Review: Sonic Unleashed

The Sonic the Hedgehog franchise has an audience filled with mind-boggling variety. You’ve got the little children who think he’s the coolest thing ever. You’ve got the older fans who were there at the time of his inception. You’ve got the people who’ve become disenfranchised with his console outings, and you’ve got the people who’ve still managed to have fun with them. For some people, nothing less than a 2.5D high-definition remake of the original Genesis titles will do. For others, just not having a repeat of titles like Shadow the Hedgehog and SONIC (2006) will be more than enough. There are people who want Sonic to go blazingly fast all of the time, people who wish he’d just slow down for some of the surprisingly complicated platforming he used to do back in the Genesis days, and still others who just want him to continue being the coolest thing ever, no matter what that entails. All of these people have been looking to Sonic Unleashed as the potential solution to their particular Sonic cravings.

Well, Sonic Unleashed is finally here, and while it’s not going to please everybody, it actually tackles this gargantuan task head-on. What’s amazing is that it doesn’t end up as an utter mess because of this—quite the opposite, actually. By trying to be a compromise in all aspects of Sonic that have made him popular over the years, the new Sonic Team has actually managed to move the concept of high-speed platforming forward as a result. This is one fine game. I liked the Wii version all right, but this one does everything in its power to blow it out of the water, and often—but not always—succeeds.

The game kicks off with an incredible opening CG movie of Sonic fighting Eggman/Robotnik, just like the old days. Sonic becomes Super Sonic… but in a twist, Eggman wins anyway. In doing so, he drains the Chaos Emeralds of their power, breaks the planet apart, and changes Sonic into the Werehog. After jettisoning them all, he goes about building a city dedicated to his narcissism, leaving Sonic (along with Tails, and a tiny little sprite-thing named Chip, who’s pretty much Daxter Lite) to put the planet back together, as well as find a cure for his lycanthropy. Due to this premise, stages in Sonic Unleashed are broken into two parts—day and night.

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In the daytime, Sonic is faster than ever before as he zips through track-like stages at speeds that all players, regardless of their background, will have to get used to. These stages constantly shift from a behind-the-back perspective (from Sonic and the Secret Rings) to a 2.5D sidescrolling view and back again, with no abruptness whatsoever. The daytime stages in Unleashed make all previous Sonic games look slow and primitive in comparison as our favorite hedgehog breaks the laws of physics on a regular basis, and he’s got new moves that solve many of the previous games’ problems, allowing him to go at a steady clip without slowing down, or worse—losing control and falling off the game world.

One is the Quick Step, which lets Sonic move laterally while in mid-sprint. It’s great for switching rails while grinding sets of them, picking up rows of rings when you see them, and dodging land hazards as well as attacks in Eggman boss fights. It’s an invaluable tool, finally taking some of the load off of a lone analog stick in the job of keeping Sonic under control. The other is the Drift. Straight out of Outrun 2, this is a powerslide whose directional nuances you can control in mid-execution with nudges of the left analog stick. It feels natural, and it’s great fun. Previous Sonic Adventure powers such as the Homing Attack, Lightspeed Dash (allowing you to travel along Rings placed in sequence), the Stomp, and the Wall Jump return as well. These powers are doled out to you over the course of the game, opening up passageways and shortcuts in past stages and hubs that were previously inaccessible. It gives a rewarding feeling of discovery, and encourages multiple stage replays and continent visits.

And visit these continents you’ll want to, again and again. Inspired by real-world locations, you’ll find yourself sprinting through the lush forests of Adabat, treading the sands of Middle-East-inspired Shamar, and squealing above the rooftops of New York-inspired Empire City. Ever want to zoom around the entire circumference of the clock face of Big Ben? In Spagonia, you will. Meanwhile, in arctic Holoska, the ice and snow mess with Sonic’s traction, providing extra challenge, and the treetops of Africa-based Mazuri become your racetracks.

The truly great thing about the daytime stages is that not only do they bring forth the wonderful exhilaration of being a supersonic hedgehog, but they accentuate the risk involved as well. In previous Sonic titles, you were usually forced by stage design to slow down in order to do some platforming and evade hazards—here, the decision is left up to you. Do you blast through stages at Blazing Speed and enjoy the ride as you zoom to the goal? Or do you lay off of the boost button for a while and look around for secrets while going only Really Fast? Just how fast do you let yourself run over water without tripping some mines? Do you want to play it safe near crowds of robots, picking them apart one by one, or do you just blast forth with the boost button and knock them all down like bowling pins while losing sight of your surroundings? Are your Quick Stepping skills good enough to get you past that gauntlet of spikes and pits coming up? Does that string of enemies or rings lead to an easier path through the stage? Are you getting enough momentum for that Big Air(tm) needed to get to that secret? The questions and decisions go on and on, and it never gets old. There are dozens of ways to tackle each stage, and should you somehow mess up on your original plan, there’s a good chance improvisation will get you through.

In short, Sonic Team really nailed things with the daytime play. This takes us, then, to the controversial night time Werehog hijinx. To this day, I’m not sure why Sega deems fit to insert play styles that are most certainly not Sonic into a Sonic game. It comes off looking as if they don’t have the utmost faith in the playability of their biggest company mascot, which is just… strange. However, the good news is that the Werehog is the best alternate play scheme we’ve ever had. While Sonic’s nowhere near as fast in this mode as he is when normal, he still scampers around pretty quickly, and he’s actually somewhat of a badass. Snarling, clawing, and howling, Sonic the Werehog swipes and bashes away at enemies with a (insert 3D action game of your choice here)-inspired combo system. Said system starts out pretty weak, but realizes its potential once he gains experience and a couple of levels (indeed, the game sports a level-up system to allow you to make both of Sonic’s forms faster, stronger, and a better fighter, among other things). Incidentally, it’s amusing how many moves from Street Fighter made it in here.

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Due to the large amount of moves to be learned, the fighting is actually fun, made more so by the fact that you often take on dozens of enemies at once, and they actually pose a decent challenge without being a chore. Flashy QTE finishes can be performed to gain more bonus items, but there’s risk involved—if you mess this procedure up, the enemy you were fighting goes back to full health. These sequences are best performed when the enemy is on its last legs in terms of energy.

The Werehog isn’t just fighting, though—there’s also lots of slower, complicated platforming to be had, a la the Prince of Persia series. The Werehog will be doing lots of swinging from poles, dodging buzzsaws, scaling cliffs–things along those lines. Once you get the hang of the controls—a fairly easy task—it works rather well, presenting no problems that aren’t already in the most recent Prince games (i.e., depth perception being a bit of a problem; realizing you weren’t supposed to cling to that surface but another one close by, etc.).

The final, hidden feature of the Werehog is that it allows Sega to include their precious alternate gameplay type (probably for the younger sect of the audience) while keeping the focus on the character of Sonic. What Sonic is and always has been as a character never actually changes just because he manages to grow extra fur and take on the powers of Stretch Armstrong. Instead, as time goes on, his alternate form grows on you, and by endgame, you learn to appreciate all that one single hedgehog will willingly go through to save the world. Therefore, while the Werehog still wouldn’t be in this game if it were completely up to me, I have at least come to respect it, and even like it. Your mileage may vary, however, especially for people less hardcore about the platformer genre.

Fortunately for people afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, the ratio of Hedgehog to Werehog stages is split dead-even, and around the midgame, you’re allowed to pick and choose how much of each experience you want. Each continent sports two to three stages involving each solar cycle, and every secondary and tertiary stage ends up being a super-tough gauntlet for people who think they’re Sonic the Hedgehog masters. Some are entirely 2D, others require perfect Boosting, Homing Attack, Jumping or Drift skills. Others push Werehog skills to the limit, and one is actually nothing but a giant QTE. They’re sadistic, and I love them while simultaneously cursing my screen whenever trying to get through one.

Accentuating the game’s World Adventure motif, the game’s broken up into hub villages representing world continents. Much more interesting than Super Mario Galaxy’s stale singular hub that contains absolutely nothing to do in it, these places allow you to talk to villagers, engage in amusing conversations, partake in secret and not-so-secret stage missions, and buy various baubles that yield everything from experience points to unlockables. The people and surroundings here are represented in a friendly Pixar-esque art style. The price is, admittedly, paid in some load time for each locale. It’s optimized DVD load time instead of the atrocity that was SONIC 2006, but it can potentially bog things down if you do a lot of travelling at once.

Speaking of bogging things down: in order to go through the game, you’ll have to “unlock” levels by collecting Sun (for daytime stages) and Moon (for nighttime stages) Medals, much like in the last few Mario games. This medal collecting would provide a serious problem with the game’s pacing if said medal collecting weren’t so downright easy. Many of them are automatically in your path as you progress through levels. However, many more will definitely be missed if you’re trying to rush through the game. As a tip, keeping the Metroid mentality about you (just break everything that looks breakable, and look in every out-of-the-way nook and cranny) in the small action stage hubs, even smaller towns, and the first couple of easy Werehog stages will render Medal collecting a non-issue.

The final element of this title is the Tornado Defense minigame. Reminiscent of the Sky Chases of past Sonic titles, this has Sonic riding Tails’s plane, the Tornado, as they shoot down Eggman’s air force. Instead of a traditional shooter setup, you end up pushing the face buttons on the controller, almost like one long, drawn-out quick time event. It’s shallow, but the sky view is great to look at and will definitely give you flashbacks if you’re an old-timer Sonic fan like me. I personally liked this, but then again, I play my 360 a lot, so I already know my face button layout like the back of my hand. If you don’t, you might have some trouble with it the first couple of times.

The Sky Chase view isn’t the only thing that’s pretty in Unleashed—the entire game is a feast for the eyes. The decision to go with several continents leads to a barrage of unique breathtaking sights for the player. Cityscapes, waterfalls, dunes, forests, machine metropolises and more are rendered in high definition, with always changing terrain and backgrounds that are easy to spot even when Sonic is pushing 300mph. Of course, it’s when you’re forced to slow down and take in the scenery as the Werehog that you’ll often fully appreciate their beauty. Thanks to Sega’s much-touted “Hedgehog Engine,” each continent has its own life and personality, brimming with light and color.

An aside for the fans: special note here has to be given to Sonic’s character model. He’s been based off of the one from the 16-bit games, where his image was simply that of “cool” rather than “extreme.” It works to great asset for the character as he runs, jumps and spins, but even when you leave him alone, he’s great to look at. He’ll stand around for a bit, then maybe do some stretches or jumps to amuse himself. Eventually he’ll sit and lounge around, waiting for you to get moving already. It’s great stuff, and it’s a move I applaud.

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The soundtrack is one of the best in a Sonic game, period. Composer Tomoya Ohtani, fresh off of Sonic Rush Adventure, returns here, and the result is a sort of jazzy, “neo-retro” song set. Between these two games, this man is very quickly becoming my favorite sound director at Sega. Don’t get me wrong, I love the rocking guitars of Crush 40 (Sonic Heroes, Shadow, any Sonic centerpiece song), the techno tracks of the Sawada/Tokoi/Kumatani trio (Riders, Secret Rings), and the utter genius of Hideki Naganuma (Sonic Rush, Jet Set Radio)—but what’s here sounds more like actual… game music. I can listen to this for hours and not get tired of it.

The sound direction here is tops as well—Sonic doesn’t stop talking or yelling as he has fun spining through loops and beating up baddies, and (possibly due to the vastly-reduced character cast compared to previous games) the voice acting as a whole is quite bearable no matter which language you have it set to. Dialogue takes place during boss battles as well—it’s here that the constant banter between Sonic and Eggman proves memorable, constantly driving home the animosity between these two rivals. It makes one wonder what they could have said to each other during their countless battles in the days of 16-bit.

Finally, this is the part where I usually talk about how this game isn’t perfect. It’s going to be a short list, which actually scares me, but here goes:

As far as technical issues go, there’s some framerate loss when the Werehog is taking on tons of enemies at once, as well as in the more complex hub worlds (Empire City is the most obvious here). There’s also, as mentioned above, load times for just about any location, and they can grate if you do a lot of traveling and solar cycle switching in sequence. The above problems, however, can be alleviated by installing the game to the hard drive. If you have six gigabytes to spare, it’s highly recommended, as it cuts the load times of everything by about three full seconds, making for a much smoother experience.

In daytime stages, exploration off the beaten path is highly discouraged, and the lack of being able to effectively backtrack may annoy some players. Oh, sure, you can definitely turn around and start going the way you came, but odds are you’ll soon hit a boost pad that sends you right back on your merry way, leaving you ready to just restart the entire stage. Also, after Sonic Rush Adventure providing limitless fun by allowing you to have head-to-head online races, it’s a shame that such a feature didn’t show up here.

The game camera, while actually helpful 80% of the time (for a Sonic Team game, this is a Guinness-worthy world record), also has the potential to go wacky in the hub worlds, and a couple of the Werehog stages—Adabat most readily comes to mind. This can make the game harder than it needs to be, which brings us to the final nitpick:

This game is challenging. There are lots of button commands to remember, lots of speed to keep under control, and lots of crazy platforming feats to perform. It’s easy for the Werehog to become overwhelmed, especially if you haven’t leveled up his Strength attribute early on. The final continent is a grueling 45-minute-long trek which has you switching back and forth between Hedgehog and Werehog while testing everything you’ve learned to its fullest, with a few lightning-fast instant-death QTE sequences thrown in just for good measure. We’re talking difficulty on the level of Sonic 1, 2, and CD’s final zones here. Eggmanland laughs at Scrap Brain Zone.

Personally, I don’t even consider this a bad thing, but I mention it because there are people who inevitably will. In this age of games being made primarily for accessibility, Sonic Team has essentially created Hedgehog Gaiden. Prepare to yell at your television from Holoska onward while simultaneously praising the experience. If the idea of this pleases you, feel free to jump in and never look back. However, if you don’t think you’re up to the task, then you may want to check out the Wii and PS2 versions, which are far easier and more relaxing.

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Closing Comments:

Sonic Unleashed is a glorious return to true console form for Sonic. It is most certainly not the return that its most vocal fanbase was clamoring for, but oddly enough, it ends up being something better than that. Instead of the same old same old, Unleashed treads new, refreshing ground while respecting Sonic’s roots at best, and being mostly harmless at worst. Best of all, instead of making you think only of what Sonic should be, this title makes you wonder what Sonic can be. The sky’s officially the limit now—and as many fans know, Sonic can easily get there provided he’s got a nice steep incline to launch himself off of. Toot, toot.
score4.5
Versions Reviewed: Xbox 360, PS3