Name: Sonic Unleashed
Platform: Nintendo Wii, PlayStation 2, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 (Reviewed on PlayStation 3)
It’s been a rough couple of years for the blue speedster. Ever since Sonic’s transition from 2-D to 3-D, the franchise has been less than spectacular. BioWare tried to inject some life into the series with Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, by turning the platformer into an RPG, and the final result was met with mixed feelings. Sega’s Sonic Team took back the reigns this fall, bringing with them a new engine and touting a return to form for the former mascot. Once you actually play the game, you get to see just how short they fall in meeting that goal.
The new Hedgehog Engine developed for this, and presumably future Sonic-centric games works wonderfully. Graphics are sharp, even when running at full speed. There’s a dazzling amount of great lighting techniques on display as well, and Sonic Team puts the new engine to good use by allowing players to choose whether they play through a level during the day or at night. Day levels are the most traditional, and fun, giving players the chance to race across various stages inspired by real-world locales. Here, you’ll transition seamlessly between sidescrolling and third-person cameras as Sonic flies through some well-designed levels. The problem with the day levels is how brief they are. In the original Sonic games, there was a bigger focus on platforming while running. Here, once you start building speed, there’s rarely anything to slow you down. It’s fun, but quick, and even with the few minor branching paths, there’s just not enough there to warrant running through again. It’s a shame because for the first time in years, a game with Sonic’s name on the box actually felt like an old-school Sonic game.
Nighttime levels open an entirely new can of disappointment. This time around, Dr. Robotnik (yes, I know his name is really Eggman, but he’ll always be Robotnik to me) uses Sonic and the Chaos gems to power a laser that splits the planet into pieces. This process also curses Sonic to turn into a werehog when the moon rises. I don’t know what kind of science they practice in the Sonic universe, but I would’ve given them a bit more leeway had the werehog parts of the game been anywhere near enjoyable. The night boards consist of Sonic walking his way around a board doing typical platformer tasks while fighting hordes of blacklight enemies. The move set is very reminiscent of a very basic action game, except the fighting is nowhere near as entertaining. These levels only take two or three times as long to complete as the daytime levels, but it feels much longer. I know there’s a certain desire the developers feel to change things up so you’re not constantly doing the same things over and over again in a game, but these night levels take away from the core game so much that Sonic Unleashed becomes almost unplayable.
Nearly everything else about the game is decent. Controls feel solid, even with the occasional mistimed jump, and Sonic handles better than he has in ages. Levels are well designed, and even though the night levels are a pain to play through, they have solid, if simple, design. The story isn’t anything special, and the strange exploration mechanic doesn’t really add anything to the game, but neither of these factors really detracted from the gameplay experience either. This new Hedgehog Engine could be put to great use in other games as well. I haven’t seen a Sega game look this good in a while, and it would be nice if more of their catalog had the production values of this title.
There are things about Sonic Unleashed that reminded me of how great this franchise could be when done right. It’s just a shame those parts weren’t the true focus of the game. Part of the allure of the Sonic series was how fast it played, and while it is true the running levels are shorter, they’re a lot more fun. Instead of cramming beat ‘em up levels down our throats, why couldn’t there just be more running levels? It’s a shame there’s only 50% of a good game here. Maybe one day, Sonic will see a return to glory, but for now, it’s like he’s running in place.