Thursday, 18 December 2008

Sonic Unleashed: why the hate?

Sonic UnleashedImage via Wikipedia

Rarely have I seen a game so undeserving of the beating it's been getting, from reviewers and players alike (including from people whose opinion I usually share). So although I know it doesn't mean much, I decided to give my own feedback on Sonic Unleashed, if only to tip the scales ever so slightly back in balance.

Disclaimer: I am not a Sonic fan. I've never owned a Sega console (I've always been a Nintendo guy, even at the time of the Nintendo-Sega wars), although I did play the original Sonic the Hedgehog casually at my cousin's, who did own a Mega Drive (that's how the Sega Genesis was called in Europe), as well as the 8-bit version of the same game on my sister's Game Gear. They were both OK as games go, but that's about all I felt about them. They were OK platformers with a speed gimmick, and that was about it. As a result, I completely missed Sonic's transition to 3D (although I have enough anecdotal evidence to agree with the common opinion that the 3D Sonic games have mostly been terrible), and the very first Sonic game I ever bought was Sonic and the Secret Rings, which I actually enjoyed despite some flaws that spoiled the replayability of the game for me (let's just say that some of the missions were just not fun, and made earning medals a chore I simply decided to skip). So when Sonic Unleashed was announced, I was prudent yet interested, and eventually previews and game footage convinced me it was worth the risk. I actually bought the game for the Wii upon release, and this is the version I will refer to in this post.

So, what do I think about the game, now that I have had a chance to play it? (I actually played most of it, although I haven't seen the ending yet) In short, I like it. I like it very much. I'm having a blast playing it, far more than when I was playing Sonic and the Secret Rings. The game has lots of great parts:

  • The day stages are just fantastic, far better than what Sonic and the Secret Rings provided. The 2D sections in those stages are particularly fun.
  • The fighting in the night stages feels very good. I don't care what reviewers and players are saying about what a Sonic game should or shouldn't be about. There is just something exhilarating in using the Wii-remote and Nunchuck to punch your opponents silly and deliver bigger and bigger combos. The other motion-based actions also feel good and immersive.
  • The difficulty curve is nearly perfect. My main gripe with Secret Rings is that some of the missions were just impossibly difficult, frustrating, and sometimes felt even unfair. It was also far too difficult to get the medals necessary to unlock secrets and new stages. Sonic Unleashed is far better in that respect. Getting all the secrets and unlocking all the stages is far from an easy task, but it is not brutal in its difficulty curve, and there's no point where you feel that the game is playing dirty by providing you with cheap tricks and impossible challenges. I'm still far from getting perfect scores in the stages I've played, but at no time did I ever blame the game itself for this. In each and every case, the only one I could blame was myself and my lack of skill.
  • The music is gorgeous. The rock songs of Secret Rings just didn't feel appropriate, and going back to an instrumental style was just the right thing to do. The music really fits the various environments and complements the action nicely.
  • The graphics are lovely. The art style is very good, and the frame rate is smooth and solid, which is very important in the day stages. The camera works very well in the day stages as well.

Of course, the game is hardly perfect, and I have a few gripes with it:

  • The balance between day and night stages feels skewed. Although the number of stages is approximately equal, and their sizes are similar, the focus of the day stages on speed, and of the night stages on fighting and exploration means that one spends most of their time in the night stages. It makes the experience feel unbalanced, even though the night stages are fun as well. The great amount of replayability of the day stages (which all have multiple tracks and secret shortcuts) does somewhat make up for it, but Sega could have made the balance in player experience better by providing a few more day stages.
  • The menu-based hub worlds are a pointless waste of time that breaks the flow of the game (more than the so-called slow night stages). Even though reviews of the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game criticise the hub worlds they have as well, I still feel that 3D hub worlds would have benefited the Wii version. Those at least have some added value, unlike the menu-based thing that we got stuck with.
  • The camera in the night stages sometimes creates awkward moments. I remember a case where I had to quickly walk through a very thin bridge, but was hindered by the camera choosing to look at the scene from a weird angle, and constantly moving, making it very difficult for me to direct Sonic well. I've also had a few times during fighting sequences where the camera position made it very difficult for me to align with the opponents and get my punches to hit them.
  • Related to the previous point, the fighting in the night stages could have benefited from a form of Z-targeting. Maybe not full-fledged Z-targeting, but at least have Sonic follow its opponent during combos, even if that opponent is knocked on the side rather than in front of him, or have something like Ōkami's combat system, where Amaterasu will hit the nearest opponent if he is within range, even if alignment between them is not perfect. Sonic's Werehog form is supposed to have stretchy arms. Why should they only be able to stretch in front of him? As the combat system of Sonic Unleashed stands, Sonic will more often than not flail his arms in the air with nothing to catch his blows, simply because your weren't perfectly aligned with your opponent, or simply because Sonic completely passed through a group of enemies during a combo and left them all behind.

So Sonic Unleashed is hardly a perfect game, and it doesn't hold up to a chef-d'oeuvre like Super Mario Galaxy (but then, in my opinion the original 16-bit Sonic games don't hold a candle to the various 2D Super Mario games either). But does it mean that it's a bad game that deserves the treatment it's received so far? Of course not! Sonic Unleashed is a very good game, it's fun, has lots of replayability value, and looks extremely good. Its defaults are minor, and if people would stop with their prejudice that Sonic is only supposed to be about speed (those people would do well to replay the original games. All those platforming sequences and underwater sequences, were they about speed?), they would see that the night stages are actually enjoyable platforming/brawling sequences, and in no way spoil the game experience.

So relax, don't take it all so seriously. You have here a good game with various kinds of fun gameplay, a good-looking environment, great music, and good replayability. Enjoy it, rather than nitpicking about what it should or shouldn't be about. As for me, I will just keep playing the game, enjoying myself in the process, while keeping an eye at the horizon, where Sonic looms, a sword in his hand. What? Could Sonic Unleashed have made me a Sonic fan where the original games failed?

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