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Review: Sonic Unleashed

Russ Pitts | 17 Dec 2008 13:00
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If you ever played a Sonic the Hedgehog game prior to the turn of the last century, then you're one of the special breed that still understands why anyone should care. Looking back on those early entries in the series, I have to assume that Sonic was like the only woman left alive on the deserted tropical island after the plane crash. Under normal circumstances you may not have bothered even saying hello, but compared to the other available options, she's a 10.

When Sonic first hit the scene, there were no fast games. Most games plodded along like hippos wearing concrete sneakers, every jump requiring a herculean effort of the archaic code just to keep up with the tiny, eight-pixel sprite of a main character. Sonic, with his nonchalant speed and audacious - albeit on-rails - acrobatics, blew everybody else out of the water. He offered something new, fun, different and exciting - once. And then, as they say, things started to fall apart.

Since then, Sonic has been an embarrassment. Playing Sonic games lately has been like taking Island Girl home and having to explain to your friends why she's actually a good catch. You wonder how the Sonic Team can stand to be called that. Every day in their "Sonic Team" office, adorned with "Sonic Team" logos and stationary, surrounded by life-sized Sonic cut-outs and sullen staff members wearing "Sonic Team" merchandise must be a struggle against the urge to explore suicidal tendencies using dull plastic kitchenware and staplers.

You still see the old magic, in brief flashes, a hint of the old Sonic spark in games like Secret Rings, where, if you squint, all of the vanities and poor decision making of a developer gone off the rails fall away and the core of the solid, simple and satisfying Sonic experience come to the fore. Then, like a glimmer of wisdom in the eyes of a child, it's gone and you're left wondering where your $60 went and if it's not too late to get it back.

And yet, to the Sonic fan, there's still hope buried deep in our cold, maligned hearts that the next game will be better. That the Team will eventually come to their senses and learn from the ever-growing list of mistakes and devote the next title entirely to what works. That the next game will finally be The One that brings back the old spark without catching itself on fire and rolling around in gasoline.

Sonic Unleashed is not that game.

I'm struggling with just what, exactly, to call Sonic Unleashed. It does contain absolutely brilliant examples of classic Sonic gameplay updated on a 3D next-gen platform. You won't be able to jump right into those segments of the game, though. In fact, the first 30-45 minutes of the game consist of one incredibly long, badly written, horrendously acted cinematic setting up the ridiculous premise of the game.

In short, Sonic finally catches up to his arch nemesis Egg Man (AKA Dr. Robotnik). Alas, The Egg Man has a trick up his sleeve which turns Sonic into a strange half-hedgehog / half-wolf character who, sadly, isn't fast, but gets to beat things to a bloody pulp (and collect rings).

By the time the cinematic ends you'll most likely be ready to pull your eyeballs out of their sockets, but if you make it through with eyeballs intact, you're still not going to get to enjoy the good parts of the game. In fact, it's not exactly clear what those are, although the brief, transient moments when you get to play as daylight Sonic, the original Sonic, the Sonic who dashes across screens of glittering, exotic scenery chasing rings, leaping off jump pads and bouncing off those clever, little trampolines embossed with stars are excellent candidates.

Unfortunately, Sonic Unleashed, like every Sonic game for the past decade, suffers from severe schizophrenia. It's as if simply making a good game based on tried-and-true techniques isn't good enough for the long-suffering developers at Sonic Team. It's as if they're convinced that if they simply cram enough half-assed leftovers cobbled together from failed attempts at copying other successful games into one package, they'll achieve some sort of critical mass.

Instead, the end result reminds me of an old axiom about mixing paint. True Believers or first-year art students may tell you that all colors combined into one make black. In reality, they make brown. A disgusting, bodily-waste-inspired shade of brown. And that, dear readers, is all I can think of when playing Sonic Unleashed.

In addition to the truly brilliant and fun moments, there's an endless parade of sub-par half-assed experiences that are too abysmal to even mention. The werewolf bits suck, the mindless exploration of meaningless adventure worlds suck and the confusing RPG skill-selection elements suck. In fact, very little of this game doesn't suck, and those bits are so few and far between I can't even recommend you bother.

In short, Sonic Unleashed is an ambitious game from a struggling developer desperately looking to bring new life to its most cherished franchise. Perhaps someday they'll make that work, but today isn't that day.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Russ Pitts thinks his 30 seconds of pretending to be Sonic is better than all of the most recent Sonic games combined. Cheaper, too.

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