A while ago, when Sonic Unleashed was first announced, I had a chat with a buddy at Sega. He warned me… no, to be fair, he advised me, that the new Sonic game would be exactly what the gamers wanted, but Sega was expecting an inevitable backlash from the critics regarding the Werehog levels. I kept this in mind when playing, as he made a good point that Sonic Unleashed is designed with the intention of adding new scope to the Hedgehog’s repertoire. We might think we want lots of fast running and jumping and exploring – retro style – but the series also needs to evolve, and that means new features.
Anyway, now it’s come time to write the review, I find myself straining at the leash to rubbish this game because of the awful Werehog levels. But you’re dear to me, reader, and regardless of Sega’s fine intentions when designing a new way to make Sonic appeal to the modern gamer, the leash just broke and I’m obliged to report that the Werehog levels are nothing short of dire.
The truth is it’s quite easy to forgive Sonic Unleashed, but forgetting is probably a bit trickier. You see, the difficulty Sonic’s got to overcome is several years of lacklustre games – when we look back at his games, his lineage isn’t actually all that strong. The Hog is still coasting on the success of the original Mega Drive game (with the odd moment of glory relived in titles like Sonic R on the Saturn, perhaps) and he’s never really come to terms with the world of 3D gaming.
Every time a new Sonic title comes out it proclaims to be the much fabled return to form – recapturing the speed and dynamism we remember so fondly from the summer of 1991. But none deliver on it. Indeed, it’s become something of an unwelcome Sega cliché, and here, once again, we’re told that Sonic is back. The good news? A small crumb of truth has fallen from that vast, clichéd table.
But more on that in a moment. Those god-damned Chaos Emeralds are also back, and turning Sonic’s world upside down all over again (and again, and again). The Eggman has nabbed ‘em and for unexplained reasons he’s used them to smash the planet into bits – creating an evil aura around these crumbling pieces of space debris called the Dark Gaia. Equally unexplained is the fact that this Dark Gaia thing transforms our favourite quick-footed mammal into a lumbering Werehog at night. To be honest, we easily accept the premise of a super-sonic hedgehog in red pumps, so it shouldn’t be a giant leap of faith accepting Sonic Unleashed’s concept either – but somehow it is.
By day you travel as standard Sonic; running, jumping and loop-the-looping around a variety of famous world locations – each one included to represent a fragment of shattered Earth for you to heal by running around it really quick. As the light fades, Sonic transforms into the Werehog that Sega asked us to go easy on. This alternate Sonic not only transforms the hedgehog, but also the gameplay style – swapping from an explorative racing style to a button mashing fighter.
With long, rubber, flailing limbs and a camera that looks like it’s been strapped to a drunken humming bird, there are quite a few combo upgrades for the Werehog’s fighting abilities, though none are as effective as simply mashing the strong attack button repeatedly. In many respects it was probably worth a shot – adding another new style to Sonic in an attempt to restore the glory days, and at least Sega can scrub another one off the list as a failure.
The Werehog fights feel like a punishment for getting through the usual Sonic racing sections, and their regular appearance alone is enough to stop you playing Sonic Unleashed. Which is a shame, as it does actually have moments when – perhaps by accident or good design – we see a glimmer of classic Sonic rebooted and revitalised for the new generation of consoles.
Much of the racing, when shown from an over-the-shoulder perspective, is the same as all the others we’ve seen this decade, and none of them ever worked. Why Sega thought this time would be different is anyone’s guess, and the hedgehog’s speed continues to prove to be a hindrance, rather than a benefit or enjoyable gameplay feature. Overshooting the jumps and running face-first into all manner of obstacles isn’t any fun whatsoever, and navigating the impossible environments boils down to luck and random button presses.
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Every so often we revert to a side-on view, however, and for a few wonderful moments, Sonic Unleashed shines like a spiky blue star. In its desperation to re-enthuse the gaming populace about its fallen mascot, Sega has stumbled upon the new Sonic game we do actually want. The crisp, clean visuals and beautiful level designs (when viewed from this proper Sonic perspective) present a reimagining of the Mega Drive classic – pin sharp in its HD glory and with the visual effects and extravagant level designs that the gamers of 1991 could only dream about.
All too soon, it’s over, and you’re punished for that brief moment of unauthorised elation by more Werehog tedium. It’s inaccurate to say that Sonic Unleashed is so near, yet so far. It’s really not all that near, but if we could (please. Pretty please with sugar on top!) have those side-on ultra-Sonic sprint sections extracted and put on XBLA, Sega and it’s abused mascot might just redeem themselves.
Kill the Werehog.