Console Yourself: Sonic Unleashed
“Don’t forget to bring back a souvenir or three!” -Professor Pickle
Format: Xbox 360, PS3• Developer: Sonic Team• Released: Nov 2008
Since the dawn of this century, the core Sonic series has fluctuated between the poorly intentioned and the poorly implemented. After the retrograde steps of Sonic Heroes and Shadow the Hedgehog, 2006’s attempt to rekindle the grand ambitions of the Sonic Adventure games was thwarted by the sheer incompetence of Sega Japan’s middle management. Riddled with bugs and with a crippled engine only allowing the character to move at half his normal speed, Sonic the Hedgehog  sparked a complete reorganisation of Sonic Team, with the producers responsible for the title hastily removed to be replaced by a series veteran. Despite this change, fans’ expectations for this game were not high, based on a number of announcements to appease ill-founded criticisms of previous titles. The decision to include 2D sections in the game’s action stages sounded distinctly unpromising, a sop to the vocal group of gamers who failed to appreciate the ingenuity and intelligence with which Sonic Adventure translated the original concept into three dimensions. These fears have proven unjustified, however. Sonic Unleashed is a magnificently varied extravaganza, bound together by a brilliant high concept.
Dr Ivo Robotnik’s most endearing trait is a bloody-minded refusal to learn from his past mistakes. Despite having watched Sonic mopping up Chaos and extinguishing Solaris, the bad egg’s latest plan for world domination sees him summoning yet another elemental, in the form of Gaia, an earth monster. His scheme is a little better-formulated than normal, however, as he destroys his nemesis’s deus ex machina “Super” form in order to get the energy he needs to crack open the planet and release Gaia. By the end of the introductory movie, the Doctor has apparently succeeded, with the Earth’s crust split into seven chunks orbiting the Gaia creature and Sonic mutated into a monster by the elemental’s energies. Just when the Hedgehog’s bad day appears to be complete, he is summarily dropped from orbit, squashing a misshapen flying deer named Chip in the process.
After the departure of Sonic’s creator, a Yuji Naka-less Sonic Team have fundamentally reconsidered how to realise the character. In 1998, the two central elements were established as his homing spin attack, which allowed his signature move to function without any tricky judging of depth, and the light speed dash which allowed Sonic to briefly be confined to rails as he was transported around the level. Although these moves are retailed, the reorganised development team obviously have a very different set of goals in mind. Their aim isn’t to translate the play mechanic from the 16-bit games into 3D, but to find a way of allowing the player to achieve the stunts and freedom of movement seen from Sonic’s cartoon persona. While a radical re-think, this isn’t the sell-out to the Sonic X generation it might initially be regarded as. For fans in the early nineties, the FMV introduction sequence to Sonic CD guided the imagination as to how the character might one day work when freed from sprites, and Sonic Unleashed is broadly faithful to that vision. Bizarrely, the key to this transformation is a failed gameplay feature from a spin-off series.
In the Sonic Rush games on the Nintendo DS, the “Boost Button” betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the how the character should work in a 2D environment. Powered by a ring-charged meter, the Boost function allowed Sonic to instantly accelerate forward at full speed, his velocity maintained for as long as his stored energy would allow. This turned the action stages (“Zones” if you’re old-school) into bland, dull race tracks, with none of the depth of design which the series displayed at its best. The new Sonic Team, however, looked at the Dimps-developed titles and saw the potential for a 3D game in the device. Put the camera behind the character, allowing the player to see ahead, and the Boost is a different proposition. The pseudo real-world settings make movement at this pace exhilarating; sprinting through the flat-out sections of the action stages is irresistible. The moment at which the high-concept behind the new-style Sonic is revealed to the player is in the fourth level, as Sonic fully accelerates to keeps up with jet-powered flying badniks along the course of a ruined Roman aqueduct. When the Boost is fully deployed, standard enemies, let alone the architecture, become static irrelevances, with all the player’s focus being solely on the hedgehog and the super-sonic enemies he pursues. The inclusion of a visible lock-on for the homing attack and abandonment of the all-moves-on-one-button philosophy stop being bewildering pieces of design and become a real necessity in the face of the velocities reached. The Boost finally brings the sheer pace of the Mega Drive titles into the 3D arena, but the Team have made another, vital addition. The missing link in the character’s arsenal is finally solved by allowing him to Boost in mid-air, encouraging continual forward motion at all times, and broadening his freedom of movement to match player’s instinctive judgement as to what he should be capable of.
Although the moniker “Sonic Unleashed” suits the game perfectly, it’s easy to understand why the game’s Japanese title of “Sonic World Adventure” was thought appropriate. Global travel is the main theme behind the game, made explicit by Sonic’s need to restore each continent, one at a time. After the introductory sections of the title are concluded, an ally presents Sonic with a world map, from which he can select a location to visit as he hunts for the seven temples needed to re-empower the Chaos Emeralds and restore the shattered planet. The main strength that this theme gives the title is in the concepts for action stages. Sonic Adventure, and the games that succeeded it, continued the 2D philosophy of picking abstract concepts for stages and then building the level around them. Such stage concept-driven design would obviously be victim to the law of diminishing returns, as original ideas were exhausted and the games began to fill with dreaded generic “ice”, “forest” and “desert” stages. Although Sonic Adventure 2 managed to add a few novel ideas to the mix, the titles that followed it have normally only been able to add one new level concept per game, with the rest being retreads of previous classics. The real-world settings introduce variety into the design and give boundless inspiration for set –pieces, saving the game from cliché. For example, the Hawaii stage isn’t just a topical beach paradise, but features dense jungle, a couple of trips out to sea, collapsing ruins and a majestic waterfall. Even though the initial Greek and Savannah stages don’t match the sheer majesty of the levels to come, they still manage to establish memorable identities.
After the Hedgehog recharges the Chaos Emerald to restore the first two continents, the plot takes a back seat, with the game relying on Sonic’s world tour and the people he meets on it to drive the story forward. Sonic is soon introduced to new recurring character Professor Pickle, who by a fortunate co-incidence happens hold the chair in “big monsters that live in the Earth’s core and need a slap” at Spagnolia University. The Professor’s guidance spearheads Sonic’s efforts, and his rooms serve as a base where concept art, music and other unlocked bonuses can be accessed. Pickle is the eponym of the game’s affectionately stereotypical cast, and hopefully will be a permanent addition to the franchise. Tails returns to provide Sonic with long-range transportation, and there are a number of appearances by Amy Rose, in order to satisfied the character’s significant Japanese fan base. These are little more than cameos, however, and for most of the time it’s just Sonic and Chip who are exploring the globe.
Speaking of the sugar-seeker, Chip is by far and away the most satisfying hint mechanic to be included in the series to date. He has more than enough personality to make up for his distinctly odd design, and his addiction to all forms of dessert gives Sonic the idiot sidekick he’s been missing since Tails was promoted to tech support duties in the late nineties. The amnesic Chip’s real identity is easy to predict for players of Sonic the Hedgehog , but the mystery doesn’t intrude on the action, being left in the background until the duo visit the penultimate Gaia temple. The conversational cut-scene which follows this moment is striking, being far removed from what would be expected of the title. Like the Sonic X cartoon at its very peak, this exchange isn’t high drama, but there’s a trace of real emotion here, taking the game beyond the harmless fun usually associated with the series.
In the West, the game’s unique selling point is the transformation of Sonic into an admittedly well-mannered feral beast when the sun goes down, but this element is slightly less successful than other parts of the title. (As every other reviewer on the planet has pointed out, Sonic’s night-time form is technically a Hedgewolf, but the Japanese-speaking developers are not particularly concerned by the niceties of Latin.) In reality, the Werehog is a second character offering more traditional platforming with an emphasis on combat. His action stages change noticeably over the course of the game, with the uncomplicated beat-em-up areas initially offered being replaced with precision platforming in New York and Iran. The main problem is that these levels are presented in the wrong order, with Sonic being faced with an array of platforming challenges only after he’s unlocked enough moves for fighting to actually be enjoyable. The flaw relates to the castrated move set that the Werehog is initially furnished with, offering only a limited array of attacks. Beating enemies allows Sonic to collect the yellow crystals needed to level up the Werehog’s various attributes, but it’s not made clear enough just how many additional moves can be unlocked by sinking experience into the “Combat” stat. (The ordinary Hedgehog’s speed and Boost meter can also be upgraded, but to much less effect.) By the end of the title, playing the Werehog’s levels offers a fully satisfying experience, but it takes far too long to get there.
The backbone of the game’s achievements is Hedgehog, Sega’s proprietary multi-format game engine. The emergence of this technology is undeniably late, with Capcom first deploying their competing Framework system over two years ago. What’s remarkable about Hedgehog is just how well-suited it is to high-definition visuals. Viewed on a conventional television, Sonic Unleashed is a graphically impressive game, generating extremely detailed environments at a furious pace. When moved over to a hi-def display, however, the game is staggering. The engine has obviously been designed for organic texturing, giving a feeling of atmosphere to each level not found in any other game. From the whitewashed walls of the Greek opening stage to mist-covered Chinese foothills, each area feels not only unique but alive. It’s a remarkable technical achievement, made all the more so by the absence of mid-level loading. Events outside of the action stages are also sensibly handled, with none of the “pre-mission briefing” loads which crippled the previous game. Hedgehog’s only stumble comes during one of the later stages. Faced with Sonic sprinting full-pelt through a Hawaiian jungle, generating a level of detail not expected until the next generation of consoles, the engine visibly buckles, with slowdown and noticeable frame skipping. The moments when the same stage works more than compensate for these errors through, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that the new team deliberately set out to break Hedgehog, just to establish the limits of the technology…
The hub stages return, but have been radically reconstructed. In Sonic Adventure and Sonic the Hedgehog  the title character was presented with a large map outside of the action stages, forming a city from which the levels could be accessed. Unleashed takes these sections and concentrates them, offering tiny hubs which lead to each of the countries’ entrance stages. The figures that populate the hubs have far more personality than those in the previous titles, and the smaller areas are much more densely packed with activities. Each hub has a real sense of identity, and includes a shop from which many items can be purchased. In Sonic , the shop was simply a means of obtaining new moves, but here the concept is much more fleshed out. Most of the items obtained are fundamentally useless, but do much to differentiate the countries. Food from each region can be bought and either consumed by Sonic for a small experience boost or given to the pudding-crazed Chip. There are also souvenirs of each territory to be bought, a particular source of interest to the Professor…
In addition to this appealing mix of activities, there are missions to be undertaken for many of the world’s inhabitants. There are one hundred of these quests in total, most with no relevance to the main story. Sonic can find himself roped into devising new recipes for a chef or helping an aspiring singer fulfil her dreams just as easily as he’s called in for rescues or robot disposal. What turns these elements from the chores of previous titles to a genuine pleasure is the endearing characterisation which has been added to the citizens of the world. The Asterix-style art direction plays a part, but it’s the affectionate national stereotypes which win over the player. There’s absolutely no obligation to undertake these micro-quests, but it’s hard to resist a cry for help, and the way characters’ tales interline makes for a beguiling experience. The figures the hedgehog encounters refuse to stay in their hometowns, joining Sonic in exploring the planet if it will resolve their particular woes. The sheer charm of the situations elevates the missions from a mere diversion while stuck on the main quest, and enhances the title considerably.
Music is lead by Tomoya Ohtani, the more skilled of the two composers who handled the heavy lifting on the previous title in the series. He’s joined by Sonic Team veteran Fumie Kumatani and Kenichi Tokoi, whose superb score for the otherwise diabolically-poor Sonic & the Secret Rings proved him more than deserving of promotion to the main series. The soundtrack isn’t the series greatest, but is certainly respectable, with several action stages having distinctive and memorable themes. Surprisingly, more effort appears to have been expended on the music for the cities visited. For these most part, these themes are successful, although the Italian BGM is a little too close to tweeness.
Sonic Unleashed is a game that grows in stature the longer it is played. What initially seems a solid but lightweight effort grows to rival Sonic Adventure 2 before the half-way mark is passed. By the conclusion, with Sonic heading for his showdown with Gaia, the title has surpassed even Sonic Adventure, standing as by far the best of the character’s appearances since Sonic 3. There’s a wealth of ideas here, with countless little touches that stick in the memory. Well-judged sight gags in cut-scenes, involving the Werehog’s extendable arms. Bosses faced by Sonic which import the sensibilities of classic “bullet-hell” shoot ‘em ups to great effect. Chip’s making off with the Professor’s ghost busting camera. After Sonic  flopped, Unleashed was released at a mid-level price point, and is currently only £20 in many January sales. At such minimal expense, there’s no reason not to take a high-speed global holiday.
NB- This review refers to the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of the game. The PS2 and Wii titles were outsourced, and differ substantially.