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Sonic Unleashed: The Non-Reactionary Review (from an old Sonic fan)

I really didn't think it was a good idea to buy this game, originally.

At the time of the release of Sonic Unleashed, there was also Prince of Persia, and that game was already getting a lot of accolades and praise even before coming out to market.

The upcoming Sonic Unleashed, on the other hand, was usually met by questions like "Since the last next-gen Sonic game was no good, how can this be any different?", and "Why did they change the gameplay mechanic with Sonic's 'Werehog' form?"

Granted, I'll be honest and straightforward with you here---I really had my doubts and I didn't expect much. As a player completely disappointed by the first next-generation Sonic game, Sonic the Hedgehog (2006), I didn't think Sega/Sonic Team was even CAPABLE of making good games for today's latest consoles. I just thought they could never figure out the hardware. The only team that I thought could make good games for next-gen at Sega was AM2, and they proved that with Virtua Fighter 5, which was certainly a great game.

So when my wife got the game, I loaded it up with not that much degree of optimism. Initially we didn't install the game so, at the very start you see that "Now Loading" screen...and yes, my doubts started creeping in (Sonic 2006 had really bad loading times).

The first cutscene plays. It's the same as the cutscene in the trailer, but longer, and the framerate is much smoother. Yes, it's a cutscene, and that should have no bearing on the game itself; but it's a really good cutscene, and a very long one, at that. I already mentioned that the framerate for this cutscene felt much smoother than the trailer, and the CG they used is quite sharp and entertaining to watch. I thought it was quite competitive with the stuff that Pixar releases every so often in theaters.

After the CG cutscene, the game traverses to a real-time cutscene. I was impressed by the Hedgehog Engine's ability to render real-time cinematics smoothly and with ease. Yes, the characters are cute and some might argue that the next scene seems groan-worthy because of the dialogue, but I was more impressed by the technology that Sega/Sonic Team had created. The scene itself and the animation of the characters is superb; arguably you could put it beside Capcom's on work on their MT Framework Game Engine (seen in Devil May Cry 4, Street Fighter IV, Resident Evil 5 and Dead Rising) and they will compare favorably. The only thing going against Sonic Unleashed is the fact that its graphics are less detailed than more realistic games....but then, this is Sonic we're talking about. He doesn't have to be realistic. Cartoony and cute is the whole point, and in that regard, the render of Sonic and his world just works.

And I was all the more surprised to see that that level of quality in the first real-time cinematic extends to the gameplay portions. Here we have beautifully rendered cartoon-style artwork rendered all around you. The worlds when you run around as Sonic are surprisingly accessible and not as linear as I expected. I'm speaking about the 2D/3D running levels that are usually showcased in the trailers. I was really expecting that you could play these parts by just pressing UP or RIGHT on your controller and sitting there on your chair and waiting for the whole level to whizz by. Which was just not true. Sonic's running levels will have you avoiding obstacles, finding alternate paths, and making crazy leaps of faith (which, if not executed right, will have you fall into bottomless pits---a staple of platforming games and not something that should be unexpected). All of this while going at breakneck speed. The first time you see exactly how fast Sonic can go, it will leave your jaw wide open. What's amazing is that the Hedgehog Engine never skips a beat; it runs at a smooth 60FPS even with everything that's going on around you while you're running.

Before you get to the running parts, the game has a hub world which you can explore or ignore completely. There are little sidequests here, RPG style; since you can upgrade Sonic you can opt to do these quests and get some little extras out of the game. Or, you can just ignore the hub world completely and go straight to the area for selecting levels. In either case, I noticed the hub worlds aren't too big to become a hindrance unless you're an extremely impatient gamer. They're relatively small and it's easy to find your way in them. Also, the people who inhabit the hub worlds have very simple dialogue, so you won't be traversing through several pages of dissertations when you talk to them. Some of them will say inane, unnecessary things (a staple of JRPGs), while others do say stuff that will occasionally make you smile. Overall, the RPG side of Sonic Unleashed is lightly implemented, and rightly so; it doesn't interfere with the core mechanic, and what it does do is it adds some well needed variety to the gameplay.

And now, we go to the most controversial part of the game---the Werehog parts. These sections were an exercise by SEGA in introducing some contrast to the game. I suppose they were worried that the running sections may lose their appeal at some point, so they probably put these in to add some degree of variety to the game. We all know how the gaming press reacted to this part of the game, so without putting that into consideration, here's what I thought when I first saw the Werehog sections in the game:

(Note: I haven't had time to take any photos in Werehog mode; will add those later)

Before playing the game, this was the part I was most worried about. Sonic is all about running and jumping and avoiding obstacles in the fastest possible manner. The Werehog bits, in the game videos, just seemed so slow and different from the rest of the game. Actually playing these parts of the game, my doubts slowly disappeared. The Werehog levels are platforming heavy, with some doses of combat thrown in. What wasn't apparent right away was the ability to level up your Werehog. Without leveling up, the combat can seem repetitive because your Werehog can only do so many types of attacks with his default level. As you level up, more attacks are introduced, and you can be more creative with how you take out enemies. Leveling up is crucial for defeating boss enemies, and there are some regular enemies which are harder to dispatch than others. The control scheme for the Werehog during the combat sections are well implemented. I never found any trouble doing any of the different set combos your Werehog has. And there's a wide variety of attacks for your Werehog, which you can easily mix up to have fun with as you go along.

As for the platforming bits, I'll be honest: they were initially quite hard, because it seemed that the targeting reticle for the Werehog's GRAB only appeared on screen for a slight split second. This made my initial playthrough of some Werehog levels very difficult. Over time I got used to the difficulty but it was something that did bother me initially.

Later on, I learned by going online that the best way to use the Werehog's GRAB ability was to HOLD B while you're flying through the air instead of TAPPING B when you see the targeting reticle. This made the platforming bits a lot easier, and the game became a lot more fun. It's something that definitely isn't obvious the first time you play the game; but with resources like online gaming forums, one can easily find out about this remedy for the platforming parts of the Werehog levels.

So, at this stage, I can't really say that much negative about the Werehog levels, either. They might initially be hard but, I noticed that the game places 1UPs near portions where they knew that many players would fall to their deaths. This reduces the frustration factor since it reduces the need to restart the level when you run out of lives. The game uses a design philosophy of setting the camera to give you the best viewing angle on the level design, but occasionally it gets in the way of your view of a particular jump. In some cases, the camera makes some jumps feel quite scary, because there's a lot of danger involved (it seems easy to just fall and start over unless you're really careful). But instead of finding frustration with these segments, I found satisfaction; after doing over a segment or two where I kept on falling in the bottomless pit, eventually I found myself figuring things out, and some of those moments were quite memorable. It's just classic platforming design for the next generation of systems. Most of the older games were like this, but they were more stiff with the penalties; you only get a few lives and, in many of the older games, you don't even get continues. With Sonic Unleashed, you get a lot of lives to start with, and each time you die you just start over from the level select area.

Sonic's Werehog levels don't offer the thrill of speed, but they do bring traditional platforming elements which are enjoyable and satisfying to play. Once you get over the initial difficulty, it can be entertaining; the Werehog levels offer a different kind of platforming experience from the Sonic levels, and in a way, it makes Sonic Unleashed feel like two great games in one package. I could always buy one of those really old, very difficult, classic platformers on Xbox Live Arcade---but why do that when I could buy something that offers a more polished, and newer platforming experience? This game competes quite well with many of the offerings on XBL Arcade.

Because of the 'hub world' design of the game, you could just play one level per day (if you've got a busy working schedule). Perhaps a gamer with a lot of time on his hands could finish this game quickly, but I'm not really sure about that yet. Because some parts of the game, as Sonic and as the Werehog, take a lot of patience, and, to some degree, require you to think. For instance, in the Sonic levels, you are given a lot of branching paths and some are easier than others. In later levels, you'll find yourself thinking of the fastest path to clear a level, and because of the number of obstacles, it becomes an exercise in reacting fast and thinking ahead. For the Werehog levels, the challenge is to find the fastest way to deal with enemies with your existing repertoire of attacks, and to get through the platforming bits without any trouble and in the fastest manner possible. At the end of each level, the game rates your performance. I've noticed I usually get a lot of D or E ratings with the levels in the middle of the game. Getting those ratings encourages you to play the levels again; and, since most of the levels are well-designed, I'm looking forward to playing them all over again just to get the coveted S ranking on each level!

Another thing which stood out for me in Sonic Unleashed is how bug-free it is. In the Sonic levels, I haven't experienced any slowdown or framerate issues at all. What's even more amazing is that I didn't find any bugs despite the fact that most of the Sonic levels are so large and expansive. I was expecting to find some weird physics bugs like in Sonic 2006, but apparently Sonic Team/Sega did their homework this time. As for the Werehog levels, there is some slight framerate stutter in levels with a lot of enemies, but the game is still controllable, and you won't find any glitches in the graphics like texture pop-in or other bugs. The slowdown in the Werehog bits aren't any different from the kind of slowdown you'll usually see in Western-made games; it never bothered me and I never saw it as an issue that breaks the game. And, at the very least, the slowdown that occurs doesn't happen as often as it does in most Western-made games.

Lastly, I love how the game encourages you to play the levels again; it doesn't just do this through the ranking that the game gives you at the end of each level. It also does it by making a lot of the acts optional. Yes, you heard me right. When you play the game, there's a linear progression for the story, which you advance by playing day and night levels alternately. However, in each 'level select area', there are other acts which you can opt to play (or not to play) if you wish. I haven't found all of the unlockable areas in each level select area, but I do admire the design decision to make the other acts 'optional'. It gives you a small degree of freedom to explore each 'country' in the world, so the game as a whole does not have to advance in a linear fashion if you don't want it to. Want to go back to Spagonia to try a different Sonic Day level? You can just go do that anytime you like. You don't have to follow the linear progression of the story if you don't really feel like that when you load up the game. Maybe it's this facet of the game which has caused me to take so much time to finish it.....oops....

....I'll admit one slight misdeed that I have in writing this review. I haven't finished the game. It's Christmas time and I have a lot of deadlines to meet, so I've only been able to devote a little time to playing this game. But at least I'm not writing it after playing just two levels. With over seven out of nine 'countries' already unlocked, I just thought it best to talk about the game now, while it's still relevant and while gamers are still pondering on whether or not to buy this game. Sonic Unleashed offers a good, traditional platforming gaming experience with the really good polish offered by the capabilities of today's next generation systems. I miss this kind of game. I've been playing a lot of the more hardcore fighting, shooting, and racing games for a long while now and I'm really liking the change of pace this game offers. For gamers who are already married with kids, I think this is also a great game that everyone in the family can play and enjoy.

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