Hungry Like the Wolf
There's still a bad taste in mouth leftover from years past. No, it's not that call-girl with the deep voice and chronic wheezing-- it's Sonic the Hedgehog from 2006. I really enjoyed Sonic Adventure 2, Sonic Heroes, Sonic and the Secret Rings, and less so Sonic Adventure and Shadow the Hedgehog, but all it took was one horrible, stinky piece of hedgehog crap to turn me off the 3D exploits of Sonic completely. Fast forward two years, and now Sonic Team feels the need to add to their 3D Sonic formula by adding a God of War-inspired Werehog into the fold. After all, who needs to refine what Sonic Team has already when they can add more fun to the franchise? The sum of these parts is Sonic Unleashed. Will Unleashed tap into your primal instincts, having you smash this game in half?
Sonic Unleashed usually runs at a steady framerate, but the Playstation 3 suffers greatly in some levels-- notably Adabat-- as the framerate isn't fixed as it is in the 360 version. There's really nothing that comes across as ugly. It's a dazzling game to look at. Sure, you might be going at the speed of sound occasionally, but it doesn't detract from saying that Sonic Unleashed is a magnificent-looking game. The soundtrack isn't the best thing to come out of Sonic Team, but it's still one of the top video game soundtracks of 2008, offering a stunning variety of great tracks. The game's theme song, Endless Possibilities, is an upbeat Sum-41-like tune which is appropriately cheerful. Plus it doesn't get played every 3 minutes like His World did in Sonic 2006, so that's good, too, right?
Moving away from sights and sounds, Sonic Unleashed is a tale of two gameplay styles intertwined into one semi-cohesive adventure. By day the levels hark back to the original, traditional Sonic games from the Genesis days. The perspective switches between 2D and 3D throughout a given level. In 2D, the game plays like a more jazzed-up version of Sonic Rush or Rivals. In 3D, the camera is directly behind Sonic's back, akin to the Wii's Sonic and the Secret Rings. With the left and right front-side shoulder buttons, Sonic can do a quick sidestep from right to left or vice versa. It's perfect for dodging an incoming enemy or obstacle with ease.
Several annoyances from past Sonic games have actually been rectified. For instance, no longer will running to a normal enemy cause Sonic damage. Instead, an enemy must attack for Sonic to lose rings. When you're running 70 mph with no clear view of what's ahead, it's nice not to be penalized in such a way. Additionally, the homing attack-- a move that sends Sonic spinning mid-air into the closest nearby enemy-- is no longer mapped to the same button used to jump. It's now used with a different press, so no more accidental "I wanted to jump, you bastard game" incidents this time around. The X or Square button (depending on your system of choice) not only initiates a homing attack in the air, but it's also useful on the ground. Sonic can gain a severe boost in speed if his boost meter is properly charged. This is easily done through ring collection.
The day Sonic levels are mostly well-designed which is odd to say when we're talking about a Sonic Team game. ...Did I really just say that about a SONIC TEAM game? Goodness. I'm obviously daffy. Regardless, each level has a myriad of branching paths-- the hardest of which are reached through quick reflexes, keen observation, and some skill. Levels beseech the player to run through them multiple times as there are various collectibles such as music tracks, level-unlocking Sun and Moon medals, and various other knick-knacks. However, there are some snags even in the daytime levels. For one, running across water can be more troublesome than necessary, and certain levels sections such as Holoska's bobsledding control terribly causing more frustration than fun.
Each Unleashed continent pays tribute to a real world location.Speaking of more frustration than fun, we've yet to discuss the yin to daytime Sonic's yang, the Werehog. Not satisfied with having their fans happy, Sonic Team decided to add another new gameplay element to this otherwise acceptable offering. I can see how the discussion went:
This stage, Chun-nan, is modeled after Detroit.
This stage, Chun-nan, is modeled after Detroit.
"This game is good to go! The mechanics are down pat!"
"I don't know... What if this game blows donkey balls even though we put effort into it?"
"...Hmmm... *gasps* I got it! We'll throw in some asinine new mechanic into the mix!"
"Uh... what good will that do?"
"If the game ends up sucking, we can just blame it all on the new mechanic instead of our ineptitude at making good games!"
Not taken verbatim, but I think you get the general idea. Regardless, for better or worse, an overwhelming portion of Sonic Unleashed takes place in the nighttime where the player controls the werehog (not a name worth capitalizing) . The werehog stages aren't the epitome of poor game design at all, so don't get me wrong there. The problem is that while Sonic's stages are 7-10 minutes tops, the werehog stages last anywhere from 10-30 minutes-- that's with racing through some of the blasted things, too!
As alluded to before, the werehog stages play like an E-rated God of War. It's so pathetically similar. The stretchy arms Sonic has to attack enemies and to help swing himself across gaps similar to Kratos' blades of chaos, the turnstile levers needing to be spun to make doors and bridges rise, and even the giant concrete doors and blocks with the handles to lift or push conspicuously placed near the base. Each stage drudges on with Sonic taking down a flurry of foes with his various punches, kicks, and combos. Once a horde of baddies is defeated, the next area opens up. This is all the while swinging and climbing across bottomless chasms, a staple of Sonic Team games. Unfortunately, Sonic is nowhere near as graceful in the air as he is on land. Sonic can only grab onto certain objects and areas, and a button needs to pressed to motivate Sonic's goofy ass to grab an edge to safety. I found it much easier to just repeated tap the necessary grab button as Sonic wouldn't always do it when I asked him to. Additionally, leaping off poles, icicles, and any other object that Sonic can climb around 360 degrees, you have to have Sonic stop completely before he can leap off of it. Totally unintuitive as a simple analog stick direction plus the jump button would have made more sense, but I'm not in Sonic Team's reality where they still have a lot of delusional fans. It's as if Sonic Team can't even rip off GREAT games and make a great product...
Another problem comes when you're asked to walk across narrow platforms such as a construction beam or something of the sort. Now the werehog doesn't move the best. For some odd reason, he can only turn around in a wide freaking circle making these parts a big annoyance. Furthermore, some cinematographic genius decided it would be an awesome camera view to have the player saunter across this narrow beam with little room for error while the camera is freaking zoomed out obnoxiously. Or better yet, the camera switches angles Resident Evil-style while you're traversing a thin corner where there's no way for Sonic to catch himself as he falls. Beautiful.
When you're not speeding or thrashing through action stages, Sonic Unleashed features multiple hubs. Each country in the game's world has a hub that will open up for exploration as Sonic and Chip progress through the game. Thankfully, these hubs are not nearly as dreadful as 2006's. These are actually full of life, useful, and usually interesting to speed through. Each hub connects to a small overworld where each action stage is entered. Additionally, there's bonus acts that are much shorter but much more challenging than the required story levels. These are optional, but they all need to be surmounted to reach 100%. For those who dreaded getting S's to unlock achievements in Sonic the Hedgehog 2006, you need not obtain all S's to get 100% of the game's achievements and trophies.
Unfortunately, the game comes crashing to a disgusting halt at the game's final action stage, a combination of day and night gameplay. Not only does it goes on for an hour (trust me, your first time WILL take an hour), but it's as if Sonic Team opted to put all of the worst elements of Sonic Unleashed into one level to showcase their ineptitude at game design. Horrible camera angles, hard-to-judge jumps with no shadows to help out, a god-awful bobsled section, and multiple unfair challenges and deaths. What speaks volumes is a trick that I caught onto. Sonic Team loves placing easy to access 1-ups before sections that are unfairly difficult or "challenging" as some would say. Nothing says "We know this next part sucks terribly, so here's a 1-up as incentive to trudge through it to the next sucky part!"
Sonic Unleashed is a toughie to review. I so wanted to love it, and for the times I played up through the final stage, I really did love it. Then I played through the increasingly more frustrating portions of the game. It wasn't a testament to my skill, but it was a testament to Sonic Team's poor design decisions. I was dying because I literally didn't feel I was in control of my character at various parts of the game. However, none of this damns Sonic Unleashed as a below average game. The daytime levels gave me great memories and nostalgia of early Sonic games. This is what many have been urging Sonic Team for, and they delivered. It's a shame that Sonic Team is obsessed with adding superfluous garbage to their games. If they can't even get the core gameplay perfect, why do they think they need to add something else that will be mediocre? Alas, the story of Sonic Team. Those who were expecting the return to greatness of Sonic the Hedgehog need to have their heads surgically removed from their asses. This is Sonic Team we're talking about.