations for the game were all over the map. Depending on what day of the week you would ask me, Sonic Unleashed was either going to be really awesome or just another in a long line of embarrassments.
I can now say that Sonic Unleashed on the Xbox 360 is probably the best 3D Sonic the Hedgehog game we’ve had since the era of the Sega Dreamcast.
The game is split in to three distinct portions: Daytime gameplay as regular Sonic, Nighttime gameplay as the Werehog, and visiting various towns located in continents across the world. Daytime levels are predictably fast, with Sonic the Hedgehog reaching speeds of nearly 300 miles-per-hour. These levels are an absolute blast to play, with plenty of detours and shortcuts to encourage replaying in order to find that “perfect route” leading to the ever-elusive S Rank. To help you achieve this, the game’s controls have been redesigned with Sonic’s extreme speed in mind: At faster speeds, Sonic’s controls gradually smooth out, avoiding the twitchy analog stick sensitivity of Sonic 2006 or Sonic Adventure 2. Should you need to dodge oncoming obstacles a little bit faster, Sonic has been equipped with a brand-new “Quick Step” ability that allows you to easily strafe around hazards. Rather than try to group the rest of Sonic’s moves around the two face buttons, Sonic Unleashed marks the first 3D Sonic game to use all four face buttons. Functions are grouped naturally – for example, “downward” actions like sliding, stomping and crouching are bound to the B button, while “boost” actions such as the homing attack and Sonic Boost are on the X button. For fans of the previous games, adjusting to the new button structure can take some time, but eventually it all clicks. In the original Sonic Rush (and the Sonic Advance games), a great deal of frustration arose out of going too fast to avoid an obstacle or a pitfall, resulting in numerous cheap deaths. Sonic Unleashed makes an effort to correct this by flat out telling you what buttons you need to push at certain points in the level. It’s a little bit cheese-ball, and there were times where I found these button prompts lingered on screen a little bit too long and managed to cover up the action. Though they do get less frequent as the game progresses, they never quite vanish entirely and the game has no option to turn them off.
When the sun goes down, the dreaded Werehog comes in to play. The Werehog’s gameplay focuses more on slower activites like combat and platforming, a move most likely done to try and diversify from Sonic’s somewhat one-dimensional, speed-focused gameplay. Combat largely borrows from the template of Insert-Your-Action-Game-Here; most notably God of War. Attacks are bound to the X and Y buttons, and the B button is used for grabbing objects. Defeat enough enemies and hit the right bumper to execute “Unleash” mode, where the Werehog moves faster and hits harder for a short period of time. Initially, the Werehog starts out with almost no combos whatsoever, making combat feel relatively shallow. It’s not until much later in the game, once you’ve sufficiently upgraded the Werehog’s Combat and Strength abilities using EXP gained in levels, that fighting enemies starts to become more fun. Even then, enemies feel like they take one too many hits to defeat – most likely to entice you to use the cumbersome “Critical Attack” finishing moves. To make matters worse, later Werehog levels punish you for exploring secret areas: it’s common to get trapped in a dead end until you defeat a certain number of enemies, or find new enemies have spawned in an area you’ve already been to. The addition of a greater focus on platforming is definitely a welcome, although clunky addition. The biggest problem with the Werehog’s platforming mechanics involves the fact that the game never once tells you how to properly grab on to ledges and wall pegs; initially, I thought you just had to be quick enough to tap the B button when the lock-on icon appeared by a ledge. This, obviously, resulted in a lot of unfair deaths as sometimes the lock-on icon will only appear for a split second before you fall to your doom. It was not until I was near the end of the game that I was told, via an easily-missed hint, that I could simply hold the B button and the Werehog would instantly grab on to nearby objects. All things considered, though the Werehog has its fair share of gameplay problems, it was nowhere near as bad as what I was anticipating – and dare I say it – I might have actually enjoyed it a little bit in spite of myself.
Unlike Sonic 2006’s City of Soleanna, which was a unnecessarily large ghost town, the town areas in Sonic Unleashed are often very small with a few local residents (NPCs) populating them, making it quick and easy easy to get where you need to go. NPCs are pleasantly stylized like a Disney cartoon, and every single one has a unique name and a unique appearance. Over the course of the game, these NPCs will eventually do things like visit other towns, and form relationships with each other. It’s a small touch, but it gives the game some additional personality, and it needs it. From a gameplay standpoint, towns in Sonic Unleashed are relatively useless, offering up no actual purpose outside of talking to these NPC characters and taking a few side missions. Shops located within Towns only exist to purchase items that do nothing but net you achievements for buying them all. Fortunately, their small size and simple layouts means you can run through most towns in under a minute – unless you really want to stop and take a look around. “Entrance Stages” are a little more interesting, often requiring you to complete mini-platforming-challenges to access the gateway for the next level. This can get frustrating, as in addition to reaching the entrance to the next stage, you must have the required number of Sun or Moon Medals to play the level. I, personally, had no problem with this: The majority of Sun and Moon medals are usually sitting in plain sight, and if they aren’t, their “hiding places” are extremely obvious. In a way, the medal requirements almost feel like SonicTeam nudging you to slow down a little bit and take time to appreciate all the detail that goes in to a typical Sonic Unleashed level. Though you never see it as you whiz by at 300mph, there are a lot of cute little touches within levels that most people probably won’t notice.
In many ways, Sonic Unleashed feels like an overt apology for the disaster of Sonic 2006. Gone are the numerous, melodrama-bathed, faux-mature cutscenes preceding and following every level. In comparison, the plot in Sonic Unleashed is not only fairly simple with fewer cutscenes overall, it’s also considerably more light-hearted, fitting of the cartoon characters that populate the world. Though Tails and Amy Rose do make brief appearances, they might as well be non-existent. Amy is literally just another town NPC with a couple of cute lines of dialog and you almost never see Tails after the first few levels. The newcomer “Chip” is tolerable, hamming it up with cute dialog in cutscenes and dispensing hints during levels if you really need them. There are a few times where Chip will give you a hint even if you don’t need it, and these sequences can definitely be annoying – but they are infrequent enough to be a non-issue. The graphics, something that has not really impressed me in a 3D Sonic since Sonic Adventure 2, look amazing. Sonic Unleashed’s Hedgehog Engine truly delivers on its promise of graphics that approach the level of Cinematic-quality CGI. Unfortunately, the game does suffer from framerate issues. The closer you get to the end of the game, the more the framerate problems begin to rear their ugly heads – to the point where significant portions of the next-to-last level are spent running at a choppy 15 frames per second. The music, as always, remains diverse and enjoyable – each region in the game has its own musical style that reflects its nationality while still keeping the catchy, up-beat pop-music tone Sonic games are known for. There is one snag: The Werehog battle music. This jazzy horn piece eventually wears out its welcome as I found myself straining to hear a level’s original background music only to have it constantly interrupted by blaring trumpets every few seconds. English voice actors put forth some of their best performances in a Sonic game yet (which probably isn’t saying much), but the option to switch to the Japanese voices exists for those purists out there. Though some remnants of the old Sonic Adventure style of games still remain, you get the sensation that effort was put in to this game to fix problems that have been broken in 3D Sonic games for many years.
All in all, Sonic Unleashed still might not be as good as the old Sega Genesis games, but I feel it is the most progressive foot forward the franchise has had in almost ten years. Unfortunately, it may be too little, too late. Given the backlash from most professional reviewers, it would seem that the mainstream at large simply does not have the patience for a flawed Sonic game anymore. It will most likely take nothing short of a perfect game for this franchise to regain the respect it has lost, and I am not so sure the Sonic franchise will ever have another game on par with his former glory. That being said, in the grand scheme of things, what really matters is if you yourself enjoyed the game – and I most certainly got some fun out of Sonic Unleashed. However, given the nature of this franchise and how different your expectations might be, your mileage may vary. Rent it first.