Review: Sonic Unleashed (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Sonic Unleashed
Genre: Action/Platformer
Developer: Sonic Team
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: 11/20/08


There’s a significant difference between imagination and implementation. Leonardo DaVinci’s flying machines were fabulous on paper, but actually putting one together and trying to make it work would have sent him plunging into the ocean in a hurry. The idea behind the Twilight series and their “different” vampires isn’t bad, but the actual implementation leaves a bit to be desired. So too is it with video games, and often moreso, as we often find the idea of many games appealing until we experience certain elements of them. Mirror’s Edge is an interesting concept until the eighth time one is shot to death crossing a long open area. The Wii is an interesting idea for a system until the first time a player either injures themselves or breaks something playing it. Unfortunately, Sonic Unleashed falls into this same trap in most respects. The idea of bringing the Sonic character back to what made him into the icon he is (speed, and lots of it) is fantastic, and the idea of going in a different direction with the experience by adding in transformations and such isn’t a bad one, and the interest of the concept actually stays with the player up to about the point where the player actually experiences the things that the game does with these concepts, whereupon it too plunges head-first into the ocean.

Well, that metaphor got away from me a bit, but I think you get the point.

Sonic Unleashed once again puts you in the role of the speedy blue hedgehog himself as he seeks to stop Dr. Eggman from taking over the world, this time by, well, destroying it. It seems Eggman has invented a device that drains the power of the Chaos Emeralds to rip the world apart, allowing a phantom monster to be summoned from within the world that he hopes to take control of. It also has the somewhat disagreeable effect of turning Sonic into a werehog, a situation that has our hero bummed out to no end. Needless to say, it’s up to Sonic, along with an amnesiac pink… thing named Chip and the usual gang of folks to put the world right again, by recharging the Chaos Emeralds, reattaching the world, and beating Eggman once and for all. The usual cast of characters is reasonably well represented here; Sonic is the heroic protagonist, yet also has his own problems that he must overcome on top of his need to defeat Eggman; Eggman is seriously evil instead of the joke he became in the Sonic Adventure games, and he presents a believable threat; Tails is the support character who acts as a master inventor but otherwise stays out of the way, and so on down the line. The story is solid enough to be entertaining and gets the player invested well enough, and while it’s not fantastic or anything, it does exactly what it needs to in the way it must, and it’s pretty enjoyable.

Visually, Sonic Unleashed is outstanding. Sonic himself, in both forms, is fantastic to watch in motion, and his animations are fluid and lively at all times. The environments are also bright, colorful and lovely, and running around them is often quite an exhilarating experience. The enemies are generally well animated and presented, though there’s a dearth of monster designs throughout the game, which hurts the presentation somewhat, though this is offset by the awesome boss monstrosities Eggman throws at you, which more than make up for the lacking variety of regular robots to face off against. Aurally, the game gives you the option of English and Japanese voice acting, both of which are good across the board, and the sound effects are cartoonish and properly capture the essence of a blue anthropomorphic hedgehog bouncing off of spring bumpers and smashing robots and such. The music, as usual, is excellent and atmospheric, and fits the experience nicely, both because many of the songs in the game are matched to the theme of the level they’re associated with and because they simply feel like songs that work for the franchise.

The gameplay of Sonic Unleashed is divided between sections spent playing as Sonic in normal form, sections spent playing as Sonic in werehog form, and the standard stage hub sections where one talks to people to glean info, with a few other oddities here and there as needed (flying on the back of Tails’ airplane shooting down robots, for instance). The sections spent playing as normal Sonic feel more like old-school Sonic sections than anything else, as the whole point of these sections is to run as fast as you can through the stages, rocketing through enemies and obstacles while collecting as many rings as you possibly can, until you reach the end of the stage. In this form, Sonic plays as you’d expect him to; he has his spin jump and his homing dash as normal, along with a slide kick and a handstand spin kick, and with some upgrades he can stomp on things, wall-jump, and lightspeed dash his way through the stages as needed. The stages also switch from a side-view, 2D perspective to a behind-the-back, 3D perspective as needed, and in both views, the gameplay changes a bit; in the 2D sections you’ll spend more time jumping over obstacles and timing jumps, while in the 3D sections you’ll use the bumpers and triggers to dodge obstacles and make tight turns while aiming for a good landing after making jumps. At first, stages based around this version of the character amount to little more than simply blindly running at top speed through everything, but as the game progresses the stages become more complex and feature more of an emphasis on jump timing and managing your speed to make complex chains of movements, and as such, they are pretty entertaining and cinematically impressive.

The sections where Sonic is played as the werehog, on the other hand, are focused more on beating up enemies and managing platform jump sequences, and as such, are a dramatic departure from the “speed, and lots of it” normal Sonic sections. The werehog form has two different types of attacks (one that’s weaker but faster, and one that can attack further away and deals more damage but is slower) as well as the ability to grab foes and toss them around, and he can combine these attacks in various different ways that are interesting and can often wreak havoc on the opposing forces. Combat isn’t the only notable thing that Sonic’s werehog form has going for it, however; it can also double-jump and extend its arms to grab out of reach ledges, meaning that, yes, you will also spend a lot of time doing Prince of Persia style jumping sections to get from one place to the other. Aside from the various jumping puzzles, there are also balance-beam/wall-sliding sections to move through, as the werehog form can hang from ledges or shimmy across them as needed. Basically, the sections spent playing in this form are often more varied than the normal Sonic stages, as they change up the gameplay elements frequently, and these sections feel more like something from a Sly Cooper or something similar than they do a true Sonic the Hedgehog game, though that’s not a bad thing per say.

There are also several boss battles, often against giant robotic creations of Dr. Eggman, all of which are also fairly cinematic and interesting in their own ways, which help to keep the experience at the levels the player expects, as these battles are often impressive and engaging. Beyond the combat, of course, you have the hub sections, which allow you to converse with the townspeople of the various locations you’ll have to visit, which can earn you useful items and/or new locations to explore, as well as some storyline advancement as needed. The hubs will also occasionally hold battles to engage in, thanks to a camera given to you fairly early on that allows you to purge negative forces from townsfolk by way of summoning out the negative energy and beating the snot out of it. The game also puts a big emphasis on upgrading your characters by way of earning experience points for killing foes, then dumping these points into your characters to upgrade them. You can upgrade the characters in various different ways, either to improve normal Sonic’s speed and dash abilities or to improve the werehog’s strength and combo attacks, for example, meaning the characters become stronger and more interesting, gameplay-wise, as the game progresses. The game also offers little things to amuse yourself with, like collecting items from town that can be added to your collection of souvenirs, or collecting movies and audio tracks to play whenever you wish, and the core game will take you about ten hours to complete, and allows you to revisit stages to improve your performance as you wish, which should keep fans of the game coming back for a while.

The problem, however, is that game will find it difficult to make fans in the first place, as it is rather significantly flawed in several unfriendly ways. The biggest flaw of the game, arguably, is that the werehog sections, regardless of any complaints one can make about how “different” they are, aren’t particularly exciting. The beat-em-up sections are okay enough, if uninteresting; beating the mess out of a ton of bad guys can be mindless fun easily enough, and if the entirety of these sections amounted to little more than this, they would be just fine. Unfortunately, the platforming segments of these stages don’t fare so well, mostly because of bad camera problems and awkward collision detection, but also due to the fact that the sections simply aren’t fun. Sonic the werehog, you see, can grab ledges to pull himself up onto them, but only when he is BELOW them and only THEN when he’s in range; as such, platform jumping often comes down to aiming yourself at the correct place JUST RIGHT in order to time your required grapple, with failure equaling death. This is problematic on one level because the target indicating you CAN grab the ledge or what have you often disappears a split-second after it appears, and on another level because the camera often won’t move to a position that allows you to properly judge a jump and thus forces you into a leap of faith that equals death. Further, the sections are often tedious jumps, one after the next, with some balance-beam walking thrown in for good measure, that lack the ingenuity and the cleverness of other, similar games; jumping puzzles in Prince of Persia feel devilish and organic, while jumping puzzles in Sonic Unleashed feel forced and boring.

This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the werehog sections were short, but on the contrary; you’ll spend over twice the amount of time playing as the werehog as you will normal Sonic, as the normal stages are all about speed (and are often over in five minutes) while the werehog sections are often about alternating the platforming and combat sections several times, making them feel drawn out in comparison. There are also odd camera issues in the normal Sonic sections, though these aren’t as frequent and don’t detract from the experience as often, thus leaving these sections feeling more enjoyable in contrast. It also bears noting that, for some bizarre reason, the collecting of experience points is handled differently between characters; normal Sonic instantly attracts any earned experience, while werehog Sonic has to actively walk near said experience (which disappears after a while for some asinine reason) to collect it, which is doubly annoying since the only to actually EARN significant amounts of said experience is tom play the werehog sections, as normal Sonic doesn’t really fight all that many enemies. In short: leveling up requires you to not only play through the less enjoyable of the two sections of the game to earn enough experience to do so, but ALSO requires you to constantly pay attention to where said experience is dropping so that you can collect it. This is, to be frank, counter-productive on multiple levels.

Even if you can deal with the slow pace and awkward collision and camera issues of these sections, you’ll have to also deal with the other awkward elements the game throws at you. For one, in order to progress in the game, you’ll need to collect sun and moon medallions as you clear stages and hubs, or you won’t be able to take on new stages. What this means in simple terms is that you’ll eventually hit a wall where you can’t progress any further until you backtrack and collect these medals, which can politely be described as “artificially lengthening the game”, and makes the experience feel more tedious than it otherwise would. The hub sections are okay, but don’t really add to or subtract from the experience in any meaningful way, aside from forcing you to talk to civilians at random to glean new information, which is annoying, but mercifully brief. Also, Sega has SERIOUSLY gone overboard with the Active Time Events in this game, to the point where Sonic Unleashed is officially MORE ATE oriented than Spider-Man 3, and as a result is also more annoying at times than said game. Now, it’s understandable that you might be able to defeat some enemies FASTER this way than if you were to beat them into submission, and that’s fine, and it’s also understandable that you might be able to access new sections of the game world by doing these things, and that, too, is fine. However, when one is presented with a section where one is flying through the sky on the back of a plane, and one is told that one will have to engage in combat with the enemy forces, the thought that immediately comes to mind is “neat, shooter stage”, not “neat, HALF HOUR LONG ACTIVE TIME SECTION”, and yet, the latter is exactly what was done. To be polite, this was abhorrent, and whoever suggested this thing? FIRE THEM. They do not have your best interests at heart, Sega, and they actively hate both you AND your fans.

Sonic Unleashed DOES present some ideas and concepts that might ultimately lead to some fantastic games in the future, but at this point, it fails to provide a compelling argument to convince anyone but fans of the character to play it. It looks pretty, sounds nice, and features an acceptable enough story to keep you playing it through if you can accept the gameplay for what it is. The normal Sonic sections, though brief, are wholly enjoyable, and they play well enough to remind long-time fans of what was great about the series, even if they are not without their problems. Unfortunately, the werehog sections are overly long, often tedious, wrought with camera issues and detection problems, aren’t particularly fun, and essentially feel like sections that were designed for Knuckles but given to a transformed Sonic instead. Further, the game feels like it’s trying too hard to be “long” when a fun five hour game would have been preferable to a partially fun ten hour one, the hub sections add nothing to the experience, and the game is MASSIVELY focused on Active Time Events to the point where they become absurdly annoying each and every time they pop up. Sonic Unleashed is worth playing just to see the normal Sonic sections, to remind you of what fun Sonic CAN be, but it’s not worth owning unless you’re a devoted fan, as everything else BEYOND those sections is passable at best and frustrating or broken at worst.

The Scores:
Story: ABOVE AVERAGE
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: MEDIOCRE
Replayability: MEDIOCRE
Balance: MEDIOCRE
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: POOR
Appeal: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: POOR
Final Score: DECENT GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Assuming you’re a dedicated fan of Sonic the Hedgehog, you’re patient, and you’re willing to tolerate a lot from your games, Sonic Unleashed is probably worth your time; otherwise, it’s probably worth a look and little else. For the dedicated fan, Sonic Unleashed features a solid story, great visuals and audio, and some entertaining gameplay in the normal Sonic sections that make the game almost feel like it could overcome its woes (or, at the very least, might give long-suffering fans hope for the future). For everyone else, however, the werehog sections will more than likely kill the goodwill brought on by the normal sections, as they are imprecise, overly long, boring, and often not designed in a player-friendly way. Even if this doesn’t prove to be too taxing on your patience, the unneeded “collect things to progress even if it means replaying levels” gimmick, combined with the unnecessary world hubs, combined with the over-reliance on Active Time Events, almost certainly will kick your inner child while they’re down. Sonic Unleashed isn’t aggressively bad so much as it is disappointing, and while it does give the player a little hope that further Sonic games might be focused on the speed-oriented gameplay over all else, it often feels the need to squash that hope, leaving the final product worth playing to see what COULD be while actively avoiding everything else.

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