Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sonic Unleashed

As most should know, I am a huge Sonic fan.  I like to pride myself in having a fairly vast knowledge of him and his games (though I admit I've become a bit rusty over the months).  When I first read about Sonic Unleashed, I was overjoyed.  I remember reading in article in Play magazine, and the screenshots were quite amazing.  Could this be Sonic's revival?

Then I was introduced to Sonic the Werehog.  Really Sega (or rather, Sonic Team), what compels you to stick to gimmicks when it comes to Sonic games.  The reviews have said already;  this would have been an excellent game without the Werehog.

But anyway, I wanted to play this game anyway, for the daytime levels.  Indeed, it's truly a mixed bag.

Sonic Unleashed opens with Eggman having a good laugh as his huge space fleet soars over the earth.  A far off explosion draws his attention, and..why, it's none other than the blue blur himself!  After Sonic proves he's more than a match for any number of Eggman's grunt robots, the mad scientist goes out to fight in his mech.  He succeeds in capturing Sonic, only for the little guy to go Super and destroy his ride.  He makes a break for it, pursued closely by Super Sonic, running out to a floating structure on the outskirts of his fleet.  Seeming defeated, Eggman feigns remorse, and succeeds in fooling Super Sonic into fueling his Chaos Cannon.  The cannon rips the Chaos Emeralds from Sonic's body and corrupts them, and its beam pierces the Earth below, splitting it into pieces, prematurely releasing Dark Gaia from the planet's core.  These happenings apparently corrupt Sonic as well, as he develops lycanthropy, causing him to turn into a burly werehog at night.

Eggman ejects Sonic the Werehog into space, and he crash lands with a hard thud, apparently right on top of another little guy, later named Chip.  Chip has lost his memory (apparently because Sonic fell on him), and doesn't seem to have anything better to do at the moment, so he accompanies Sonic, with the hope that he'll regain his memory.  Thus the two set out to restore the Chaos Emeralds, and in turn restore the planet to its original state.

As its slogan "The difference is night and day" might imply, Sonic Unleashed is split into two types of stages:  daytime and nighttime stages.  During the day you'll play as Sonic, zipping through stages at lightning speed and bashing aside Eggman's robots.  During the night, he transforms into Sonic the Werehog, and the stages become much more combat-heavy, and focused on platforming gameplay.  To progress through the story, you'll need to visit the temple of each locale and restore its associated Chaos Emerald, which will then push that continent back into place.  This is done by defeating the boss guarding that area; it's either a Dark Gaia beast that you'll take on as Sonic the Werehog, or a huge Eggman robot you'll fight as Sonic the Hedgehog.  Stages are unlocked by gathering Sun or Moon medals to level up your respective Sun or Moon level.  For example, to access a level 4 Daytime stage, you'll need to have collected enough Sun medals to reach Sun level 4.  The same goes for Nighttime stages and Moon medals.  Generally, there are significantly more Sun medals in Nighttime stages, and many more Moon medals in Daytime stages, often forcing you to replay Nighttime stages to unlock more Dayttime stages, and vice versa.

I'll start with the Daytime stages, obviously the better part of the package here.  Anyone who's played any regular Sonic game will know what to do in a Daytime stage;  just reach the end (or the goal) as quickly as possible, and preferrably with as much style as possible.  The key to getting an S rank in a daytime stage is simply to finish the stage as fast as possible.  Really, there's not a lot to be explained.  There are some elements tossed in that make things interesting though.  You have a couple abilities at your disposal, and more to be unlocked.  Most noticeable is the Sonic Boost, which you will be familiar with if you've played Sonic Rush.  Collecting rings boosts your Ring Energy meter.  As long as there's juice in that meter, at any time you can press square to blast forward at top speed, and hold it down for as long as you like.  While boosting, any enemies you hit will be instantly rammed forward and destroyed, provided they aren't protected by a barrier or something.  With Sonic Boost you can instantly get to top speed from a stationary position.  You also have the Quick Step, which let's you instantly side step any objects or walls that are coming up too fast to manually evade.  Another starting ability is Drift, which I've found to be very difficult to master.  By either using L2 or R2 or holding circle while trying to make a turn, Sonic will attempt to drift around it, with little to no sacrifice in speed.  Depending on how fast you are going, how early you start drifting, and how sharp the turn, you will either glide fantastically around the turn and keep going, or go sliding right off the edge or into a wall, which often proves fatal.  Fortunately, I haven't encountered too many areas that make any use of the drift function.  At any time while running you can also hold circle to slide under low clearance barriers with very little loss in speed.  Boost panels and springs are also present, and occasionally you'll hit a scripted jump which slows down time and presents you with a random button combination to press.  Complete it in time, and Sonic will do a trick and get extra lift, possibly flying through a hidden item or making it onto a shortcut (of which there are usually quite a few).  As Sonic Team promised, the game switches seamlessly (and commonly) between side scrolling and 3rd person view.  It works wonderfully, and the camera never posed a problem.

Sonic also gains a number of abilities during this adventure.  Wall jump of course gives him the ability to wall jump like Mario.  Air Boosts unlocks the ability to use Sonic Boost in mid air, allowing you jump to faraway places.  Lightspeed dash (You will be familiar with this if you've played Sonic adventure 2) let's you use a path of rings to travel at lightspeed, reaching otherwise unreachable areas.  Those are just some of them.

The graphics during the daytime and CG sequences are also phenomenal.  Despite all the activity often going on, the framerate hardly ever dips even slightly.  The Hedgehog engine performs incredibly well, especially during the hub town stages, which are delightfully sunny and cheerful.  The character models are also superb.

Next are the Nighttime stages.  Now, I haven't played such high profile hack and slash games as God of War, but I know a tacked on concept when I see one, and the Werehog concept is most definitely tacked on.  Don't get me wrong;  Sonic the Werehog isn't such a terrible fellow.  He's just completely unnecessary, and feels totally out of place.  Sonic's speed is the reason he's so popular today.  Back in the 2d era, it was the sense of exhilaration that his side-scrollers provided compared to Mario's slow platforming that excited people.  Sonic the Werehog is exactly the kind of slow paced gameplay that showed how cool in comparison Sonic the Hedgehog's fast and zippy gameplay was.

As I mentioned before, Nighttime stages consist basically of two things: combat and platforming.  When you're not mindlessly beating up fragments of Dark Gaia GoW style, you are swinging from poles, traversing precarious ledges, and jumping from platform to platform.  Smashing up enemies and environmental objects nets you energy that you can use to charge your Unleashed bar.  When filled sufficiently, you'll be able to press R1 to become temporarily invincible and do significantly more damage.  None of this is a horrible experience, and might have made for a decent standalone game.  The combat is mildly fun, with some satisfying combos here and there, and some of the platforming is actually pretty fun.  But it just doesn't feel right in a Sonic game, and I ultimately can't help feeling repulsed by it, to be frank.

The other thing is, for some reason the Hedgehog Engine sorta falls apart during the Nighttime stages.  The framerate dips noticeably on a frequent basis, Sonic will commonly go through walls in the middle of a combo, and it just looks like the game is having trouble keeping up with your actions (strange, since it has no trouble keeping up with Sonic the Hedgehog).  Indeed, during the night, the planet might not be the only broken thing here.  Graphical quality also takes a huge dip too, with effects looking not unlike the sort of stuff I used to see in the original Unreal Tournament that came out in 1999.  Okay, maybe not that bad, but it's bad in comparison to the Daytime stages.

Each enemy you defeat in either the Daytime or Nighttime stages will drop EXP you can pick up.  EXP can then be used to further various parameters of either regular Sonic or the Werehog.  Sonic the Hedgehog has only two parameters;  Speed and Ring Energy.  Neither of them are especially useful in my opinion, though it is handy to have extra Ring Energy for certain boss battles.  Sonic the Werehog has several parameters, though.  Among them, there's Combat (unlocks new combos and abilities), Life (increases your life bar), Strength (improves how much damage you do), and Unleash (increases your Unleashed bar).

One final improved aspect of Sonic Unleashed is the music.  The series has (for the time being, at least) finally abandoned rock music and instead uses a very pleasant orchestral score.  Actually, I think most of the music is very catchy, especially the BGM for the opening scene.

Overall, the slogan is pretty much spot on, I guess.  On one hand, you have an excellent experience waiting for you in the daytime stages, but only if you're ready to slog through the nighttime stages as well.  It's easy to see that Sega made a genuine effort here, but it unfortunately fell short of the mark.  A 7.5/10.

--Another Take--

I beat the game today, and I have a couple more things to say.  First, what the hell.  Eggmanland is brutally difficult compared to the rest of the game.  Beware of the Eggmanland level guys, it's no joke.  You'll play as both the Hedgehog and the Werehog in it.  It might also not be a bad idea to take a moment to meditate before you start, to get that extra mental fortitude.  Because this level is LONG.  It's longer than any Werehog level.  About 15-20 minutes in you'll be wondering when the hell you'll reach the end.  Also, I suggest you rid yourself of that "LET'S GOGOGO FASTER" mentality you'll likely have developed playing as Sonic the Hedgehog.  You'll likely die if you use Sonic Boost at all here.  Unless you have superhuman reflexes.

Seriously, this level is a step above all others.  In the Hedgehog parts, there are numerous paths and forks, paths that lead to more forks, which lead to another fork.  I'm sure they all lead to the same destination, but it can be overwhelming.  In the Werehog levels, enemy robots will swarm you (not that they didn't before;  but powerups and rings are more scarce), and it gets really annoying.  Basically, all the challenges of the other levels are here and multiplied.  There's even a bobsledding part like in Holoska, except this time there's spikes, laser beams, and many more chasms to fall into.  And guess what?  Hate to spoil it, but you need to know.  At the end of the level, you get to face 3 club toting bosses (remember that big dude you first fought in Apatos to save Tails?).  First one's easy, than you run into the next chamber and bam!  Two of them clambering around.  Yeah, you fight two of them.  This wouldn't be such a big deal if there weren't also healing mages around that immediately respawn if you kill them.  A high Strength stat is gonna be helpful here (as well as high Life and Shield, and even Unleashed), so you can deal enough damage to finish them with a QTE before the mages can help out.  And a tip: learn to block.  If you get knocked down by a shockwave, it's likely you'll be down for quite a while, as these guys spam the heck out of that move.

Go in to Eggmanland with no less than 20 lives.  You'll do that and the final boss back to back, so the extra endurance will come in handy.

Also, it wasn't until, bored out of my mind watching the credits, that I experimented with the XMB and found out that this game supports custom soundtracks.  The ingame soundtrack is good, like I already said, but do keep in mind that this DOES support custom soundtracks, so if you've got music on your Ps3, you can listen to it while playing this.