When will it ever go right for our favourite blue hedgehog, eh? I don’t even want to mention but I simply have to talk about the atrocious game from 2006 called Sonic The Hedgehog. It was meant to celebrate fifteen years of one of our most famous videogame characters but instead it flopped like dead road-kill.
But will Sega ever learn? Two years down the line we are slowly forgetting the disaster of the past and Sonic Unleashed is I’m pleased to say a return to form. Before you get your hopes up, this is not classic Sonic or Sonic Adventure, but it is the best Sonic game in this generation.
As usual Dr Eggman makes a return and is wrecking havoc with the chaos emeralds. He has used the energy that usually turns Sonic into Super Sonic and has created a powerful beast called the Dark Gaia. This beast has shattered the earth into segments and Sonic has undergone a transformation as by night he turns into the originally titled Werehog. And this by far the reason why the game ultimately isn’t what fans wanted. The game is split into two distinct areas; by daytime you play as Sonic in very fast paced 3D stages with an element of the 2D aspect that Sonic is famous for. By night you play as the Werehog in a mix of platform and combat stages which have disappointed fans of the series.
It isn’t that the Werehog sections are not well thought out; if you have the time and patience they are actually fairly decent creations. The juxtaposition of the speed and the slow nature of the Werehog levels though is what disappoints and frustrates. For example, when playing the first level as Sonic, I completed it in 4 minutes. Compare that with the 30 minutes it took to complete the first Werehog level and you can see the issue with time and the consistency of it.
This causes one of two problems. The first is that it feels like you are constantly playing as the Werehog purely because of the time it takes to complete the stages, whereas you’ll only be playing for minutes as Sonic. Thankfully later on in the game you can switch between the two characters as appropriate but this does not detract from the slow nature of the Werehog. Secondly, with the sections in-between levels asking you to collect medals and walk around talking to people, the game ultimately feels slow in progression. The speed essentially makes up around 25% of the game while the collecting and walking round either as Sonic or the Werehog makes for the other 75%.
Why exactly did Sega think that implementing speed and combat in the same game would work? The Sonic levels on the flipside are superb. The pace of them are eye-watering and the graphics really shine in the game; this is quite literally something from an animated film. And quite fittingly the levels feature throwbacks to the old 2D games with side-scrolling sections. The switch between the forward facing sections and the 2D sections is superb and watching Sonic take the traditional loop-the-loops side facing is what we’ve cried out for years.
It does suffer from problems though; at times the pace is so fast that you aren’t always aware of what is around you. Medals need to be collected in the game and these are placed in levels and sometimes you zip past one and realise you need it, but it is too late for making a return back. The character handling can sometimes feel a tad ‘floaty’ as well. I’m not sure what word would describe it other than that, but sometimes with the speed of Sonic he does feel like he is on ice (and he literally is on one stage) but now and again this is noticeable in other levels.
The other issue is that unlike the old games, the faster levels require little effort other than to push forwards and hope for the best. You get the odd platform or set of spikes to negotiate now and again but it is minimal. Sections of the game are difficult though due to the speed, sending you generally crashing off the side of a platform or you falling down a gap in an object. The game is far more linear in these sections with springs and rails keeping you on the move and with a few jumps and pushes of the X button, which uses the Ring Power to power you forwards - there is little room to admire the scenery.
As I briefly mentioned before the graphics are very impressive for an animated game and in particular the level design and areas where they take place enhance this. Villages and a traditional African savannah is the setting for one and another takes place in a gorgeous ice themed level with a whale which appears to thrust you in the air while you toboggan down a chute. These moments make the game stand out.
Sadly though on the combat side when you play as the Werehog this can get dull. The Werehog does not run very fast and a lot of the levels rely on you to climb and hang from ledges and battle various mechanical enemies. While lives are generous throughout the game there are situations where a pile of enemies can overcome you and you’ll soon be eating through these while having to negotiate a tricky box pushing and ledge hanging section prior to it. The rewards are lacking in these levels with the emphasis on collecting models and collecting EXP points to level your Werehog up. The levels themselves aren’t badly designed but the continuous combat can be tedious, and you spend a hell of a lot of time trying to fight enemies off and complete boring puzzles before you can get stuck into the Sonic levels again. This is the same for the world hubs in between levels where you can use Rings to buy food and items and speak to citizens. Although the epic Sonic Adventure featured hubs it wasn’t as un-interesting and it ruins the pace of the game again.
The music in the game is solid as ever from Sega and this is something they generally get spot-on. Songs are well composed and catchy with my ears being privy to one or two riffs being modernised from original games and used within sections here. At least it feels like the music is classic anyway...
The same cannot be said of the voice acting. While the voices themselves are decent enough, you can’t help feel it’s all a bit Saturday morning cartoon, especially the voice of Chip (the little monkey aid) which sounds like someone from Arthur (the cartoon that is!). Considering the game's difficulty at times and age rating you can’t help think they’ve aimed the voices at some young juveniles.
Though Sega have in reality improved the game ten-fold from the last disastrous appearance, there are still flaws with Unleashed. Perhaps this will be the start of something better in the future. Ditch the Werehog sections and let’s see more of the amazing speed in the sections, which sadly seem give you five minutes of fun. But for now this is an accomplished Sonic game leaving us wanting more.