Sonic The Hedgehog first rolled onto the Sega Mega Drive over 15 years ago and almost overnight became one of the most recognizable icons in the video game industry. With a colorful career spanning over several generations of video game systems the speedy, spiky-haired mammal has achieved impressive world-wide sales of over 38 million units.
With those whopping statistics under his belt, and whilst there’s still substantial amounts of money to be made, Sonic’s creator doesn’t plan on ending his career any time soon. However, you would have thought that, considering Sonic’s high profile, more care would have been given to the iconic figure’s next-gen debut back in 2006. An awkward control system, camera issues and glitch-riddled gameplay, however, led to much criticism from reviewers and resulted in a poor average score of just 46% on Metacritic. Despite the developer coming up with the excuse of having to rush the title so that it was ready for the launch of the Playstation 3, it was deemed to be one of the worst Sonic games to have ever been released.
Two years on and Sonic Team Japan are back with an attempt to revive the flagging franchise with its latest incarnation, Sonic Unleashed. This time though, it has no excuses to hide behind. The good news is that the developer has redeemed itself somewhat by returning to the roots of the series with the classic 2D Sonic gameplay that fans first fell in love with back in 1991. Sonic Unleashed isn’t quite the glorious return that we’d hoped for, but it is a solid addition to the series and one that boasts enough variety and entertainment value for it to appeal to both old and new fans alike.
In Sonic Unleashed, the story follows Sonic The Hedgehog as he attempts to restore the world to normal after his nemesis, Doctor Eggman, has split it into two pieces. It’s a great excuse to offer us two different types of gameplay and in the daytime stages you play as Sonic The Hedgehog, where in classic Sonic-style you hurtle around tracks, launching off ramps, jumping off springboards and doing loop-the-loops at incredible speeds, all whilst collecting those famous golden rings. In the night-time levels, however, you play as Sonic the Werehog and the action slows down considerably as you take a platform-style approach, by clearing roomfuls of enemies, solving simple puzzles and fighting boss battles.
Unlike Sonic’s last outing on next-gen consoles, which exhibited a loose control system and some heavily-littered levels in which we were forever bumping into objects, controlling Sonic certainly feels much tighter than before. Despite the breakneck speed of the blue hedgehog it feels like the Sonic of old is back, unhampered by some of the shabby mechanics of its predecessor. If you can get your timing right during the infamous dash stages you’re treated to some periods of exhilarating and flowing gameplay, where precise button presses and impeccable timing allow you to smoothly navigate the multiple pathways as you jump, slide and launch strings of homing attacks with fluidity and style.
The smooth flow of Sonic’s dash stages have come on leaps and bounds since the series’s last outing. The fact that Sonic Team Japan has ditched the Havok Physics Engine and created a new “Hedgehog Engine,” which specifically caters for Sonic’s speed, helps profusely. It has also afforded the developer the opportunity to create 3D to classic 2D camera transitions and, although it’s the 2D gameplay that really excels – as you frenetically boost over dash boards and rail-grind across some brilliantly designed levels – the 3D switchover works well, keeping you on your toes by allowing a side-step movement so that you can dodge obstacles. There’s also some real-time interaction moments (QTE’s,) where you have a limited amount of time to press the button or buttons in the correct sequence allowing you take to a new path or avoid death. These moments keep you on the toes and add a further element of challenge to Sonic’s dash stages without compromising the speed of the gameplay.
Despite the obvious plus point of having the old Sonic dashing across our screens, it’s not all good news. Occasionally, the day-time sections suffer with frustrating camera angles that switch and change at a moment’s notice making it hard to judge jumps or see where you’re supposed to be going. Furthermore, in the latter levels, where more decisions need to be made due to the packed environments, it can be frustrating as you stop and start again using a trial and error method to work out how to get past certain sections. Nevertheless, the problems aren’t frequent enough to spoil the fun and hardcore Sonic fans should enjoy the stiff challenge posed by some excellently designed stages that sport multiple pathways.
Although newcomers to the series probably won’t mind so much the switch in gameplay focus from classic Sonic to his Werehog alter-ego, older fans who will remember a time when Sonic was purely about the speed and thrill of dashing through colorful environments, most likely won’t be very impressed by the platform stages. The Sonic The Werehog levels offer variety, yes, but aren’t nearly as well implemented, entertaining or as well designed as the day-time levels.
In addition to suffering from frequent poor camera angles and a few annoying glitches, including (in our experience) a box that is crucial to solving a puzzle disappearing through a wall never to return, the bouts of room-clearing combat start to get very repetitive and dull, despite the splash of color that greets ever frantic button-bashing battle. Still, there’s some half-decent platform fun to be had out of grabbing onto ledges and swinging from poles in search of secret areas, or interacting with levers and opening doors by bashing the ‘O’ button. Whilst The Werehog levels do offer some variety and give you a break from the blisteringly fast and eye-achingly bright Hedgehog levels, the fact that the camera angles shift and move around erratically works to the detriment of the gameplay and can make for a frustrating experience.
It’s a real shame because, apart from the Werehog stages, everything else has been done pretty darn well when you compare it to some of the previous titles. As an overall package, Sonic Unleashed is a hundred times better than its last next-gen outing and despite a few niggles is as enjoyable a Sonic game as we’ve played in a long while. Not only does it look fantastic, with some beautifully realized locations and well-designed dash stages, but the thrill of controlling Sonic at such speeds makes for an addictive and gripping experience.