Sonic Unleashed

Sonic hasn’t had the best of times in three dimensions. His first proper foray, Sonic Adventure for the Dreamcast, was arguably the best, and it’s all been downhill from there – just look to Metacritic for conformation. After his disastrous initial next-gen adventure, he’s back on all the major consoles. But while there are hints of goodness in there, sadly those moments are buried beneath a pile of confusingly bad design decisions and lycanthropy.

It’s a bit of a challenge to review new Sonic games. On the one hand, you have people like me, who played the 2D titles when the series was at its arguable peak. But on the other hand, you have a much younger set of gamers who Sega have obviously been targeting more and more. So while I’ll criticize this game based on what a gamer will see, it’s likely that the majority of those who buy Sonic Unleashed are far removed from the kind of person who would typically read this review.

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For those not up to date on their hedgehog knowledge, here’s a quick run down of the basic plot: Sonic is trying to foil his nemesis Dr. Robotnik, but falls into a trap that splits his world into seven continents, releases a gigantic beast from the centre of the earth, and (for some reason) turns Sonic himself into a werehog. During the day, Sonic is old zippy self, but at night he turns into a slow, hulking beast with stretchy arms. With a new companion called Chip, he must make things right and stop Robotnik.

But oh boy, is the dialogue and voice acting bad. Chip is one of the most annoying comic relief characters ever, and the quality of the script doesn’t seem to have gotten any better since Sonic started talking a decade ago. This is completely to be expected, but you can’t skip all the cutscenes, and between levels you’ll have to traverse mindless towns talking to even more mindless NPCs. Hell, you’ll even need to do little missions for them from time to time. It’s all needless padding that adds nothing, and takes away a lot.

In my opinion, the addition of the werehog/night time levels is the single biggest bad point of Sonic Unleashed. The gameplay here is completely different to traditional Sonic games – it’s actually very similar to a brawler like the Lord of the Rings titles. But very quickly, you’ll find them to be boring, repetitive, and frustrating. Beating up bad guys is okay, but it quickly comes down to the same thing: mash the buttons against the small ones, and hop on top of the larger ones to enter a quick time mini-game. The latter task can get really frustrating – you can still get hurt as you’re attempting to get on top of them, and then you’ll get hurt some more if you fail the button pressing. Fail a couple of times, and your health will be significantly depleted.

Soon you might die, and that’s when you’ll feel like you’re actually playing a game from a long time ago. Checkpoints are scattered throughout levels, but far too many of them are placed puzzlingly badly. In one level, I got to a checkpoint, then encountered a puzzle that involved moving boxes around. I then got up to a hard fight and died. So then I had to do the puzzle again, before dying at the hands on the enemies again. This repeated itself about five times before I gave up and had to come back to it later. The problem is, these stupid design decisions are littered right through the game, from start to finish. And to cap it all off, they’re punctuated by levels that have you flying on top of Tails’ plane, shooting enemies. You can’t move it with the analog stick – instead it’s like a gigantic quick time mini-game, where you need to press the right face buttons in quick succession. Fun, this is not.

But now onto the best bits of the game: Sonic’s fast levels. Did you see how I took a while to get here, like all those paragraphs above were needless padding to get to the good bit? Well that sums up Sonic Unleashed in a nutshell. These levels aren’t flawless by a long shot, but they are the one part that feels fun. Combining 3D and side-on 2D elements, these levels zip by, and will really test your reflexes. When they work, they manage to recapture some of the thrill of the old games, particularly the 2D sections.

But as I said, they aren’t flawless. Bottomless pits are still far too common, and when combined with a movement engine that could really use some tightening up, you’re going to see Sonic plummet a lot. Even when you’re completely walled in, the controls don’t feel as responsive as the speed demands them to be – you might find that your reactions are okay, but you still hurtle into the wall of spikes right up ahead. And some of the best-looking bits, such as going through loop-de-loops, are completely out of your hands, so all you can do is watch. To be fair, I’m not sure what the development team could have done to change this, but you do sometimes feel like all you’re doing is holding forward and sitting back.

So throughout Sonic Unleashed, I just kept asking myself, why on earth didn’t Sega just focus on the speed levels, and spend their time making them better? Why oh why were we “treated” to several other half-baked game styles in the same package? Either they don’t have confidence to let a Sonic game just do what it does best, or a bunch of executive suits are responsible for dreaming up these awesome ideas around a conference table. In any case, it’s just really confusing that no one recognised what makes this game good, and did something to highlight that.

Still, as I said earlier, maybe the kids will enjoy it – old school Sonic fans definitely don’t need to apply themselves to this one. But even if you gave it to a younger friend or sibling, and they enjoy the harmless plot and pretty graphics, they’re going to get even more frustrated at many points in the game than a seasoned gamer is. At least a hardcore type could make sense of the numerous gameplay tropes littered throughout the game.

This is better than Sonic’s last main game. But that doesn’t make it good. I’d like to think Sega is on the right track, and that the next game might cut out a lot of the padding and focus on speed. But I’ve been hoping that for a decade now. As it stands, it’s hard to recommend Sonic Unleashed. There are some genuinely fun parts of this game, but they just aren’t worth everything that surrounds them. Maybe next time...

"Mired in mediocrity."
- Sonic Unleashed
Follow Own it? Rating: PG   Difficulty: Medium   Learning Curve: 30 Min


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Comments Comments (11)

Posted by Donutta
On Monday 8 Dec 2008 10:21 AM
Too bad they gave you the 360 version to review. The Wii version is far superior and a lot more fun. I'm enjoying it more than LittleBigPlanet!
Posted by Hato-kun
On Monday 8 Dec 2008 4:57 PM
8 December 2008, 10:21 AM Reply to Donutta
Too bad they gave you the 360 version to review. The Wii version is far superior and a lot more fun. I'm enjoying it more than LittleBigPlanet!
Wow, that saying something.
Posted by Honky_Mofo
On Monday 8 Dec 2008 6:46 PM
Yeah, the Wii and PS2 versions were, supposedly, designed a little better. I have the PS2 version and really like it.
Posted by djkicks
On Monday 8 Dec 2008 7:00 PM
Awww stick, after watching the trailers I really thought this might actually be as good as the old school sonic games. Guess not :-(
Posted by itachi
On Monday 8 Dec 2008 8:49 PM
Yeah the Wii verson rocks.
Grunt of God
Posted by Grunt of God
On Monday 8 Dec 2008 10:04 PM
I was confused when he turned into a Hair Hulk 0.o
Posted by Oliver
On Monday 8 Dec 2008 11:39 PM
From the sounds of this review, I really think it should have scored lower. You can't give a game a 6 on the grounds that kids MIGHT like it. A Sonic game needs to be reviewed based on how it compares to previous versions. Your review practically says the game is a piece of crap, so why not score it to suit? Give it a 4 or something.

Otherwise a very good review. Definitely not picking this up.
kupo kid
Posted by kupo kid
On Tuesday 9 Dec 2008 1:41 AM
but it doesn't need to be compared with anything. it's just silly. if the game is great by it's self, then you don't need to compare it with previous games, that were far superior.
the gaming industry is trying something new. it's not fair to compare it to games of yester-year.
Posted by ChatterboxZombie
On Wednesday 10 Dec 2008 5:10 PM
Oh yeah....

Posted by Ron
On Thursday 11 Dec 2008 9:13 AM
The Wii review will be up next week, as requested by the readers!
Posted by djkicks
On Thursday 11 Dec 2008 6:10 PM
I played the Demo, it was pretty cool. Might get this when it's half price or something.