Developer: Sonic Team
Release Date: November 20, 2008
The Sonic the Hedgehog franchise has not exactly met with positive response in recent years. Anyone who grew up in the '90s and owned a Genesis has a warm spot in their hearts for the blue blur, but for the current young generation of gamers, Sonic is the embodiment of failure. Games like Shadow the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 are among some of the worst "big name" titles released in recent years, and even the games that could be called "good," such as Sonic Chronicles or Sonic and the Secret Rings, are relentlessly mediocre instead of being high-quality. And yet Sonic the Hedgehog offers something no other game on the market does ? a fast-paced platforming adventure ? so gamers are willing to keep giving it a shot, despite disappointment after disappointment.
Sonic Unleashed is probably the best Sonic game in years, and it begins where just about any other nonexistent Sonic game would end. Sonic has collected all seven Chaos Emeralds, turned into Super Sonic, and busted his way onto Dr. Robotnik's outer space fleet, smashing everything in his path and generally being Sonic. Unfortunately for him, the not-so-good Dr. Robotnik was prepared for this and laid a trap. He siphons the power of the Chaos Emeralds from Sonic and uses it to fire a beam that blows up the Earth, releasing a terrible monster called Dark Gaia, who dwells within the planet's core. For some inexplicable reason, this also causes Sonic to turn into a werewolf, or rather, a werehog. Robotnik promptly boots the now-werehog Sonic off his ship and onto the shattered Earth, along with the drained Chaos Emeralds. It's up to Sonic and his latest new sidekick, a floating fairy with amnesia named Chip, to find a way to repower the Chaos Emeralds and rescue the world.
The Sonic segments are incredibly fun and fast. They're a fairly interesting mix of 2-D gameplay (Sonic Advance) and 3-D (Sonic Adventure), which they switch between at will. The 2-D segments tend to be more jumping-focused and encourage you to go as vertical as possible. You have to hit springs, leap upon enemies, and try to jump into glowing rings in order to get Sonic as high up as possible, all while moving forward; this is very much how the Sonic Advance games played. Generally, the higher up you are, the faster you go, the more leeway you have before falling to your death, and the more secret items you'll find. The 3-D segments are more speed-based, encouraging you to boost forward and go as quickly as you can without stopping or hitting obstacles. There are a few jumping puzzles in these segments, but they're always focused on going forward, not up. These are some of the best Sonic stages in years, combining the fun and interesting level design of the Adventure games with the fast and furious action of the Advance series, and to great effect.
Borrowing from the Game Boy Advance titles, Sonic now has a Sonic Boost feature. When Sonic collects rings, in addition to increasing his defense, he also gains Boost Meter. By pressing the X button when not locked onto an enemy, Sonic can boost forward at incredible speeds. The boost has a lot of purposes in the game, and it can break through barriers in Sonic's path that he'd normally have had to stop and break manually, killing enemies instantly, or allowing Sonic to change the route he is going on if he hits a boost pad while speeding. It's actually a pretty fun feature and allows the players a surprising amount of control over how fast they can go.
It's a bit hard to remember not to hold the button at all times though, and sometimes speed isn't the answer to every problem. Since boosting is so important, Sega has also included the Sonic Step and Sonic Drift features. Sonic Step, done by pressing either the left or right bumper, allows you to take an instant step to either the left or right, or leap from grind rail to grind rail. It allows you to avoid obstacles at a moment's notice, which is darn useful while boosting. Sonic Drift is a little less useful and basically feels like a gimmick. You can occasionally drift-turn in certain areas to speed through without stopping. The actual number of areas in the game where you can do this effectively can probably be counted on your hand, with fingers left over. It's a fun, but relatively worthless, idea.
With that said, Sonic Unleashed's stages have a few barriers that could turn off gamers. Even the nicest stages are filled with bottomless pits, and if you're going too fast, you're going to see a lot of the death screen. Furthermore, there are more then a few annoying segments where you have to dodge objects while running along walls which feel a little twitchy and, if you screw up even slightly, drop you into a bottomless pit. There are a few areas in the game where the gameplay feels a little overly twitchy or unintuitive, and you'll probably leap to your death a few times before you get the hang of things. Once you do, it's not so bad, but it could be a little rough on younger gamers. The other problem is that the homing attack is annoying and bound to the same button as the "boost forward at mach 10" ability. If you're trying to jump on an enemy and the lock-on breaks for whatever reason, be prepared to shoot right into a wall or bottomless pit. There are a lot of moments when Sonic seems to catch on a wall or barrier that he shouldn't, and it's really annoying when it happens.
If you've been following Sonic Unleashed at all, then you're quite aware of the game's werehog feature. You see, every day, once the sun sets, Sonic transforms into a werehog, which is basicallya bigger, beefier version of myself with stretchy arms. His personality doesn't change at all, but he loses his trademark speed in exchange for additional "power." The werehog levels are just God of War without the gore. Werehog Sonic plays and controls like a slightly more sluggish Kratos, with his stretchy arms replacing Kratos' blades. The X button performs fast attacks, Y does strong attacks, B grabs enemies to allow you to perform button-pressing fatality attacks, A jumps or double jumps … and that's all. Even the puzzles are taken directly from God of War, from the spinning levers to the balance beams. The werehog gameplay is an extended homage to God of War, only not as good. The gameplay is playable, but it feels sluggish and awkward, with the camera liking to jerk around, and the entire experience is harmed even more by the unending sense of déjà vu for God of War gamers. Younger games, who technically are not supposed to be playing God of War, may be more favorable to these segments, but will likely be turned off by the game's other problems.
The werehog levels are also extremely long ? long enough that Sega didn't bother to put a timer on them. You'll probably spend between 15 to 20 minutes in one stage the first time through, and the later stages can get even longer. The last stage, which is an extended werehog level with a few included Sonic bits, can last over an hour. (The game's final level speed run challenge is finishing it in under 75 minutes!) While there is technically an even spread of Sonic and werehog levels, you're going to be spending a lot more time on diet God of War instead of the fast-paced Sonic action. At least these levels are relatively easy and glitch-free, if extremely boring. Box-pushing puzzles are boring even in the best of games, and being asked to slowly push boxes so you can slowly climb a balance beam is just frustrating in a Sonic the Hedgehog game.
Sonic Unleashed's biggest problem, surprisingly, is not the werehog segments. They're long and rather tedious, but playable. No, the game's biggest problem comes from medal collecting. You see, for some inexplicable reason, scattered throughout the various stages and worlds, are sun medals and moon medals. You need to collect these medals to level up Sonic's Sun and Moon stats. In order to reach new stages in the game, you need to have a certain level of Sun for Sonic stages and Moon for Werehog stages. This becomes extremely tedious extremely fast. In order to reach every stage in the game, you need to reach Level 7 in Sun and Level 6 in Moon, which translates into 120 Sun medals and roughly 80 Moon medals. Considering that daytime stages only have about three Sun medals each and six or so Moon medals, and nighttime stages have 10 Sun medals and possibly three Moon medals, this means that you're not going to find all of your Sun medals very quickly just by playing the game.
To make matters worse, a good number of Sun medals are hidden in Sonic the Hedgehog stages, in areas where the only way to get them is to fail. You have to stop and wander around to find them hidden behind a wall or to leap over a boost pad and slam into a wall to find them. It's rare that a game encourages you to fail. Even if you max out the Sun medals on every stage, you're going to have to start searching the unbelievably boring hub areas for medals, buying souvenirs to sell to a professor for the chance at more medals, or completing boring side-quests when what you really want to do is get back to the gameplay. Even more bizarrely is the fact that this feature is missing from the Wii and PS2 versions, so only X360/PS3 gamers will get the "fun" of required trinket collecting.
Sonic Unleashed is a pretty good-looking title. The stages are bright, vibrant and memorable, with a lot of interesting visual quirks to keep things interesting. The character models are a bit plastic-looking, which is particularly noticeable when Sonic is standing next to the human characters, who have all been redesigned in a faux-Pixar style and look a lot more natural than the titular character. Thankfully, Dr. Robotnik and these humans never appear on-screen together, as their visuals would clash even more. It's not quite as bad as Sonic 2006, but it could still have used a bit of cleanup. The enemy design is also boring, with most of your time either spent fighting identical robots or a handful of neon-glowing chameleons or bees. The boss battles are slightly more interesting, but only slightly, and they even reuse one or two of the bosses for some reason.
The soundtrack in Sonic Unleashed is pretty darn good. It's not quite up to the level of the older Sonic games, but it uses an interesting variety of music, with tribal beats for the Africa-like stage and Asian tunes for the China levels. However, this only applies to the daytime segments, and the nighttime segments suffer from a pretty serious problem. You see, the werehog has a specific theme that plays whenever he fights, and it always overshadows the stage's music. Since he's fighting so often, you're going to mostly hear that theme, on every stage, over and over again, and it gets tiresome really quickly. The voice acting, as to be expected, is pretty bad, and is worse than most recent Sonic titles. Sonic is passable, Chip is annoying, and the supporting cast just doesn't work. Having to hear Amy Rose lisp through a cut scene is enough to make anyone hammer on the skip cut scene button.
Sonic Unleashed is the best that Sonic the Hedgehog has been in years, but this is probably damning it with faint praise. The Sonic segments are fun, and die-hard fans will probably be quite satisfied with them, but everything else just isn't. The werehog segments are playable but rarely enjoyable, and they make up a much larger bulk of your gameplay time then the Sonic the Hedgehog segments. The medal collecting is just aggravating. If it were just possible to play the Sonic segments and occasionally werehog out, the game would be fine, but forcing gamers to hang around the werehog or hub levels, fighting with the camera and looking for shinies, will beome less fun. If you're willing to sit through two-thirds of a mediocre game, there is something fun to be found here, but ironically, how much you'll enjoy this latest Sonic game depends entirely on your patience. Rent first.
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