Reviewed: January 8, 2009
Released: December 12, 2008
It is no big secret that Sonic the Hedgehog has been in a bit of a slump over the past five or six years. It seems that with the demise of Sega’s hardware business, so went Sonic’s veracity – and while Sega keeps churning out products based on the Sonic license year after year, the loveable speed demon just cannot seem to muster the critical adoration the series once had.
But that’s not for the want of trying – each Sonic iteration has introduced new and unique gameplay elements, but few have been able to win over the critics. Sonic Unleashed is the latest in Sonic’s platforming lineage, and it too attempts to take radical new steps with the series – but ultimately collapses under its own weight.
If there is one word that is synonymous with Sonic the Hedgehog, it is “Speed”. The fiery blue devil has been smoking up consoles since his initial outing on the Sega Genesis. Where most platformers aim to have gamers hopping and bopping across magically floating ledges to and whirling and twirling around countless enemies – the Sonic franchise’s shtick is a hair-raising rollercoaster of a race from start to finish, amassing countless coins and trinkets while avoiding the precariously placed adversaries.
A good majority of Unleashed follows the original Sonic formula to a tee – placing gamers in breathtakingly beautiful levels full of winding, looping pathways and jaw-dropping expanses. Sonic’s blazingly fast feet propel the hero ever faster, ducking and dodging obstacles along the way. This is the Sonic we know and love, and he has never looked better than on the PS3 – even with the disorienting camera shifts and unexpected 3D-to-2D perspective transitions.
Sadly, the game falls apart when the developers try to shoehorn in a traditional platformer in the form of the Werehog – Sonic’s strange nighttime alter ego. Covered in fur and fangs, Sonic’s Werehog form is the result of a meeting with the evil Dr. “Eggman” Robotnik. Unlike the speedy daytime Sonic, the Werehog is lumbering and ferocious, whacking and slashing wave upon wave of instanced Gaia enemies as he travels around the city hub world by night.
One would think that these Werehog levels might be enjoyable considering that he is gifted with unique abilities, like the means to stretch his arms like to elastic proportions – grabbing, swinging, flinging, and even slamming enemies upon each other. But this Ratchet-meets-Kratos mechanic only impresses for so long before its weakness begin to show through.
The biggest problem with the Werehog’s play is that the nighttime levels seem to drag on and on, with no real reward. The blend of tedious RPG-like exploration elements (speaking with townfolk and such) combined with the repetitious brawling, puts a wrench in the spokes of an otherwise enjoyable ride. By the second or third mind-numbing midnight stroll through town, it becomes quite apparent that the Warehog levels only serve to stretch out the gameplay – adding a handful of extra hours on the disc with little or no effect on the Sonic formula.
To get back to what makes Sonic great – the daytime levels are a lot of fun, and much of that is due to new power-ups like Sonic Boost, Speed Drift, and Quick Step. These power-ups take the traditional Sonic mechanic and give it a shot of Ridge Racer-like racing groove.
As I mentioned before, Unleashed looks great. The visuals are sharp and bright, and the sense of scale is simply jaw-dropping – the Havok/Hedgehog Engine suits the blue guy well. The audio quality is equally as impressive, with solid sound effects, trademark background music, and even a handful of notable voiceovers.
In the end, Unleashed features some of the best Sonic action in years – but it also features some of the worst. While flying along the rollercoaster rails at breakneck speeds it could not get any better for the little blue fella, but when he takes on the Werehog’s form it could hardly be more taxing. Sonic Team has added some really cool stuff in the way of speed levels, but they really should have kept the momentum going with the platforming action.
On a final note, Sonic Unleashed is one of the first PS3 games I have played that has not required an install. In fact, where many PS3 games require upwards of a gigabyte or more of cache, Sonic uses less than megabyte. Maybe it takes a bit longer to load, but the HDD savings make it more than worth it – thank you Sonic Team for keeping it old school.