SONIC UNLEASHED Xbox 360 Video Game Review

     December 15, 2008

Reviewed by Clayton Stone

When Sega declared that they would no longer be producing video game consoles, I was very excited about the possibilities. Being the diehard Sonic fan that I am, I thought that this meant more time for the company to make great games, rather than using their resources to continue participating in the never-ending console wars. Unfortunately, Sega’s change in company strategy has only resulted in multiplatform games that are haphazardly thrown together, slapped with the “Sonic” label, and pushed out the door just in time to meet a ship date. Oh, how the once mighty Sonic brand has fallen.

If it sounds like I’m bitter, I have good reason. Over the past several years, Sega has all but proven that the blue hedgehog’s pure, speedy gameplay, found in the 16-bit sidescrollers of old, just can’t be translated to today’s systems. Sure, they have found some successful ways around it (by incorporating the adventure-based gameplay of other Sonic characters, see: Sonic Heroes), but one thing or another always seems to get in the way, be it an awkward camera system, frustrating controls, or poorly designed levels. This is why it’s so frustrating that Sonic Unleashed, the first multiplatform Sonic game to actually get the basic Sonic gameplay right, ends up shooting itself in the foot by adding a totally unnecessary new gameplay component: Sonic the Werehog.

Yes, Werehog.

In a move to satisfy what was surely a focus-group filled with six year olds, Sega has crafted a game in which you spend half your time playing as the speedy blue hero by day and the other half as his mutated, werewolf-like form at night. As the story goes, Eggman (a.k.a. Dr. Robotnik for all you old school gamers out there) is at it again, trying to enslave all of humanity and rule the world. He uses the seven Chaos Emeralds to fire a laser from space, splitting the world into seven continents (think planet-sized jigsaw puzzle pieces), and thereby releases the monster, Dark Gaia, from the center of the Earth. But the laser has an unexpected side effect on Sonic, and now whenever the sun goes down, Sonic transforms into a beast with fangs and razor sharp claws.

So, Sonic sets off on an adventure to reunite the pieces of the Earth and stop Eggman’s devious scheme. The game’s map, a view of the planet and its floating pieces, is actually pretty cool. Like something out of Super Mario Galaxy, you rotate the planet and select which unlocked continent you want to travel to. You then choose from various towns which act as mini free-roaming hubs for the game’s levels. Within these towns, you unlock new levels and further the story by talking to random pedestrians to gain “information”. This grows very tedious very fast. There’s never any indication as to which specific pedestrian you need to talk to, and since there are dozens in each town, you have to go through the boring process of talking to each of them one by one. Worst still, the ones you don’t need to speak with give you very little useful information. It’s time consuming, and adds little to the overall game experience.

When you finally reach a level, its gameplay type depends upon whether it’s daytime or nighttime. You can switch between the time of day in both the world map and the pause menu, provided you’re in a town. When playing a daytime level, you play as “classic” Sonic. It’s within these levels that the game’s potential really shines through. With the camera behind Sonic, you race forward and around turns at blinding speeds while hopping on springs, grinding on rails, and collecting gold rings. The classic obstacles like spikes and robots are still littered throughout the levels however, so it takes quick reflexes to avoid falling off cliffs or losing your rings. In a surprise move, the camera will occasionally rotate all the way out to the side, giving parts of the levels a cool retro feel, as you guide Sonic from a sidescrolling perspective. In short, these levels are handled very well, and are really the best part of the game.

Unfortunately, for every six minute daytime level you get to race through, you must suffer through thirty minutes in a nighttime level as the Werehog. The Werehog levels are designed to be standard brawlers, but are poorly conceived, frustratingly boring, and far too lengthy. You move from small area to small area, destroying groups of robots by button mashing the same combos repetitively, with very little variation to this general formula. To add some depth, the game developers give players two abilities. First, you can finish off robots in style by completing short quicktime event button presses. Second, you have an “Unleash” ability that temporarily makes you invincible and super strong. Unfortunately, neither of these makes the gameplay very exciting, and you’ll most likely be bored to tears halfway through the first Werehog level. Every once in a while you will come across a platforming puzzle, but even these force you to wrestle with the game’s awkward jump and swing mechanics. It’s made even worse by the fact that there are very, very few checkpoints throughout the Werehog levels. After dying in the same spot four times and having to replay the same seven minutes repeatedly, I was ready to send the controller flying through the TV.

Even so, it’s clear that Sega put a lot of effort into the game’s production values. The cutscenes, especially the game’s opening cinematic, are breathtaking. And the in-game graphics and character animations are so well done and so detailed that a casual observer might mistake what you’re playing for a Pixar film. The voice acting is also generally good, although the script can be a bit “kiddy” at times. Overall, no Sonic game has ever looked or sounded better.

Final Thoughts

What could have been a return to form for Sonic games turns out to be nothing more than another mediocre title to add to the franchise’s spotty past. It’s frustrating how apparent it is that if a game were to be filled with only these new, “classic” Sonic levels, it would mostly likely be a huge success. Sadly, due to constant meddling with the Sonic formula, that game may never be realized. If you’re a serious Sonic fan and can power through the awful Werehog levels to get to the “classic” style ones (or if you just like torture), you might feel satisfied having taken the time to play this game. To everyone else, you are strongly warned: the Werehog shows no mercy when you throw your controller at the TV.

Rating: C minus

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