Review: Sonic Unleashed

SonicUnleashed.jpg Even when Sega is so close to finally putting Sonic back on the map, it’s still so far away. Sonic Unleashed is by far the best 3D Sonic game to date, yet it still flounders in its attempts to reinvent the franchise because of silly design decisions and faulty mechanics.

Sonic’s latest 3D romp consists of two different gameplay styles. When the sun is shining bright in the sky, Sonic is his normal zippy self and the game plays like 2D Sonic adventures of old. But when the sun goes down and the moon’s eerie light glows in the sky, Sonic transforms into a lumbering werehog and the experience goes from blissful to dreadful as the game morphs into a generic, button-mashing brawler.

Daytime levels really are something special, packing a bladder-quaking sense of speed, gorgeous 3D backdrops, intense on-rails boss battles, and a non-stop pacing that is simply exhilarating. The game is so fast that certain jumps and hazards are impossible to see coming at times, which in turn leads to occasional frustrations with the whole “die and retry” routine. Some may see it as a cheap method of generating difficulty, but overall it is a necessary method, otherwise the game would be a cakewalk. In fact, all of the greatest 2D platformers have relied on trial and error (old Sonics included), and from an old school gamer at heart like me, that type of challenge is part of what made them so great.

Nighttime levels, on the other hand, are just as I described before: dreadful. The gameplay goes from blistering speed to slow-as-molasses as you assume control of Sonic’s new werehog form and begin mashing waves of samey enemies through dark and dreary stages that all seem to blur together.

But boredom is only half the problem. Sonic games simply aren’t made to play as standard 3D platformers, and this game’s woeful controls continue to prove this. An inconsistent camera and herky-jerky character movement make the simplest of jumps absurdly difficult. And the climbing and swinging mechanics are even worse. In werehog form, Sonic’s arms somehow become all stretchy like Mr. Fantastic, and he can use this ability to latch onto ledges and swing from poles. Problem is, you can only grab a ledge when a lock-on target appears over the object as you jump towards it, and timing your button press to when the grab indicator flashes is so inconsistent and unpredictable that you’ll find yourself regularly plummeting to your doom. And there’s nothing more infuriating than cheap deaths resulting from broken control mechanics!

Making matters worse, Sonic Unleashed is largely a werehog-centric adventure. By the numbers I’m sure the split between daytime and nighttime levels is even, but in actual play time the werehog stages reign supreme. Whereas the speedy day stages generally take no more than 10 minutes to complete, the night stages drag on for at least 30 minutes, often upwards of an hour due to frequent death from the imprecise platforming.

This extreme divide in gameplay styles and overwhelming focus on the worst play style of the two completely ruins everything good Sonic Unleashed has going for it, and surprisingly there is quite a lot of good to see when the game is at its best. After the first couple stages I was honestly ready to declare that Sonic was back (that was actually the first thing I wrote down in my review notes!), but as the game wore on and fell victim to distractions of the night life it showed itself to be just another disappointing 3D Sonic.

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Pros:
+ Exhilarating daytime levels deliver vintage Sonic gameplay
+ Absolutely splendid graphics; arguably the best seen in a 3D platformer to date

Cons:
– Nighttime levels are dull, tedious and almost unplayable at times
– Play balance overwhelmingly emphasizes werehog stages
– Inconsistent camera and platforming controls

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360, also available for PS3, PS2 and Wii
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sonic Team
Release Date: 11/20/08
Genre: 3D Action/Platform
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!