Sonic Unleashed Preview - 10/07/2008

Sonic unleashes his wild side, and no Big the Cat in sight.

Let’s face it, shifting that furry blue hedgehog into a 3D gear just doesn't work. I never fully worked out if the game was trying to be a racer, an action/adventure or just one long quick time event – sort of like a Dragon’s Lair with brightly coloured mammals. As a 2D Mega Drive, Master System or DS platformer, swiftly vaunting across flat planes over and through the blurred outlines of enemies and spike pits is a fine concept. That 2005’s Sonic Rush on the DS garnered about as much critical acclaim as any of Sega’s offerings through the early 90’s can only show that the publisher and their in-house developer, Sonic Team, haven’t lost it. But you need only look to their recent trips to Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii-land to see that giving Sonic 360 degrees of movement opens up about that many problems to trip up on - namely a less-than-functional camera, unresponsive controls and a multitude of tiresome diversions. Excuse us if we're not overly optimistic about this one.

However, we'll try and overlook Sonic Teams numerous false-dawns and focus on the positive, and be it paper (or LCD screen) they look positive from any angle. Firstly, the game appears to exude a back-to-basics charm. Gone are the on-rails sections from the Wii's Sonic and the Secret Rings; gone are the semi-automatics and vehicle bits from Shadow the Hedgehog and gone, bloody thankfully, are the Sonic Heroes-style 3-man control system (who the hell commissioned that tosser Big the Cat anyway?). In comes neat 2D sections and an impressive new graphics engine. Trust us, the game looks better in motion than it does here. Although it's still unclear at this early stage just what will be waiting for us as we come speeding round the next corner in our hedgehog-sized white high-tops, at the moment the developers are looking increasingly like they've actually listened to the consumer and promised nothin' but Sonic.

The whole ethos for the game seems to be in the right direction.

Wait, rewind, I've got two words for you: Werehog. If you were wondering where the ‘Unleashed’ in the title comes from, this is it. It seems yet again Sega’s in-house team lacked the confidence to deliver a pure sonic experience, and here that indecision is manifested in a feature that could either enrich or dilute our experience. You see, Dr Eggman is back and he’s brought a powerful new ray with him – a ray that awakens an ancient beast, shatters the planet into seven highly collectable pieces and alters Sonic’s physical state. So although Sonic is all blue and accounted for by day, at night our character transforms into a devious Werehog, opening up ‘fearsome new abilities’. These include a Bionic Commando-like ability to swing and grapple through the scenery and an emo-spidey-like penchant for putting just a tad more hurt on his foes with powerful new moves. Even if this nocturnal turn does pay off and gives the platforming action added depth, just like other Sonic titles with features fans didn't ask for, it still might feel a little blasphemous to call the game anything other than Sonic 0.5.

If that wasn’t enough to put in peril your hopes that there may finally be a Sonic game worthy of the Sonic name, Sega have also announced there will be a central hub world where you can wander around and freely engage with the locals. There was not a ‘hub world’ in Sonic 1 and there were no ‘locals’ in Sonic 2, and arguably it is exactly these kind of unnecessary additions that detract from what should be the main focus of the game – going really really fast. However, this overworld can be completely ignored if the player chooses, though this is at the expense of unlocking side quests.

The art style may bring back fond memories of Sega's hardware era.

From a technical standpoint, the footage and screenshots we've seen demonstrate the best cases of scenery, lighting and motion yet seen in a Sonic game. Motion blur adds a convincing sense of speed to the action, and the Tiki Village, Harbour Town and Forest stages, while hardly original (the franchise's classic identity is, after all, what seems to have been misplaced since the golden age) all look impressive. To boot, all 3 of the levels we've seen not only demonstrate some sort of 2D section - which promises a reassuring and retro nod for fans of the series- but we’re told that the infamous sequences where you control Sonic as he races towards the screen in an attempt to outrun 18-wheelers/Orca whales/Michael Moores, are to return (probably with something even bigger and fatter to outrun).

The 360-worthy graphics combined with turns of purely Sonic gameplay have us sweating speedy blue droplets. The Werehog feature? Not so much. Let's hope the developers don't lose their nerve and give the fans what they truly deserve - and not another Big the Cat. That tosser.

- Ben P Griffin



Sonic Team