It's been a long while since it's been worth getting excited over a Sonic game. You know, I could be smug considering I grew up as a Super NES kid, putting all my support behind a certain portly plumber. However, Sonic's tragic decline from premier gaming mascot to near irrelevancy has been nothing short of astonishing. Fortunately, Sonic's latest outing looks to correct many of the wrongs that have been committed by Sonic Heroes, Shadow the Hedgehog (shudder…) and last year's so-called franchise reboot, Sonic the Hedgehog.
In Sonic Unleashed, you'll play as Sonic and only Sonic. However, there is a twist on the formula. Half the levels you'll be playing as the full speed hedgehog you've come to know and love over the years, and the other half of the game you'll be playing as Sonic the Were-hog.
The Sonic levels play with a speed and fluidity that has been sorely lacking from the series since the days of the Sega Genesis. Controls are tight and responsive. In the hands on demo level we played, we ran through an ocean side level as the camera rotated around sonic in every which direction. Some moments the camera is following Sonic from behind, others it pulls back for a bird's eye view, and best of all, sometimes it will jump to a 2-D perspective that sonic should be in all along. Despite the crazy overactive camera, the controls stayed consistent and never awkward.
The Sonic levels also have a metre on the bottom that keeps track of your speed. This gauge drains whenever you press a the sudden speed button (square on the PS3, X on the Xbox 360), giving Sonic a sudden burst of speed that will also destroy enemies. The gauge constantly refills quickly as rings are gathered. Rings being as plentiful as they are, this means the game rarely slows down, providing constant speed and movement.
In what is clearly a result of gaming directive #465 (which stipulates that every post Resident Evil 4 release must have active time events), Sonic Unelashed features quick time events. Unlike other games though, failure to have lighting quick reflexes doesn't mean death, but rather a different path. Generally, if you succeed at the quick time event, you get a more favourable path with more rings and fewer enemies.
The Were-hog levels are a different beast entirely. Apparently because Dr. Robotnik has used a device to split the world into pieces, this awakens an entity within Sonic that mutates him into a giant were-hog with superhuman strength when night falls. These sections play more like God of War than a speedy platformer. Here, Sonic's speed is cut significantly, but he's given a plethora of combos, stretchable appendages, and over 30 special attacks in order to beat the living snot out his robotic adversaries. These sections feel a little more cliched than the admittedly awesome Sonic levels, but we also appreciated the change of pace which ensures that the standard Sonic levels don't overstay their welcome.
In the demo, we saw several levels that took place around the world. Levels take place in such exotic locations like Africa, Europe, Greece, and ancient China. The graphics powered by the Hedgehog engine are colourful and sharp. Best of all, after seeing a choppy, 15 frames per second demo at E3 in July, the frame rate has seriously tightened up to around 40 frames at the X08 and PlayStation Preview events. Sega is shooting for around 60 frames per second before its November release.
Is Sonic's decade-long cold streak finally coming to an end? It's a little too soon to say for sure, but Sonic Unleashed is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. Sonic fans will want to mark November 18, 2008 on their calendars.