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Sonic Unleashed (Xbox 360) artwork

Sonic Unleashed (Xbox 360) review


"At first, I couldn't figure this game out. I mean, in the few moments of clarity in which I felt like I could get my head around the possible thought processes that might lead to a game like Sonic Unleashed, I caught myself wondering how the two completely contradictory ideas therein even came to exist within a single development team working on a single game, and then I had to reboot. "



At first, I couldn't figure this game out. I mean, in the few moments of clarity in which I felt like I could get my head around the possible thought processes that might lead to a game like Sonic Unleashed, I caught myself wondering how the two completely contradictory ideas therein even came to exist within a single development team working on a single game, and then I had to reboot.

Let me explain.

You'll forgive me, I'm sure, for viewing Sonic Unleashed through a lens of extreme skepticism; It's no secret that Sonic is not having the best of careers in the time of the seventh console generation, and the harshest words have been leveled at Unleashed's immediate predecessor, the uniquely awful Sonic The Hedgehog (2006). And on top of all that, I can't shake off the feeling that Sonic Team is playing a practical joke on us; on one hand they claim their immortal claim, "Yes, we really Get It This Time™! We have Seen Our Folly™! This time, we shall make the One True Sonic Game™, wherein only Sonic shall be playable!", while at the same time snickering behind our backs, no doubt caught up in hysterics, because they've found a loophole and they're going to exploit it for all its worth. They promised "only Sonic shall be playable", but - and this is the really clever part - they didn't promise that Sonic wouldn't suddenly transform into a creepy hedgehog-wolf idiotically called a "Werehog" and adopt a completely different control scheme. And therein lies the rub.

(And though it is somewhat of a tangent, I feel compelled to take a moment out of our scheduled article to comment on how thoroughly depressing it is that the term "Werehog", literally meaning "man who transforms into a hog" (hogs having no relation to hedgehogs) and very pointedly not meaning "hedgehog who is a werewolf" could even escape a planning meeting and reach the point where a team of marketers consider whether or not people will remember or even care about the meaning of a word)

So… Sonic Unleashed is both bipolar and polarizing. It attempts to smash together two completely contradictory gameplay styles, that have differing controls, differing mechanics, differing ideals for what makes them fun, and completely opposing atmospheres. The slightest shifts in the manner in which you first experience the game, combined with your attitude and expectations going in could result in your overall experience rocketing towards either the love or hate end of the scale, but really, even at the positive extreme, it is impossible to overlook what you will undoubtedly consider to be the "other" half of Sonic Unleashed.

For half of the game (for certain interpretations of "half"), you will be playing as Sonic The Hedgehog, in a pretty good approximation of what every Sonic Fan Who Knows Better has been screaming for for something like five years; running and jumping through bright, colourful, cheerfully designed stages (set during the daytime) that transition a lot between 3D and 2D gameplay. For the remainder, you will be playing as Sonic The Werehog (during the nighttime), for whom exactly no-one asked, in what I imagine is supposed to be a vague facsimile of God Of War-esque slash-em-ups, only executed in a platform game engine not built for this purpose.

In between these experiences are some piffling distractions such as "plot", "cutscenes", "music", "hub stages", and exactly two "extended quick-time events". These, where not almost enjoyable, are at least unobtrusive. As elements in a videogame, they certainly border on "bad" and are a waste of space, but they can and should all be ignored. None of these things will bother you if you choose not to let them. Sonic Unleashed does not suffer because of trifling things you can just brush off. Sonic Unleashed suffers because of what you can't just pretend isn't there.

For maximum emotional impact, I shall deliver the most tragic news first; the vast majority of Sonic The Hedgehog's playable sections are amazing.

Sonic's stages whiz by in a fantastical blur, but if you ever stopped to enjoy them you might marvel at how well put together they are. I don't think we're quite ready to call Sonic's level design "fixed" yet, but the progress since 2006 is remarkable. The inexcusable issues re the scoring system remain stubbornly in place; in fact they're worse than ever (the one-up system refuses to die, you lose all progress score-wise when you fail once - even when restarting from a checkpoint, and the timer doesn't even reset when you restart - all of which makes you wonder why they even bother with checkpoints) but these are concerns only to those who want to try and S-Rank each level, which really isn't all that big a deal in Unleashed. Even in the last true Sonic stage in the game, which throws all sorts of maddening instant-death gimmicks at you, I found myself struck by an unexpected realization; this is Really Go!@#$!ed Fun. I mean, once you forget about the stupid scoring system and just let go of the silly obsessive need to clear each stage on a single life in the shortest time, things begin to just click into place. That stage is a literal nonstop thrill ride, and it's exhilarating enough that it can make one forget about silly things like a scoring system, and produce an experience whereby simply getting from one end of the level to the other is a massive amount of fun, whether or not you do it in one life and record time. And coming from the team that produced Sonic 2006, this is an earth-shattering revelation.

Sonic's stages do promote a certain degree of rote memorization but manage for the most part to produce fun experiences nonetheless. Though they lack the sheer magnitude of alternate routes that graced the stages of the Genesis days, there are still a number of clever shortcuts scattered throughout, and the main routes make up for their linearity with sheer spectacle. The 3D <-> 2D transitions are used to great effect, offering a number of interesting level design quirks and fun areas where multiple "2D" paths are laid out and transitioned between in 3D. And pervading it all is the fact that everything is so very pretty - some of the best eye-candy of our time. There are also a good number of fun little bonus stages that offer more refined obstacle courses in the vein of classic Sonic "acts" that tend to be constructed entirely out of 2D paths, but with the gimmicks made possible by 3D presentation (like, stages laid out in circuits). 2D gameplay with 3D graphics might just be the best thing ever to have happened to Sonic.

The hedgehog himself handles a little more easily than he has in past games, with a revamped control scheme that's focused more on the timing of typical Sonic actions than on fussing about trying to actually steer the damn rodent at high speed. The controls feel noticeably different from past attempts - rather than running stupidly fast and attempting to steer along paths or around obstacles, Sonic now follows the basic path automatically once a certain speed threshold is passed, after which pressing a direction, instead of causing Sonic to turn, will cause him to strafe while still following the path. There's even two dedicated buttons for quickly strafing to each side. All this results in a tighter, streamlined experience in which the running just "happens" and the "gameplay" is boiled down to reacting to various prompts that call for dashing, dodging, jumping, strafing and attacking. Sonic's stages, though presented in 3D and often controlled in 3D, thus tend to be "on rails" experiences, only much more exciting, and much faster, and with at least *some* extent of nonlinearity.

Why is all this good news so tragic? Because only half the stages in the game are Sonic stages, and being Sonic stages, they will likely zoom past very quickly. It's probable that you won't even notice how much fun they are as you're playing through them - it's only when you come out the other end and want to go again that it really dawns on you that what you just did was actually pretty awesome. Sadly, the remainder of the game is comprised of the Werehog stages, which are more… shall we say, "contemplative".

(And if you think that "half the stages" equates to "half the time" then you're in for a nasty surprise.)

Oh, it starts out innocently enough. The first full-on Werehog level is only about five minutes long. Its place in the game (the third stage, after a Sonic tutorial and a Sonic stage) and even the context of the Werehog in the game's story (a condition afflicted upon Sonic by long-time nemesis Dr Eggman) suggest that these experiences are temporary, and will pass when the sun rises again, and are something you just want to be over and done with so you can get back to playing Sonic Unleashed. Sure enough, the first Werehog stage is over quickly and doesn't contain any seriously evil platforming areas, and so doesn't require a very great deal of dedication to complete.

'Just roll with this for a while', the game seems to say, 'and it'll all be over soon, and you can go back to the bits you actually bought this game expecting to play.'

'Perhaps,' you tell yourself, 'this is just another one of those things I can ignore. I can just focus on the regular Sonic stages, right?'

Don't fall into this trap. You might at least save yourself the terrible moment of comprehension.

In another setting, perhaps the Werehog wouldn't be such a glaring problem. But as is, it's greatest failing is that it is completely antithetical to everything you have experienced at the time it is presented to you. Whereas Sonic would blast through any enemies in his path, the Werehog must stop, fight, then start again. Whereas Sonic takes gravity defying running jumps, the Werehog must slowly and excruciatingly negotiate from one side of a chasm to another. Whereas Sonic is propelled, bounces and flies, the Werehog must climb. Sonic has a single button that activates his single offensive capability; ramming at full speed into an unfortunate target which is immediately knocked backwards and can, potentially, take out other unfortunate targets behind it (so satisfying!). The Werehog (which Sonic Team would have you believe is stronger than Sonic) requires multiple button combos and must swipe and punch the same enemy repeatedly to dispatch it, at which point it simply falls over and evaporates. Sonic is fast. The Werehog is slow. Sonic is exciting. The Werehog is boring.

And more often than not, just when you think you've escaped and can go to the next Sonic stage, the game has the gall to tell you that you need to go back through previous Werehog stages until you've found enough arbitrary trinkets to move forward. Nowhere, not even in the game's disposable plot is there any reference or justification given to this arbitrary game mechanic. By some twist of cruel irony, you are required to scour the Werehog stages to find trinkets for Sonic stages, and vice versa. Since Sonic's stages are so fun, you'll have no problem unlocking new Werehog stages, but let's just say it'll take a lot more effort to unlock new Sonic stages.

But while you may be able to just blunder through the first few Werehog stages while saving your attention for the Sonic stages, later stages are far less forgiving. One by one, the little supports holding the experience in place start to disappear. Balance beams over instant death pits? Don't worry, you can still pull yourself back up when you fall off - until suddenly, surprise! The beams all have spikes on the edges so you can't grab them - you just fall off and die. But that's no biggie, right? You just need to go a little slower. But wait! THIS balance beam crumbles away as you cross, AND has spiked edges! You only have one chance to get this right, but don't even think about doing it carefully! The pressure is piled on, but the action itself is boring as all hell, and just when you catch yourself wishing it would all just hurry up and end already, the game punishes you for not paying attention and makes you do the last two minutes over again. Every obstacle eventually evolves into a more arbitrarily dangerous version, enemies develop irritating new variations (like, "on fire"), and the stages get longer and longer and longer - five, ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. It's at once monotonous but very, very, demanding. And as the difficulty rises, the problems and inconsistencies with the Werehog's controls become more and more apparent - you don't want to know, and the foreknowledge won't help you.

This trend continues all the way up to its inevitable conclusion in the game's final stage. You should know that in the game's plot, immediately before beginning this stage, Dr Eggman dares Sonic to proceed through the area ahead. It's called Eggmanland. In game, it is borne of Eggman's hatred of Sonic. In Real Life, it's borne of some level designer's hatred of players. It is 45+ minute long slog that evokes the very worst of Sonic '06's "coin flipping contest" stages, where the struggle from each checkpoint to the next becomes a war of attrition wherein all you can do is try and try again until each of the myriad ways in which the game might arbitrarily screw you over all manage to not happen at the same time. It's not fun. It's not challenging. It's cheap as hell.

That the final Werehog stage is such an abomination should not be news to anyone at this point, but Eggmanland nevertheless has something very interesting to tell us. It has a most curious feature: nearly every checkpoint you will pass has a one-up within such easy reach that you can guarantee it can be grabbed every time you respawn. As a result, even though you will die over and over and over, it is very unlikely that you will run out of lives, get a Game Over, and have to replay the stage from the beginning. It's like someone noticed, far too late, what they were about to unleash upon the world, and tried desperately to fix it.

Don't you find that fascinating?

I conjecture that there is a faction within Sonic Team that likes us and a faction that doesn't. Playing Sonic Unleashed is like witnessing these two factions go to war. As the battle rages on, the Sonic stages get more spectacular and more fun and more rewarding and the Werehog stages get cheaper and more repetitive and more punishing. Eggmanland is the final desperate struggle wherein the "haters" are about to launch their Ultimate Weapon into space and the "likers" must find some way, any way, to stop it from completely destroying the world. We switch back and forth between the two Sonics again and again and again until we break, at which point the lead designer also breaks and makes us play a boss battle with a giant stone transformer.

(That last bit wasn't a joke, the final boss battle literally puts you at the helm of a giant stone robot constructed from bits of temples or something. To refer to my divulging of this plot detail in a review as a "spoiler" would be to admit that you think Sonic Unleashed's plot a) matters and b) is good enough that you actually enjoyed any of its revelations in context. If you agree with either of those sentiments then you have a problem which friendly advice is just not going to solve.)

If you are lucky enough have a friend who has completed Sonic Unleashed and unlocked every little bonus stage, then absolutely the best thing you can do is to play their copy of the game, on their profile, go to the stage select menu, and play through all the Sonic levels in order, along with whatever bonus stages take your fancy. Do this, and you will get to play a fantastic videogame. If you are resigned to playing the thing from scratch, however, then you're going to have to do 30 minutes of "gaming" that you will not enjoy for each 5 minutes of gaming that you might actually consider fun, or even worth replaying. This is the true "price" of Sonic Unleashed - nothing to do with your mortal currency, but an investment of your enjoyment, which may or may not pay off.

That a game should even ask such a thing of a player is infuriating beyond words. But thems're the breaks.

Sonic Unleashed is not "great in places, terrible in places" - it actually, literally, alternates between being a Pretty Neat Videogame and being a terrible, bland, lazy, unplayable shadow of a joke of a mess of an interactive entertainment product.

You will undoubtedly enjoy the Sonic stages a lot. But your enduring memories will be of the Werehog.

That's a shame.

Rating: 7/10

Fedule's avatar
Community review by Fedule (January 31, 2010)

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randxian posted February 07, 2010:

They promised "only Sonic shall be playable",

I'm not sure I understand why this is a good thing.

Other than that, pretty good review, except I think you repeat yourself a bit too much. I do like the dichotomy presented between the fun Sonic stages and the sub-par Werehog stages.
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Fedule posted February 08, 2010:

It's a good thing because an overabundance of playable characters with contradictory styles is one of the reasons why all new Sonic games suck so much. It doesn't help that Sonic Team always "claim their immortal claim" before EVERY GODDAMN GAME and it always turns out to be a lie. Unleashed was the closest they came to not having lied.

(And now we have Sonic The Hedgehog 4, which seems (touch wood) to FINALLY deliver on the claim. We will see.)

I'm about to take scissors to the thing in light of yours and zipp's (see this weeks RotW) comments and will post the results here by the end of the day. I always appreciate criticism.

Edit: It is done. Whaddya think NOW?

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