When it comes down to game characters, Sonic has always been at the top of my list of favorite ones. He only gets one upped by the character of characters, Duke Nukem. Even when the immensely popular Italian plumber with questionable fashion taste was upstaging Sonic, I stayed a SEGA man. Because back in the days there was no middle road, you were a Nintendo person or a SEGA person, you loved Mario or you liked Sonic. Mario and Sonic duked out a lot of battles across several platforms until SEGA pulled out of the hardware game and seemed to not put as much care in their third party sonic games on the consoles of the former competition. Eventually our beloved hedgehog turned 3D and delivered a series of subpar platform and race games.
So I was really hoping SEGA would redeem itself with this episode and get Sonic back on his track towards excellent super speedy platform games. Like many of you I had high hopes that only got higher when I saw the first footage. Those hopes received a big punch to the guts when the first footage of the “twist” was unveiled.
That’s right, instead of Dr. Eggman just being a general bad guy that killed all the bunnies in the universe and make Sonic destroy him and his army of zombie mechanic rabbits, SEGA tried “something” else. The insane egg shaped professor manages to trap Sonic with some fancy weapon trying to unleash a mythical force called “Dark Gaia” from within the planet. While doing so he corrupts the chaos emeralds (if you don’t know them, look them up, they are what sonic games are usually about) and shatters the planet in several pieces.
Lucky for us, the release of this dark force was done prematurely so earth is still hanging together in some kind of suspended state, allowing another chance for Sonic to set Dr. Eggman straight. Sonic, not killed by the weapon, is catapulted back to earth where he encounters his unconscious, soon to be sidekick called Chip. At the very same time we discover the twist to the story: Dr. Eggman’s weapon turned Sonic into a fuzzy beast with fangs and elastic arms. The little twist within the twist is that his new condition is only affecting him at night. So during the day we get to play around with blazing fast regular Sonic, at night we get the hairy stretchy beast also known as the “Werehog”.
I get that they want to spice up the formula, but really, a Werehog? I’m still wondering what they were smoking when they thought up this masterpiece. Anyways, there are more new things to discover like that the whole earth shattering story is integrated into the gameplay. We get five hub worlds to browse through between missions. These worlds can be used to interact with natives, get clues, receive sub quests, unlock items or gain experience.
This experience, which you also get after completing a mission, gets you skill points that can be divided over different attributes of Sonic or his Werehog alter ego. I’m not really sure if this RPG addition really does it for me but it surely opens up interesting dilemmas of whether to go for power or finesse, in theory. In reality, your enemies grow stronger and in numbers and you need to counteract by upping your stats but it doesn’t really seem to matter if you go all out on one stat or divide equally over multiple. Eventually you are going to need a bit of everything that is in there and the game has its own way of telling you in time. If you struggle with something, send some experience points to stats that might help and off you go again.
Daytime Sonic plays like it always has, blazing fast and just nearly enough time to react to enemies and items. In 2D side-scrolling mode you can jump, dash and do the homing attack, in 3D mode you get some extra moves like power sliding, side-stepping and the ability to go about anywhere you want. Some of those levels are against the clock which can lead to a lot of retrying because the timing is usually very close to the limit. There is this one mission I must have tried about fifty times and nearing the end of the series I was doing near perfect runs, taking shortcuts and still running out of time near the finish line. You collect rings to replenish you ring power which allows you to do your dash a.k.a. Sonic Boost.
Nighttime Sonic levels are more traditional platform levels where you need to climb, puzzle and collect stuff. You also meet another type of enemies that are in need of a serious ass whooping rather than rushing them by at lightning speed. To do this you have possession over an arsenal of moves which you can expand over time. Smash enough enemies and objects and you get rewarded by the Unleash Meter running full allowing you to “unleash” which is basically Werehog Sonic going in frenzy smash and bash rampage mode. You collect rings to replenish your health.
This whole Werehog thing is actually quite fun and seeing Sonic do cartoonish enemy smacking is hilarious and entertaining. Although it doesn’t really feel like a true Sonic game anymore it didn’t bother me too much. The only problem with those levels is, even though well designed, that they break the true Sonic gameplay and that they don’t deliver as much on the adrenalin front as the daytime levels.
So far so good, but here come the frustrating parts. And there are quite some to be honest. Both Sonic and Werehog parts of the game use the same camera system and it seems that it wasn’t really adapted for the latter part. While the camera moves quite smooth during the fast daytime levels it tends to move around like an alcoholic during happy hour when used for Werehog gameplay. There isn’t a single clumsy camera point that the engine can’t do. Next up are the controls and they really are a piece of work. I lost count of the number of times I yelled “I clicked the A button, I CLICKED IT!”. From time to time the controls seem very unresponsive, certainly when using the homing attack and it really starts to get to you after attempt five billion to grab hold of the final platform. Combine this with sloppy camerawork and you have a winning team of frustration.
Adding to that frustration are two gameplay elements. The first one is the so called hub worlds that are supposed to deepen the experience and make you explore for clues. At first it’s an amusing new addition. After a while it becomes one big chore of clicking on NPC characters until there is one that either gives you a clue or a mission. It kind of gets in the way of the core game too much. Secondly there is the fact that some missions are already hard enough without failing controls or cameras zooming in on a flowerpot. Speaking of difficult missions, I like a good bossfight but sometimes it seems quite the mystery to find out what exactly it is you are supposed to do even though the boss doesn’t seem really interested in killing you much. One tip, every bossfight is all about phases.
A little last point of frustration is the poor audio. Well, the silly catchy tunes aren’t really the issue. In fact, it took me a while to figure out what was bothering me but after about a cut scene or ten it really becomes clear that the voice acting is terrible. A good thing about the tunes is that you can collect new ones while playing the game and they aren’t all that bad. In fact, SEGA even released them as a separate album in Japan.
But let’s end on a positive note: the graphics. They are simply amazing and best described as bright and cartoonish, yet very detailed and atmosphere creating. I’m not going to say they are the best ones ever seen but they simply fit the game incredibly well, certainly when you take in account how fast they blaze by during daytime levels without a single hickup or frame drop. The only time when the engine chokes a bit is during Werehog levels when there are about fifty or more enemies to render. The physics are also neatly done by the Havoc engine known from games like The Force Unleashed and Assassin’s Creed.
Sonic has finally done it! After years of subpar titles, he finally managed to star in a game that does not reek of game design manure. Sure, there are some issues with cameras, controls and weird gameplay addition decisions but at least it was a good attempt. There certainly is lots of room for improvement but taking all into account Sonic Unleashed is just a good game that will keep you busy for quite some time, even if it is just to retry that insanely timed mission for the sixtieth time. A must buy for any Sonic lover and a recommendation for anyone that doesn’t know Sonic and would like to play a decent platform game.