Sonic Unleashed Review: Unleashing The Beast

Sonic UnleashedI’m certain I wasn’t the only gamer who got their hopes up a few months ago after seeing the first batch of screenshots for Sega’s new Sonic title, “Sonic Unleashed.” For some reason it seemed like there was some extra glimmer of hope this time around, and that we wouldn’t be let down by yet another Sonic game. From the screens there appeared to be some semblance of a return to 2D, and a step away from everything that has caused the series to deteriorate over the last few years. However, after actually sitting down and playing “Unleashed” I can say that anyone that got their hopes up might end up being letdown, yet again. HOWEVER, “Unleashed” isn’t a bad game, it’s just not the game that we were hoping for.

3D is a tough dimensional proposition for any game that established itself as a 2D classic. This goes for all franchises that have been around for the last 25 years, and not just our blue hedgehog friend. Sure, some 2D games have made the jump to 3D successfully, and have continued on in that form for multiple titles, but no matter how well those games have done, there’s still something to be said for their original releases. Those games introduced us to a 2D hedgehog, plumber, and elf (seriously, what the hell is Link?) to an entire generation, and that’s how we fell in love with them. At the same time, I’ve always felt that it’s unfair to hold Sonic to the same standards as we have placed on Nintendo’s titles. Sonic is, was, and will always be different. His games have always been faster, less predictable, and less linear than any Mario title. His 3D games have always tried to reflect those characteristics, and, unfortunately, they’ve never really succeeded, mostly because those mechanics are extremely hard to express in a 3D game. Somehow, despite everything it has working against it, “Sonic Unleashed” manages to be fun, but Team Sonic manages to spread out the fun so much that it’s really hard to enjoy the overall product.

“Sonic Unleashed” is the latest chapter in the apparently never-ending story of Dr. Eggman’s (a.k.a. Dr. Robotnik) quest to take over the world. At the beginning of the game he has managed to break apart the globe, suck all the power out of the chaos emeralds, and turn Sonic into a half hedgehog, half warehog quasi-monster. So, as usual, it’s up to Sonic to put the world back together, and put an end to Eggman.

Sonic UnleashedThe story is played out in some of the best cutscenes I’ve seen this generation. Surprising, I know,  but I think it had to do with the fact that the characters are cartoony to start with, and not humans traversing the uncanny valley. They weer so good that they had me trying to figure out when Sonic games became so epic, and really ventured away from a hedgehog just trying to save his furry woodland friends. The answer wasn’t hard to find, the first full-on 3D game in the franchise, “Sonic Adventure.” As much as I enjoyed the simplicity of the story in the original titles, I have to say, “Unleashed” has some really enjoyable story driving cutscenes. Either way, I truly enjoyed watching the story unfold, but that may have just been because I had a few other issues with the game.

The biggest of which was the world design. I was a fan of the original “Sonic” games for one reason – speed. Whether it was racing through the levels, or simply just booting up the games, I liked the flow. “Sonic Unleashed” managed to miss that boat. While I may think that most games today do too much hand holding with the players, there is something to be said for not leaving them utterly lost and wandering around the world, talking to strangers, and hoping to start a level soon. More often than not, I found myself in some city trying to figure out a) where to go next and b) how do I get there. While that is an accurate representation of any day I’m on vacation outside of NYC, I don’t want that in my games. Couple that with the fact that I found Sonic intermingling with humans a bit unnerving; it was a really difficult concept for me to wrap my head around.

Once you are lucky enough to find a level to play, one of two things could happen – you could get to play the level as Sonic or Warehog Sonic. Who you end up playing as depends on whether it is day or night, as well as who the level is designed for – Sonic gets his traditional left to right as fast as you can levels during the day, and Warehog Sonic gets a more standard, 3D platformer/beat-‘em up level at night. Fortunately, this is where all the fun is – in the gameplay. Both types of levels are surprisingly fun, when you take into consideration what they are. Sonic’s levels felt like they should; exceptionally fast, peppered with multiple paths, and a dash of what the crap did I just blow past. Warehog Sonic’s levels are completely different as you use Sonic’s new found abilities to beat up Eggman’s robotic army. Both types of levels have their flaws, and neither really break new ground in their respective genres, but I found myself having more fun playing a Sonic game (when I was actually in a level) than I have had with the hedgehog in years.

Sonic UnleashedAs much as I enjoyed the gameplay, there were two things that struck me as just odd; neither good, nor bad, just odd. First of all, there’s quicktime events in virtually every level, whether it’s Sonic’s or Warehog Sonic’s, and it felt a little weird. Essentially the quicktime events are used for things like choosing the right path as Sonic, or taking down some of the larger enemies as the Warehog. They felt like they broke up the gameplay a bit, and committing the ultimate Sonic sin, slowing down the flow of the game. I mean, today, it’s almost expected that if you have a beat-em-up game on the market that there be quicktime events, so the Warehog’s are almost justified, but that doesn’t mean they need to be there. However, they just felt a little forced across the board, but maybe that’s because, in my mind, Sonic was the original quicktime event.

The other feature that was included in “Unleashed” that I felt was a little out of place was the ability to upgrade both Sonic and the Warehog’s abilities. Again, there’s a good chance that I just have the good old days of 16-bit Sonic in my head, but it seems like he should have all his abilities to the max from the beginning of the game. As a gamer, having the ability to give Sonic more speed just seemed … off.

All in all, “Sonic Unleashed” isn’t a bad game;  it’s just a fun game, with some problems. For years now Sonic’s games have suffered from “Mario 64″ syndrome, and they’ve tried to be something their not. While “Unleashed” follows some of those patterns, you can tell there was at least an attempt to bring the game back to when it was fun, and they just about succeeded. Unfortunately, they threw too much in between the fun to make it fun and easy to enjoy. “Sonic Unleashed” is definitely worth checking out, even if it’s just for the little touches, like the funny idle animations, or the 16-bit Sonic loading graphic… those, and one of the main characters in the story is called Professor Pickle, yeah… awesome.

Rating: ★★★½☆

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