Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sonic Unleashed (video game)

Platform: X-Box 360
Also On: PS3, Wii, PS2
Developers: Sonic Team
Genre: Action, Platformer
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10 and Up
Release Date: November 28th, 2008

* Note: This review is of the X-Box 360 version only. It's probably applicable for the PS3 version as well, since they're supposed to be the same game, but that's it. The Wii and Playstation 2 versions are significantly different and have also cut some stages; Mazuri has no real levels aside from a boss fight and Empire City is not present at all.

It's undeniable that Sonic has been in a rut lately. One that started in 2001 with Sonic Adventure 2. From then onwards it's been all downhill, the series titles getting progressively worse until most fans had given up. Sonic Chronicles restored a bit of faith in the blue hedgehog, but would Sonic Unleashed prove to be the title that helped the speedy blue hedgehog regain his former glory?

Well, kind of.

Some people had honestly hoped that this game would be the savior of the series and help restore it's public image. The bad news is that this game will not be the one to redeem Sonic. The good news is that this game is finally a step up for the franchise after a long downward spiral of quality. It took long enough, but this game is a sign that the series may be getting better.

As usual, we'll start with the games plot. In a vast improvement over many of the previous titles, this titles story is far simpler. Gone are the overwrought plots thrust upon us in many of the previous Sonic iterations; in their place a simpler, servicable plot with none of the forced "mature themes" that never fit in with Sonic in the first place. The opening cutscene provides the bulk of the story, showing Sonic in a climactic battle with Eggman in space. After a battle that see's Sonic go super, Eggman tricks the hedgehog and uses both he and the emeralds to power a canon that, upon firing, shatters the planet into pieces. Sonic finds himself a little furrier than usual before being ejected with the drained emeralds. Upon landing, he encounters Chip for the first time before setting out on his journey to cure his lycanthropy and stop Eggman.

That's it. There are more cutscenes and developments, to be sure, but that is your basic plot in a nutshell. There are no forced mature themes, no handful of useless new characters and no overuse of the old ones that are generally worthless. In fact, most of the series more dubious additions are thankfully nowhere to be found. You won't find annoying series waste of space Shadow present; nor will Silver, Blaze, Cream or any of the other unnecesary additions crop up. Only the essentials are around. We have Sonic, Amy, Tails and Eggman. The only one of the originals missing would be Knuckles. Otherwise, there's no chaff. The only new character to show up in this game is Chip; and circumstances make his appearance in Unleashed what seems to be a one game deal.

On a side note related to the story, I must say I was far happier with Eggman's role in this game than I have been for a while. Sonic Team has kind of pushed him as being not quite so bad for a little while now. It's alright for him to have some semblance of that to his character, but it had started to get a little ridiculous in the main series. Up until this game in the 3D series, Eggman usually just ended up nothing more than a pawn; in the end bringing about unintended consequences and teaming up with his nemesis, which was getting tiring. For once, he's finally taken the role of lead villain again. He does not come off as an idiot this time around; he is fully aware from start to finish what his actions will bring about and actively strives for it. Also, while he is not the very last boss you'll face, Eggman is one half of the final boss battle for this game. Overall, a much better use of the character on the whole.

The graphics are downright stunning. It's quite obvious this games visuals have been lovingly animated, as most everything appears lush and colorful, even in the more real world settings you'll find yourself in. Striving for levels based on real places had me worried, but Sonics world is still as colorful as ever and equally as varied. Any given level or continent has it's own look and feel to it, so the game looks even more varied than usual. Of note, however, is that while the framerate holds up admirably, there are some problems in the Werehog levels from time to time. If there are too many enemies on screen at once or simply too much happening, the framerate will chug, getting noticably choppy for a couple seconds. Thankfully it does not happen bad or often enough to be a problem, but it is definitely noticable.

The improvement of the sound, however, has progressed by leaps and bounds. Gone are the generic rock themes that saturated the previous titles. This game returns to the orchestrated type of music the series is perhaps best known for; and the results are a return to form for the series music. There are several themes that you will not be able to help humming along with, some possibly stuck in your head for days. Just like old times. There are two variations of any given theme, with both a day version and a night version. The day version being the normal one while the night version generally a slower or lower key variation of the day theme. On the whole, I thought the music was great once more and sincerely hope that they stick with this type of music. The occasional rock music track in the games was fine, but switching over to it was definitely something of a mistake.

The gameplay, however, is more of a mixed bag than anything else in the game. There is undeniable improvement to be seen when you play this game. The issue is that several niggling problems with the series have still not been addressed.

The engine the game runs on itself is a definite improvement by far. The Hedgehog Engine thankfully fixes many of the general issues that cropped up with the previous games. Many will remember the downright frustrating bugs that saturated previous 3D titles, popping up at the most inopportune moment to pry a life from your grip. Many of them are fixed, though a couple are only improved. The homing attack, for instance, is still a complete crapshoot, not always targetting certain enemies when it probably should and being a good way to send yourself off into the abyss and lose a life.

One feature they implemented well, I felt, was the transitions between 3D and 2D gameplay. It was carried out without much of a hitch, seemlessly switching from one to the other without a problem. This has the potential, if it can be properly utilized, to bring about some great gameplay in future installments; but it goes without saying that there needs to be emphasis on proper utilization.

Also, I like the little RPG twist they added. When you defeat enemies, you gain EXP. These can then be used to level up the abilities of both Sonic and the Werehog, making Sonic even faster or with more ring energy, for instance, or the Werehog stronger or have more combo's. It works well and I hope it's here to stay.

The other facets of gameplay, however, do not fare as well.

Level design is still ranging from servicable to downright atrocious. It takes steps towards improvement in this title, however. We have the welcome return of multiple paths through a level, for instance. However, there is still much work to be done.

For instance, one of the series worst enemies in the 3D era, bottomless pits, are back. Some of the early levels aren't too bad with this, where there are only a couple areas where you're in any real danger of going off into a pit for no good reason and lose a life. Somewhere around halfway through, however, it all goes down the toilet. Levels quickly become filled with open spaces and often become an exercise in being sure to do everything right or lose one of your lives. This is at it's worst later in the game when you find yourself on several rail sections; either you have the reaction time of the Flash, memorize where everything is or you're probably going to hit something and get knocked off the rail, taking one of your lives.

Speaking of which, the rails make an unwelcome return. This is definitely the most annoying gimmick ever brought in and one of the few to be in every game since it's inception. The level designers seem to get stiffies for sections of nothing but rail grinding over the big open spaces you can die in, something that's been a pain in the ass since the damn gimmick appeared in Sonic Adventure 2. It never reaches the level of annoyance of the space levels of the aforementioned game, but there are definitely annoying sections in Unleashed.

Also, while multiple paths have made their return, they are not utilized all that well. In the 2D era, levels were very layered affairs, with upwards of three different paths you could be taking at a given time, each one unique enough in overall design to feel like special or worth going through. This generally amounted to an upper path, a middle path and a bottom path, which in water stages would be the tougher one. In Unleashed, there are only two different paths at any given time and you spend just as much time with a single traversable path as you do with options. In the old days it was up to you which path you took, though stayinf on some required more skill. This means that while it's nice that Sonic Team is making an effort, they're still missing the point of the paths in the first place.

Also, they really need to remember that while Sonic can't swim, it's not supposed to be instant death for him. Some of the more infuriating levels in the game are the ones with large stretches of water or platforming sections over them. You have to keep up a top speed that requires boosting to continue running on the water. Run out of ring energy or slip up and it's all over. Adabat and Holoska are terrible in this regard, especially in the day time stages. Half the stages you'll be racing atop the water; if you slow down or even graze something you're going to lose your momentum and instantly die. Considering how long these sections are, it's annoying instead of cool. You're almost guaranteed to unfairly lose a life in these sections for something that wasn't even your fault.

Enemy and hazard placement has seen improvement, but still needs work. You're unfortunately still going to have all too many instances where you race along only to find yourself nailed by a poorly placed hazard. Often enough, the booster pads will send you so fast you can't react fast enough to such obstacles. Some of the worst are when you hit the Robotnik springs and find yourself catapaulted into spikes; just lovely.

Sonic Unleashed's central gimmick, the day and night stages with regular Sonic and the Werehog, respectively, is generally why it's recieved such a mixed reaction. It's not entirely unfounded either. The daytime stages are nowhere near perfect as some fans like to claim, but they've seen improvement. Juxtaposing those against the night stages was probably not a good idea.

To be blunt, the werehog sections feel out of place. The day stages are an adrenaline rush of sorts, focused on speed and racing through the levels. The night stages, however, are slower, plodding beat-em-up's more akin to God of War and Devil May Cry than anything else. The switch from super speedy gameplay to plodding combat is a jarring one the title could have done without. You can't skip them either. Often the only way to access new levels, day or otherwise, is to go through the night stages despite the fact that you really would rather not.

One of the biggest issues with the Werehog levels would be the fact that you're going to end up going into Werehog levels more than daytime ones; which is annoying given their length. Bad idea that I suspect happened for no other reason than to pad the game out so the total gameplay hours made the game feel worth the sixty dollar price tag. To make matters worse, the combat is simplistic at best for at least half the game; the Werehog levels are not going to be any fun at all until you've leveled up your combat skill at least ten levels to get enough combos for a varied moveset. Even then it can feel like a chore.

Also, the Werehog levels are way too long on top of that; you'll spend a hell of a lot more time in one of them than you will any given daytime stage. The quickest you're going to move through a Werehog level is ten minutes with avoiding the bulk of the enemies. This is the first one too. That should give you a good idea how long and plodding these stages are. They needed to be shortened badly. Had the levels been shortened, the Werehog levels would probably have felt like a better addition; after all, you wouldn't have to be dreading the twenty some minutes you knew you were going to spend on one of those stages because it would then have been a quicker affair.

Length is also a problem with the final stage of the game, Eggmanland. This level is pure hell. It's one act with both regular Sonic and Werehog sections. It's also probably going to take you upwards of a full hour and every life you've got stocked to beat it. The level just seems to go on and on and on with no end in sight, with a lot of unfair deaths between you and the ever distant goal ring. If the level had been split into two acts it wouldn't have been an issue, but with the depletion of your lives forcing you to start from the beginning, the level comes off as downright unfair even if you have a large stockpile of lives.

This is all not to mention that by this point any pretense of good level design is completely thrown out the damn window. You're pretty much going to go on the path they tell you to and you're going to like it or get over it. The paths start to disappear and the level design started circling the drain a couple levels before this, but Eggmanland is pretty much where it goes under the rest of the way. Even the abundant free lives in the stage don't always help the frustration, but it's a good thing they are there. As frustrating as Eggmanland is, if they weren't I imagine there would be many broken controllers all over the world.
All that plus a lackluster second half to the final boss really weigh on the title. But thankfully, there's something about this game that sticks with you. There's enough improvement that I ended up enjoying myself, which hasn't happened with a Sonic game since Adventure.

This is a decent game, but sadly it simply does not rise above that. There are still way too many flaws that need to be ironed out and general design needing improvement. But this game is playable and not a complete turnoff; I actually enjoyed playing this one for the most part, which I haven't for a long time. That's better than the mediocre to bad Sonic games we've been getting for a while now. It's worth a play, but it's definitely a rent before you buy situation; not everyone is going to be able to forgive the flaws still plentiful.
My Opinion: Try It


  1. So this game's the reason why you needed to come up with another ranking? XD

    Great review, man. I actually share some of the same thoughts, like the fact that the Werehog stages are too long.

  2. Yeah, actually it is. XD

    The thing was, I had some fonder opinions about the game, but Dramatic Thumbs Up seemed a bit much for it, since it's supposed to denote a good game. To me, Unleashed was more along the lines of "decent" but fun. I had thought about adding two rankings before now, but when it came to this game I figured it was time to bite the bullet and make the new ratings.

    The Werehog levels are something that really divided me. I hated the idea at first; the very thought of juxtaposing Devil May Cry style gameplay against traditional Sonic gameplay made me recoil in horror. The thing was that it ended up as a decent way to spice things up.

    Had the stages been shortened to, say, a three to five minute affair of combat and platforming, they would have worked much better. Such gameplay in short bursts would have gone a long way towards qualifying as enjoyable variety instead of annoying.

    I was honestly surprised I found good points in the Werehog, because I was prepared to absolutely hate it.