Sonic Unleashed (Mania.com)
Review Date: Saturday, January 10, 2009
In the 16-bit era, Sonic the Hedgehog was like the cool older brother who took us for rides in fast cars and sneaked us into R-rated movies. Now he's the awkward buck-toothed cousin who struggles at the piano during family gatherings, pleading for another chance every time he hits a sour note.
We waited patiently for Sonic to get his 3D act in gear. He came close with Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure II, two games that had their flaws, but were admirable for their spirit. “Once Sega irons out the bugs, 3D Sonic games will be a lot of fun,” we said.
It was not to be. 3D Sonic games went rolling downhill rather than uphill, disgracing a once-hallowed franchise. Though Sonic Unleashed for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 isn't as thoroughly unplayable as 2006's attempt at a Sonic title on the same system (plainly marketed as “Sonic the Hedgehog”), or as laughable as 2005's gun-heavy and “dark” Shadow the Hedgehog, it's a pretty wince-inducing experience.
Hungry Like The Hog
Sonic Unleashed's gameplay revolves around a hub world that allows access to different levels. The game's stages follow a “day and night” motif; the day stages feature gorgeous, fast-paced, (sometimes) 2D running action that hearkens back to the days when Sonic the Hedgehog was the King of the Genesis. The night stages feature a mechanic that earned Sonic Unleashed notoriety long before it was completed: The werehog.
Preview videos of the werehog in action had gamers worried that Sonic Unleashed would end up being bisected into a game that's half-fun and half-plodding. Those fears are justified. There's nothing quite as sad as tearing through a sunlit level only to have to slow down to an insufferable pace when the moon rises on another level. Whereas Sonic the Hedgehog blasts his enemies with his typical homing attack, Sonic the Werehog pummels swarms up generic baddies with his bizarre Stretch Armstrong arms. It's about as much fun as whipping down the highway at top speed, only to have to stop ten minutes later and crawl in traffic for an hour.
Missing the Point of Fun
Sonic Unleashed hurts, but memories of the game's development really twists a lemon into the open wound. In interviews, Sega and Sonic Team promised that Sonic Unleashed was going to be the game to restore Sonic to his former glory; there were promises that Sonic fans would be able to hold their heads up again.
But Sonic Unleashed is grim, irrevocable proof that Sega doesn't get it, or worse, it's simply stopped caring. When the game was in production, hopefuls were asked to notice that for the first time in ages (aside from Sonic and the Secret Rings for the Wii), Sonic was not being trailed by a furry cast of Technicolor friends. Indeed, Sonic Unleashed is about Sonic; it's not about digging for pieces of the Chaos Emeralds with Knuckles, or piloting mechs with Tails or, God help us, fishing with Big the Cat. Even so, Sega obviously feared that youngsters wouldn't adopt their blue hero by his lonesome: Chip, a hyperactive flying bat-cat thing was created to tail Sonic and occasionally wail the Hedgehog's name in a shrill tone not heard since the early days of the Playstation.
Tails does make appearances throughout the game. Normally, the fox's presence is tolerable because he's been Sonic's tagalong buddy since Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Unfortunately, he only exists in Sonic Unleashed to bring pain through hell's own quick time event. In an unskippable “mini-game,” Tails drives his biplane while Sonic works a turret to shoot down incoming fighter crafts and missiles. If Sega was seriously intent on bringing Sonic back to his roots, it would have done well to avoid irrelevant filler stages, but the plane game's existence isn't an unpardonable sin. The frustration that accompanies the stage, however, is another matter. The player shoots down the incoming projectiles by pressing the corresponding button: a missile marked with “X” can only be taken down by pressing the “X” button, whereas an “A” missile will only be felled with “A.”
These quick time stages quickly become a letter-strewn nightmare. Death is inevitable, particularly during the messy boss fight, and the entire stage must be played over.
Unleash the Sadness
Sonic Unleashed is a difficult game to enjoy, which is a shame because the graphics are the prettiest in any recent Sonic game. The 2D running stages, modeled after various cities, are fantastic to look at; even the same old grinding down rails is a joy when blocks and blocks of suburbs sprawl down below. Enemies are a little generic at times (Dr Eggman needs to stop building robots and get some friends), but it's hard not to appreciate little touches in certain stages, like dutiful pelicans who point out the way for Sonic when he gets lost.
These little bursts of fun make it all the more painful to acknowledge that Sonic is long lost to the generation that grew up with him. We can keep hoping that Sonic will make a no-frills return to the side-scrolling gameplay that birthed him, but it's probably never going to happen.
Mania Grade: D+
Game: Sonic Unleashed
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+
Reviewed Platform: Xbox 360, Playstation 3
Developer: Sonic Team
Replay Value: C