Sonic Unleashed Reader Review
It's rare that I find myself compelled to write a review for a game, simply because I'm frankly a bit rubbish at writing reviews. Usually when I do write one it's difficult for people to really gauge what my stance is at the end of it.
Perhaps I feel a bit obligated to take a firm stand regarding Sonic games however, because I'm the sort of Sonic nut that stops short of writing disturbing fanfiction on the matter, all the while insisting I can keep my head cool enough to offer at least a somewhat sober view on the games themselves.
I take it you've already read the "proper" kind of reviews for this game, so you have insight into what button does what. I don't really feel inclined to go over all that formal stuff so I'll just cut right to my views in the areas where I have an opinion. Okay, here we go for the trillionth time since Sonic games turned publicly sour, reserved for only the most hardcore youngsters sporting nicknames ending with The Animal-of-some-sort.
Sonic Unleashed is strange. It's truly bewildering for a number of reasons. It is a game where Sega has obviously listened to the critics and fans and made a host of changes based on those complaints and ended up with a game that no doubt is the best crafted Sonic game on the stationary consoles since the original Sonic Adventure. The strange thing though is that while it is mostly devoid of the unfair bottomless pit insta-deaths and almost entirely rid of the affectionately named "shitty friends" of the blue star, it somehow ends up being the most genuinely un-interesting, downright boring Sonic game of basically all of them.
The gameplay is first and foremost reliable, which is rare to see in a 3D Sonic game outside of the balls crunchingly challenging but still very competent and I dare say rewarding Sonic Riders. Even when you're out of control there's a nice margin for error in that you mostly just get slowed down or fall down a level and have to take a longer, slower route than you would otherwise be able to stay on. Even when Sonic turns into the infamous Werehog, the controls work like they should and you never go into a twitch-frenzy the way you would on a regular basis in everything from Sonic Adventure 2 to the much berated "Sonic 2006". Sonic Unleashed for the most part is safe, reliable, predictable, and feels a lot like having training wheels on your bike, someone holding you firmly around the waist and... the bike is bolted to the floor.
Ironically this is the crux of the game. For as much verbal (and I imagine some physical) abuse 3D Sonics have taken over the years I have on a fundamental, core level found something about them to like in their freeform homing attack glory, and now that Sonic is being locked down to a safe path what little thrill there was left - even in Sonic '06 - is all but extinguished. Many call this game out on its Werehog portions but truth be told they're not awful either. They're just predictable and safe like the rest of the game but they move at a fourth the speed so I guess you have more time to reflect and realise that you're bored out of your mind.
The game does occasionally take off and becomes somewhat entertaining, most notably on the Holoska and Eggmanland levels, and that's largely because they mimic Sonic Riders in so many ways. You drift around corners using a very similar shoulder button and control stick combination, and the levels themselves have many moments where a number of different maneuvers are required in succession so that you can improve your pace by knowing what to do and when to do it. During the other stages you all too often feel like the developers haven't realised the opportunity in actually having someone sitting there with a controller in hand waiting for something to do. A lot of times large stretches are traversed by just running in a straight line with plenty of space to move from side to side but no reason at all to do it, and other times you're shot through elaborate twists and turns and loops with no required input at all. In fact, you'll probably just mess stuff up if you do get creative during those moments.
And yet time and again I find myself thinking "well it works, it's good because I'm not being shafted by the game during any of this the way I'm used to from Heroes or Shadow The Hedgehog". Well that's true enough, but in removing the risk of messing up, they're also left with a game that pretty much gets by without you for the most part. For some reason the developer has opted for an absolutely archaic lives system that means game overs are a possibility. I imagine that is why every level is a total cakewalk until you arrive at the last level and that's a bag of bricks in the head. Suddenly you're tasked with really precise maneuvering that leave you with an insane difficulty spike. You have to wonder why they didn't just go with the Secret Rings setup of having infinite lives and having a proper learning curve. You know, like games do it.
Okay so I'm a fan, and if you're reading this you possibly are too, so we should be able to deal with this. We've seen worse times! Lord knows Heroes was an insult, and Sonic 06 had us watching load times and Sims asking us to do stuff more than actually playing a Sonic game. The reason I've been sticking with Sonic all this time is partly because I kinda enjoy the universe established in Sonic Adventure. I like Big and Shadow and Rouge and this sort of lame, furry soap stuff. I like it when Sonic is depicted well as a simple, free spirit whose answer to everything is to just keep moving, keep running, and don't let the bad times stick. Imagine my disappointment when Unleashed feels nothing like any iteration of Sonic, let alone an interesting one.
Sure you've got Robotnik firing mechs and robots and laser beams and all kinds of crazy stuff at Sonic in the intro, but moments later you're chatting up disney dudes in Africa, accompanied by a fairy squirrel. I mean what the hell. The levels themselves never feel like they adhere to any of the familiar Sonic locations - and no I'm not asking for Green Hill Zone here. There's more of the south european holiday resort imagery that made no sense in '06, making no sense in this one either, and ultimately the only levels that carry a Sonic vibe are the aforementioned Holoska - which is somewhat Ice Cap-esque - and Eggmanland.. which is self explanatory.
There's no sight of any of the now-familiar characters apart from Sonic, Tails and Amy, but to make matters even worse, Tails doesn't even get to be Sonic's sidekick. Instead you've got a tiny, annoying, ice cream obsessed jerk flying around (yeah, furry flying thing, remind you of anyone?) while Tails is stuck being a cardboard cutout you converse with briefly to further the story. All this said I haven't even mentioned the Werehog bits yet. During the night, everything's obviously all dark and gloomy and the locations are covered in neon beams to indicate where the Werehog can go stretchy arms and chimmy across. This, mixed with the blueish/purple "Dark Gaia" enemies that spawn out of nowhere definitely does not increase the sensation that you're playing a Sonic game. Again, much like the gameplay itself, it's not like any of the presentation is bad or tasteless. It is just completely uninspired and devoid of personality. You're essentially in different parts of the world but their names have the letters switched out a bit so Alaska is Holoska. How very imaginative.
So not only is it mostly just boring to play, there's really nothing here that warrants an investment even for hard boiled post-Adventure Sonic fans. It's telling that Sonic and The Secret Rings which is set against an Arabian Nights background has buckets more Sonic feel than this one.
So Sonic Unleashed is strange. It's no doubt the most competent 3D Sonic... possibly ever, purely from a technical perspective and in terms of polish and lavish production values. I mean there are no wild glitches or anything like that, and you can tell this hasn't been rushed out the door. At the same time it's got its priorities absolutely messed up. This is certainly the Sonic game most people will be able to tolerate gameplay wise because it never really treats you unfairly, but it also never really... treats you to anything either.
I've been able to cautiously recommend each of the technically flawed 3D Sonics over the years to fans of the characters and universe, but I just don't know who would enjoy this one. It is heartbreaking amounts of fun in two of its levels, granted, and if they only capitalise on what makes those two great then they're truly on to something, but it gets the whole presentation wrong and messes up the vibe of the series to degrees Mario Sunshine could never dream of. Ultimately the majority of the time spent in Unleashed's mock-up continents will be time spent suffering through functional but unfun levels in hopes of getting to one that takes advantage of the fundamentally sound gameplay mechanics, and at no point will you really feel like you're playing a Sonic game.
Secret Rings is still where it's at if you're a Wii owner. Or, hey, just grab Sonic Adventure DX off ebay, get used to the sometimes erratic camera, and enjoy what is still the best 3D Sonic to this day and a good game by any measure.
Unleashed is a solid foundation. If you could trust Sega to realise what components actually worked in this one then the next game should be a sure fire success, at least in humble 3D Sonic terms. However, the Werehog and the general lack of familiar themes - both for fans of the Megadrive games and fans of the Dreamcast era ones - stand as testaments to how out of touch with Sonic fans Sega truly are.
4 / 10