Happy Tenth Anniversary Sonic Adventure!
Tuesday, 23rd December 2008, 3:02pm (UTC), 0 Comments
Happy Birthday new-skool Sonic!

Yes, what that hastily put-together banner demonstrates is that today is a day that we can all put aside our XBox 360's (I have to anyway because mine has acquired its first case of the dreaded three rings of death!) and our Wii's and, if we can, dust off our Dreamcasts for a commemorative play of the game that cut Sonic's history in two. Today marks ten years since Sonic Adventure's original Japanese release and thus ten years of this "second generation", or new-skool Sonic, as it were.

After nearly four years with no primary Sonic game since Sonic & Knuckles, the world was beginning to forget about the hedgehog they had loved so much during the Megadrive era. Secondary platformers like Sonic 3D and Knuckles Chaotix couldn't fill the gap, Sonic X-treme fell apart in production and Sonic R tried its hardest but there was a great Sonic drought throughout the Saturn reign. But it was time for a new Sega console and with it, rightfully so, a brand new Sonic that would completely change the face of the series forever. Sonic Adventure was first unveiled to the Japanese public on August 22nd 1998 as the first truly 3D Sonic game. It was squeezed out with the Japanese release of the Dreamcast that Christmas, but polished up for the Western releases towards the end of 1999. Later, it followed its sequel's lead with a Gamecube port in 2003 in the form of Sonic Adventure DX.

The first thing I found striking was the character art. Sonic and company sported coloured eyes, lanky limbs displayed in outrageous poses and drawn and coloured in a simplistic, outlined style. The screenshots of giant worlds such as the jungles of Mystic Ruin and Lost World, and the sky scrapers of Speed Highway were enchanting - to me it looked like the most amazing game ever, and with news that Sonic would actually talk and engage in a complex storyline, it truly felt like a whole new direction for him. One that all games in the series since have extended from at least in some small way, be it the character art style, realistic worlds, 3D movements and moves such as the homing attack and light dash, complex storylines and personalities, vocal music, alternate gameplay modes or RPG style adventuring. It's the origin for all of these concepts just as Sonic 1 was the origin of all of the first generation's ideas and styles.

Although playing Sonic Adventure never really struck quite the same chord with me as it did with many long-time Sonic fans, or in the same way that most of the other primary games have done, I still see it as a collossal cornerstone for the whole of Sonic history simply for the fact that it has influenced absolutely everything since, and set Sonic on a whole new stylised path so radically different from anything beforehand. And so I say Happy Birthday Sonic Adventure, Happy Birthday modern Sonic! You've outlived the first generation both in time and number of games, and for that you should be proud.

It'll still be a long time coming yet (every summer I've been saying that I'm going to start writing about Sonic Adventure but it has yet to materialise), but after Sonic CD, 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, I can't wait to give this game the Zone: 0 treatment.

..Now where the hell did I keep my Dreamcast..?
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Unleashing my Review
Saturday, 6th December 2008, 4:41pm (UTC), 4 Comments
It's taken me a week, but I've managed to boost, button bash, swing, stretch, claw and Quick-Time-Event my way through the XBox 360 version of Sonic Unleashed. I've avoided any other review or opinions of the game whatsoever, so that I can formulate my own verdict, unaffected by whatever anyone else thinks, so I've absolute no idea how well it's gone down. I may go against the majority verdict, either in the Sonic community or the gaming press in general, or I may well be one of many that would argue, despite some flaws, that Sonic Unleashed is among the best in the series.

I won't do the usual Sonic review thing and begin with unnecessary comments on the low quality of past titles. Rather, Sonic has been on a bit of roll over the past year and a bit, starting with the success of Sonic Rush Adventure, followed by the massively well-selling Olympic Games, a popular appearance in Smash Bros Brawl and a successful introduction to the RPG genre in Sonic Chronicles. All this however culminates here, the next big, primary Sonic game, hoping to right the wrongs of Sonic '06.

Now I like to think of myself as a positive and optimistic Sonic fan, and as such I managed to salvage some enjoyment and re-playability out of Sonic '06, but there's no denying even from me that it was a rushed and mistreated game, and one gets the impression that the developers pretty much gave up half way through and just dragged it along, leaving the game with little heart and soul of its own - more an ugly cousin of Sonic Adventure. They may be barking up the wrong tree with the werehog and the button-bashing-enemy-beating stuff, but there's no denying that this time they're really trying to put things right. What you have here is all of Sonic Team's passion and desire to build a polished and complete game that the franchise deserves, and one of the first things you'll notice is that it corrects most of the technical wrongs of the last game. Vast levels full of scenery just keep on going without needing to be broken up into sections, and loading times are never an issue. The kinds of glitches that flew Sonic off into the abyss if you innocently hit a dash panel at the wrong angle, and made you embarrassed to show the game to your friends, are pretty much stamped out and although the framerate can dip from time to time, such occasions are forgettable and don't particularly ruin the action. Fortunately actual slowdown is very nearly non-existent. And crucially, the game has its own unique, humourous charm. It rarely takes itself too seriously, and bottom line, it's fun and frenetic in a way that only Sonic can be.

Exploring the World

I managed to avoid spilling as many beans for myself as usual by ducking and dodging all new info and the ridiculous abundance of movies that Sonic Team forced upon us throughout November, spoiling three levels that didn't need to be spoilt. I hope you did too. But as such I had no idea how these day, night and village stages were all going to be organised, but it works out a little something like this. Eight core levels/countries (then a final, ninth one that I will certainly want to talk about later on), which are accessed via a rotating globe of the shattered world. Each country has a small/small-ish village area where you undertake most of the entirely optional RPG-style nattering, but an additional entrance stage area is where the action takes place, holding portals to the country's stages. In both the village and entrance stage, you can change the time freely, and thereby alternate between hedgehog and werehog, which I think is what that one Sega rep was referring to when he said that you could chop and change between the two in some areas. Time, however, never flows freely - you choose when it's either day or night. The entrance stages are quite open, and often even contain enemies and objects from levels, with different parts accessible to a particular form, changed by hitting an occasional hourglass object.

Although you travel back and forth between continents old and new throughout the course of the game, the order in which you complete the stages is linear, and as such each stage portal within the entrance stage of any country will only open up when the time is right in the story. It's not all day stage, night stage, boss either, sometimes two continents open up simultaneously, and you might do one night stage first, then a day in the other continent, then straight to the other day and back to the other night stage, or vice versa. The object is to restore power to the empty Chaos Emeralds, one by one, by gaining access to a hidden temple in each continent, which is only opened via defeating a boss (either a day or a night one), which is only accessed by collecting both halves of the boss key, acting as the goal of the relevant day and night stages.

A further catch, which extends the playing time of the game's story longer than probably any other platformer of the series, is that each portal to a stage, has a number, 1-7 on it, corresponding to the level at which your sun/moon medals need to be at. Wait.. what? Sun and moon medals are scattered throughout the action stages and villages, much like the silver medals in Sonic '06, and each individual medal can be collected only once. So you'll need to have collected a certain number of sun or moon medals to access a particular day or night stage, respectively. Depending on how diligently you were collecting these on your first attempts at stages (easier to do in the werehog levels, due to the increased opportunity for exploration), you may have to repeat some of them to gather enough, which is bound to be a bit of an unpopular move on Sonic Team's part, and particularly annoying if you really want to press on to the next levels, but have to backtrack all over the place instead. As such, my first top tip for this game:

TOP TIP #1: Collect every sun/moon medal you see and actively look for them in the werehog stages"

This mechanic isn't really made clear enough in the game until you experience it yourself, but if you follow that advice, and bear in mind that there are loads tucked away in the villages and entrance stages, plus you don't even have to finish a stage to keep any that you find, you probably won't have to do too much repeating. It is a bit of a stunning moment, towards the end of the game, where you're told you need to go back and find as many as 30-40 medals before you're allowed to press on, but trust me, they do soon start raking in, as there's loads of them about. It does help you to pace out your whole adventure too, which, in the long run makes it all the more meaningful when you look back on it, and those lovely, hard-earned Sonic stages all the more sweeter. Plus, about half way through the game, new, optional little stages start to emerge in the entrance stages, as second or third acts to the main, first acts for both hedgehog and werehog. Very similar to the Hidden Islands in Sonic Rush Adventure. These have their own additional medals, and I'll talk more about them below...

I'm a Day Person..

The whole adventuring aspect will never sit well with those who insist that Sonic should be simple and linear, but what everyone wanted to know was are those speedy, straightforward, gorgeous and nostalgic Sonic levels really as fun as they look? To put it far too simply, yes. Yes they are. There's still room for improvement, particularly in the controls department, but in my opinion, these levels can do no less than overtake Sonic Adventure 2's as the best form of 3D Sonic-only levels we've yet seen. And that's going by both first experiences with them, and after I've re-played them all a fair few times and gotten to know them better.

As you know, the levels tend to simplify everything by crossing, above all else, the Secret Rings philosophy of running forward, camera behind, dodging oncoming obstacles, and the pure, fast-flowing, side-scrolling euphoria of Sonic Rush and Sonic Rush Adventure. The two formats switch at regular intervals, although perhaps staying just a bit more on the 3D view, overall. The result is an experience that, if you're good (and often, even if you're not), you can just keep on going, and it creates a magnificent adrenaline rush. As I mentioned earlier, glitches are few and far between, although death drops are unfortunately as common as ever really. However, when you do fall in them, it's often because of bad timing on your part, and just not being able to react quick enough, but still having been given reasonably fair warning. Usually. It's no walk in the park like SRA was though, later stages require close attention, and for best results, go easy on the 'ol speed boost when exploring new areas, as it's best used when on long, safe pathways or when you know what you're doing!

One gripe is to do with the homing attack. The good news is that it is usually pretty effective, and you have a very long range in which it'll work, plus a target symbol will appear on the relevant enemy/spring etc beforehand so you know it's going to work. The bad news is that they've thrown us all off by relocating it from the A button to X, after jumping, which is a bit of a bitch to get used to, and something that's bound to just cause confusion when we revisit past titles for a quick play. I can see the method to their madness, as the mild-mannered dash that usually occurs when Sonic double jumps without anything to home in on, is now replaced with a full blown mid-air boost that rockets you forwards, and keeping all boosting to one button makes sense. The standard jump dash still exists when you don't have any ring power for your boost however, so I struggle to see what would have been so wrong in keeping the jump dash and homing attack to the A button, while the mid-air boost can be a separate move, on X. On occasions, such a powerful blast in the air can send you unexpectedly flying too far off of a platform. Not a common problem, but it happens.

The controls in the 2D sections, and even in some 3D portions where pinpoint, platform-hopping accuracy is required (such as the infamous rotating circular platforms in Dragon Road), are as tight as you would want them to be. Initially Sonic seems to drop a little more quickly after jumping than I was used to (resulting in an embarrassing plummet in Windmill Isle, akin to the numskulls who demoed it in various trade show videos), but once you get used to that, it's no issue at all. In the more fast-paced 3D sections however, everything feels very loose, and Sonic goes darting off at the slightest tilt of the thumbstick. Although it can be overcome, it makes the experience a bit disorientating when you first begin. These physics are also employed, inexplicably, in the entrance stages where you'll be flying off of platforms all the time. Not that it's really crucial there, but it is annoying how Sonic controls more like Super Sonic would.

However, at full boost the 3D portions are similar to the super-speed sections of Sonic '06, which I'll stand by as being a great idea that were extremely exhilarating once you know the glitches to avoid. Well, Sonic Unleashed can match, perhaps even exceed those speeds, and even with the looseness mentioned, you still have more control over Sonic. Although most of the time the boost is optional if you prefer a more careful approach, sections where Sonic must run across water, or along a long wall is usually where it's needed most, but little dabs will do you just as well as prolonged blasts. The left and right shoulder buttons are used to quick step left or right, although this initially isn't as easy to get used to as you might think, as you can still use the thumbstick as well, for a slower dodge. Being able to run full steam ahead and dodge obstacles successfully takes practice, even when you know what's coming. Similarly, the trigger buttons are used for a drift around tight corners, making Sonic control like a racing car sometimes, but the cornering isn't as tight as I was expecting, and later drifting sections, where you can fall off the road, are tricky to master.

Many of the 2D sections are conquered by blasting through, Sonic Rush style, but some players may be surprised at the odd intricate, careful platforming on offer here as well, comfortingly harking back to the days of yore. Arid Sands, the Middle Eastern Shamar stage is particularly of note for this, as is Savannah Citadel and the final level. Also be on the look out for the optional acts, discovered later in the game, as many cater very much to us old fogies who want simple, 2D action that has just as many careful portions as speedy ones. They're often only based on a small area, but there's a clever mechanism in place that loops the level round in a circle, creating laps, and on each lap, a different array of objects appears before you.

That said, I'm sure many will be left bemused as to the qualities of the modern Sonic experience, as there are many portions that play themselves, sending Sonic zipping between long winding paths in which very little is required of you. They're amazing spectacles to behold, especially at first, and feature some truly jaw-dropping scenes (one that got me was that massive sperm whale bursting out of the sea in front of you in Holoska), but after a few re-plays, the simplicity causes the mesmerising effect to wear off a bit, and the same can be said for the dashing-straight-forward sections of the earlier levels such as Spagonia (as incredibly enjoyable as that was first time around - if, like me, the trailer for that level really hyped you up for it, you won't be disappointed!).

Branching routes were a hyped feature, and what you can't expect is highly intricate and often entirely separate paths through whole stages, ala S3&K. No real surprise there. Instead, they have more in common with recent handheld outings, opting for the short-but-numerous option, often aided by new catcher objects that release you in one of three directions by pressing A, X or B, very much like those in Sonic Rivals. Similarly, Quick-Time-Events are used frequently to offer brief shortcuts or bonuses, and more often than not, failing them doesn't usually result in death, except for jump panels, where you need to press the displayed button in order to dart off to the next, and not fall by pressing the wrong one. Elsewhere, button combinations are always randomly generated, offering a bit of a twist every time you re-play.

Somewhat controversially, Sonic Unleashed employs a similar approach to health in the daytime as Secret Rings does, whereby ring loss still occurs, but the fallen rings are never collectible again, they're essentially just a graphic to illustrate your damage. They don't all go, but it's not a consistent number each time, it seems to be about half or a third of them, depending on how many you have. However, they're in a huge abundance in order for the dash to be available pretty much all the time, and while dashing, rings are attracted to you as if you had the ring magnet shield, so the ring count and dash meter just sort of sits there in the bottom corner and you don't really pay too much attention to it. The animation where the collected rings flow into the meter isn't nearly as annoying while playing as it was while watching the videos. Item boxes are a thing of the past as well, as 10-ring and extra life icons are now free from their capsules, allowed to float around wherever they please. Are these little changes taking us further and further away from our roots? It's the little things that matter, after all.

In order to meet this ring loss system in the middle, bosses are fought on the move ("Mushroom Hill style"), an unpopular choice back in the days of Sonic Advance 2 and Sonic Heroes, but I think they work well enough here, thanks to some clever attack patterns and controls, while Sonic is pretty much running automatically.

In summary, daytime levels are extremely fun, and on the whole, well produced. Controls can be slippery, but nothing you can't overcome after a little while, and there's a decent variety of gameplay on offer, mixing straightforward dashing with more careful platforming. If you're against the modern approach to fast-flowing levels based on quick reaction times then there's only so much you'll be able to extract that will entertain you, but if you don't mind letting Sonic do his thing now and then and just run while you watch in awe (but being ready to add plenty of your own input at any moment), then you'll get on with them just fine. If you loved Sonic Rush and/or its sequel, you'll love this.

Unleashing Your Beast

As night falls, Sonic loses his speed, and Jason Grifith loses whatever ability he had to act. But that's another matter, the werehog stages are where the controversy starts to emerge. There will be those with an open mind, who don't have quite such a strict idea of what should or should not be in a Sonic game, who will have been open to the idea from the beginning, but there are others that will just hate this mode and everything about it from the get go. What I'll say is that if you've seen even a small amount of video and read even a small amount about it, that's pretty much what you can expect. It doesn't really hold many surprises, it's a case of what you see is what you get, and if you come in expecting to do a lot of fighting and some reasonably entertaining platforming and puzzling, you won't be disappointed.

The first stage is a bit of a poor introduction to be honest, as it throws continuous series of enemies at you as you plough your way through Apotos, leaving the somewhat more enjoyable platforming to the end. An uneven framerate greets you right from the start too as large open areas are filled with many unnecessary small creatures that are easily disposed of. X and Y are used for two varieties of punches, Y being generally a bit more effective, featuring a longer reach, thanks to the werehog's oddly stretchy arms. A is your jump, and B is grab, for picking up fallen opponents and then tossing them away with X, Y or B again. If you try and press B while in active combat, you'll either be pushed back or a small QTE sequence will begin where you then have to press another button to pull off a powerful move. I never bothered with them, as more often than not I would be button-bashing the wrong button anyway before I realised what I was even doing, which allowed the enemy to counter. Holding a trigger button while running allows you to dash on all fours, essential later on where your attacks are better off being more of the hit-and-run strategy. Left shoulder button produces an impenetrable shield around you, something that I barely used until the very end (I always forget to block in other games too. I've no time for all that), and the right shoulder button initiates Unleashed mode when you have acquired enough.. whatever it is that you need to acquire, by defeating enemies. This increases your speed and power significantly, but depletes your unleashed meter.

By defeating enemies, exp points pop out of them in the form of simple yellow diamond shapes of varying sizes and strengths, and these go towards a simple levelling up system, for both forms of Sonic. At the end of a level, or even during it in the pause screen, you can add collected points to a number of aspects of how your character plays to improve his abilities. Regular Sonic just has speed and ring energy, neither of which really need to be fussed with too much as far as I can tell. I wouldn't really need him to go any faster than he already is anyway, so I concentrated the majority of mine on the werehog, who, as the game progresses, needs all the help he can get to dispose of these tiresome enemies as quickly as possible. Categories include combat (few points required for levelling up, and each level delivers a new move, to add much needed variety to proceedings), health meter, unleash meter, strength and shield meter all need your attention (well, except the shield, if you're anything like me).

TOP TIP #2: Put practically all of your accumulated exp into the werehog - he needs it!

Now, since they were introduced in Sonic Heroes, I've not been a fan of enemies with health bars. Few probably have been. In Sonic levels they're just plain annoying, but thankfully, such strong enemies have not found their way at all into the daytime stages, which is a huge relief. I can tolerate health bars a little more in slower-paced modes, such as Silver's gameplay in Sonic '06, and this. Indeed, once you've unlocked a few new combat moves via levelling up (the buttons for them, by the way, are accessible in the pause menu, but you can get by ok by mixing up the buttons randomly and seeing what happens), the combat can be quite entertaining. Knocking an enemy's health down in a single flurry as they fall back at each blow, picking one up while its dazed on the ground and swinging it round by the legs, consequently knocking it against another guy a couple of times before throwing it directly into a third on the other side of the room... All enjoyable, if approached with an open mind and a certain delight in seeing things get destroyed.

However, as you might expect, it does drag on a bit. Some stages have generally more combat than others, giving you wave upon wave. Most annoying is where a beaten enemy is replaced by another that teleports in, and you've no idea how many more are on the way before you're finally allowed to carry on. What's more, each combat session is distinctly separated from the level by the same goddamn piece of music that interrupts the stage tune, throughout the whole game. It's not a bad piece of music, it just aids the whole thing in being very tedious and you no doubt grow to associate it with a massive groan of irritation. Sometimes a batch of enemies can simply be ignored as the path onwards is still open, but the music makes you think you have to defeat them. Enemies you'll encounter include some extremely annoying individuals. The standard blue gaia grunts soon learn to block, which can be very frustrating, and the red wasps in particular are an absolute bitch to pin down and beat up. Eggman's robots want in on the action too, some of which enjoy spraying you with bullets that are hard to get away from (until you remember your shield, anyway). Their health bars increase at probably a faster rate than your strength does too.

Thankfully, the platforming and puzzling aspects are more enjoyable, though can be annoying their own ways. In order to protect myself from disappointment, I was expecting a more uneven balance of combat vs platforming than there actually is, and although its not exactly Mario standard in terms of variety and originality, it's tolerable. Most of the platforming entails jumping from ledges and a variety of platforms, climbable poles, narrow walkways that you can either hang from or balance on, swinging from horizontal poles, smaller ones that you can grab onto, or floating enemies. The bit that makes it interesting is that you can use the B button to stretch out and latch straight onto all of these things, and target markers appear, as in Sonic's homing attack, to make the whole thing a lot easier, and this system works very well. When you need to jump off or position yourself on them quickly, it can be a bit fiddly. Virtually all of these platforming instances are performed above a bottomless abyss, often making a wrong move fatal, although your stretchy arms have a very far reach, so it's quite forgiving. Fortunately, the most difficult of these often feature a checkpoint just beforehand, and an extra life in an easily accessible place before, or shortly after you start, so continued death, as will often be the case, is eased with the knowledge that you're unlikely to lose all your lives, as the 1-ups will continue to reappear on each attempt. This is the main reason why I haven't had reams of Game Over's and subsequently thrown the XBox out of the window by now, mind you. As it is though, it certainly makes the platforming more tense, as my controller quickly became doused in sweat during each of these sequences.

Savannah Citadel is a good example of platforming and puzzles. One puzzle in particular actually phased me for a few minutes, requiring decisions on a combination of movable blocks on platforms, lifted by switch mechanisms that would also allow you to climb them up to a high ledge. There's other nice little bits, such as in Cool Edge, where you must pick up one of those weird pirouetting fire enemies and actually use them to melt the ice (setting other enemies on fire is entertaining too), but make no mistake, this is no Zelda. Most puzzles simply require you to hit switches or place statues on pedestals to open doors, and rarely has Sonic ever really been more puzzling than that, and that's the way it stays here.

These werehog stages, however, are too long, at least for the rules that have been applied to them, i.e. lose all your lives and it's back to the start. It didn't happen to me, but if that occurs towards the end of the stage, that's a good 20 - 30 minutes of your life you've just thrown away. Perhaps they could have looked into establishing some sort of big "super checkpoint" object that saves your place in the stage no matter what happens, until you complete it or find another one. Since they offer a free life around the hardest sections anyway, it makes me wonder if we really even need lives for this sort of thing any more?

I'm certainly not opposed to slower-paced platforming in modern, big Sonic games like this. Although for fun, I'll return to these levels much much less often than I will the daytime stages, but in the initial story, they are important just for stretching it out (no pun intended) and making the game a bit less shallow than it would be had it all been daytime-only style levels. Sonic Team do face a problem in that that's all anyone really wants, but the speed means that levels have to be so huge that there's only room for so many, and as such, you need slower levels like this. Do you need to play them as a giant, hairy Sonic with long arms? Not necessarily, but it doesn't really bother me. Having to defeat enemies with health bars doesn't bother me either, it's just the sheer number of them that's the problem. After you've just been killed for the third or fourth time, in battle with the same batch of seemingly never-ending bad guys, you do wonder "Is this really what Sonic is about?.. Why am I having to do this?". The mechanics aren't poor and glitches are minimal (except for the framerate drops and occasional bits of scenery getting in the way of the camera), and it all works as well as any other game where you have to fight onslaughts of enemies by button bashing. Indeed, it's no more boring to me than gloomy shooters that throw barrages of enemies at you, which everyone else seems to enjoy for some reason. But having to fight so many isn't fun, it's just a pain. Reducing the total number of enemies by about a third, or even a quarter is the last minute, drastic course of action I would have taken with this, had I suddenly been placed in a high-authority job within Sonic Team a couple of months ago. The game wouldn't lose anything, as there's more than enough gameplay here without them, and you'd still keep whatever combat was left relatively enjoyable. I'd also get rid of that battle music for sure.

The Other Stuff

The only other mode, as such, that pops up twice in the game is the Tails Tornado challenge, appearing at separate ends of the story, an entirely new iteration of the Sky Chase level, in which the pair encounter Eggman's aerial assault during their usual continent-hopping. Though you're back in the lovely red Tornado 1, it too is now transformable, and the action takes place entirely behind it, so this mode has much more in common with the Sonic Adventure version of Sky Chase than the Sonic 2 one. No matter how much you try to move, you'll soon realise that you have absolutely no control over the movement of the Tornado or Sonic, perched on it. Instead, this is entirely an exercise in QTE's and how quickly you can respond, as missiles and enemies are thrown towards you, attached to a graphic of a particular button, which you need to press before they make contact. I had a hard time with the first one, losing all my health about four times, but by the second one, towards the end of the game, my button responses had improved dramatically throughout the course of the game, so my newfound QTE skills battered through it first time.

Talking to the townspeople around the villages will often yield extra missions, as Sonic '06 did, thankfully without the unnecessary load times. I haven't investigated too many of these, but ones I've encountered are often based inside portions of the relevant action stage attached to that village, and consist of things like breaking boxes within a time limit, tagging the two ghosts from that "Night of the Werehog" short while falling down Rooftop Run's sewer tower, and the old chestnut of protecting some guy from being attacked by monsters. I don't think these really give you anything, but add them to the additional action stage acts (which can be quite varied in themselves - one act of Rooftop Run urges you to find ten lost Chao within a small area), plus time limit and other challenges on the Act 1 stages, issued to you by a travelling chili dog man (that's right, Sonic's apparent love of chili dogs makes an in-game appearance, I think, for the first time!), then you have quite a lot of extra stuff to do. The game's music, cut scenes and even concept artwork are collectible in the form of records, videotapes and books dotted around the levels, and can be bought in shops along with other souvenirs that you can give to Professor Pickle, in exchange for a hint about a particular aspect to the game. Who the hell is Professor Pickle? A kindly English University professor with a stereotypical penchant for cucumber sandwiches, and who seems to know a lot about what's going on. You must return to him, based in either Spogonia or Shamar, each time you complete a stage in the story, so that he may unlock the next one for you and tell you where it is.

That brings us neatly to the supporting characters and story. There's a fair few scenes to get through at the beginning and end of the game, but most of the way through in the middle you're allowed to press on, relatively undisturbed. There are no overly-complicated twists and turns, it's all pretty simple - planet's broke, go and bring emeralds to the temples to fix. One of the things that make it stand out from similarly large titles in the series is the presence of humour and a lighter outlook on the whole thing. Eggman is back from being all serious and human-like to a somewhat more bumbling evil genius, this time with a lackey robot who lives in his Egg-mobile control panel and continuously offering him back-handed compliments, reminiscent of those lackeys of his in Sonic X. The scripts are of a higher standard than usual, as is the acting of the supporting characters such as Mr Pickle and Chip, the little flying dog fella who's lost his memory. He could have easily been all cutesy and nice, ruining Sonic's levels by throwing in cringing audio commentary like whatever-her-name-was from Secret Rings, but fortunately a) he's quite entertaining in a very cartoon-ish sort of way, with a large appetite and excellent animation, even during in-game graphic scenes and b) he refrains from all speech during the levels - even hints are given in text-only format. Sonic, Tails and Amy all give their usual acting jobs, out-performed by everyone else in my opinion, and as I hinted at earlier, Sonic's voice as a Werehog is pretty much devoid of any real acting. It's almost as if Jason is trying so hard to make his voice sound like it belongs to a large furry beast version of Sonic that he's forgotten to add any emotion to what he's saying. Curiously, unless they're hidden well within the depths of the extra missions, other regulars such as Knuckles and Shadow are uncharacteristically missing this time around. This is probably for the best - the story doesn't need them and it establishes them as having other things to do themselves, while all this is going on. Keeping Knuckles back on Angel Island, where he's supposed to stay is another thing that this game has successfully fixed.

Can I talk about the final level? Look away now for spoilers, but Eggman has finally done what has been in the works for about ten years now and built Eggmanland. Delightfully going against the real-world premise of the game and bringing us back to what is essentially the ultimate final factory style level, even with a hint of carnival about it. It's one long act that features both hedgehog and werehog segments, subsequently delivering some of the finest level design in the game. There's a refreshingly large amount of level-specific objects to enjoy, even including some good old crushers and all manner of disintegrating platforms and conveyor belts, and the 2D sections that feature these are marvellous, plus the first part is extremely rich in true multiple routes. Even the werehog segments cut back on the fighting until the end (where it gets unimaginably fiendish, granted), but what you need to know is that Eggmanland is unquestionably, by far the most insanely long Sonic level in his entire 17 year history. When I finally finished it, Eggmanland took me 63 minutes. And even that was after I'd already got through the first half-or-so and failed, so already knew that part pretty well. An hour-long Sonic level - take my advice and stock up on lives before attempting it. After finishing it goes straight into the sequence of final bosses, which is as you would expect them to be, except with one twist that is.. well, odd.

So, as you can see, Sonic Unleashed is one that's difficult to place. I'd be surprised if many people don't see it as something of an overall step in the right direction from Sonic '06. There's no doubt it's a much more polished game - they've made time to ensure that it is at least playable, and they've clearly taken on-board some of the things that people have complained about. Your enjoyment of the game will probably all come down to how tolerant you can be of the Werehog stages, and the sad truth is that although there are equal amounts of story-based stages for both forms, you will spend more time as the werehog, struggling through a 20-30 minute level to earn just up to ten minutes in a Sonic level. Your enjoyment of those too will depend on how comfortable you are with the more fast-paced, simplified philosophy of Sonic level design, but that by no means is all that mode has to offer.

As far as I'm concerned, the night stages were tolerable, because I really love the day ones - in my opinion they're well worth it. Although basic, the platforming sections at night I found enjoyable, and I just found myself caught up in the whole adventure, I suppose. I think if you meet it with an open mind and accept it as its own game rather than anything that is trying to be a game from the past, be it a classic 2D one or whatever, then you'll get the most you can out of it. I don't know about you, but the first play through the story is only really a small part of my overall enjoyment of any Sonic game - there's many months and years to look forward to where I'll pick it up now and then, as I do with all the older titles, and play through the daytime levels at my leisure, and that's what Sonic has always been about for me. I can tell these are the types of stages that will give you a tremendous rush when you can do them properly, soaring through without getting caught up on an obstacle, textbook QTE busting, knowing when and where to jump, and even when you first start, it's still all smooth and exhilarating enough without having to know the full level off by heart. And something I haven't mentioned until now but can be pretty much taken as a given from all the media we've all seen of it, everything is absolutely gorgeous. There are many places where you'll just be stunned by what that Hedgehog Engine is capable of rendering, and I might go so far as to say that it's possibly the most realistic daytime lighting I've seen in any game yet. Sonic Team should be commended for the effort they've clearly put in to try and right some of those terrible wrongs and actually trying to make a fun experience. It's not easy being in their shoes, with so many different people telling you what they want, and not knowing who to listen to. But I think they've done an excellent job with those daytime stages, looking at what's worked and what hasn't and combining the best things about modern Sonic into something that somehow still feels entirely new and exciting.
Comments   4 Comments have been posted.
#1. Comment posted by mercury on Tuesday, 9th December 2008, 3:57am
It's too bad they still haven't succeeded in including a true Passage of Time system, like they were promising in the early days of Sonic Next-Gen. We've been looking forward to something like that for a long time.

My thoughts on such a system: Unlike an RPG, Sonic moves in real time. What you see on the screen is what is really happening. Everything is to scale, both size-wise and time-wise. It's not supposed to be an abtract portrayal of a day's trek through the mountains every time Sonic runs across a hill. So if it changed from day to night and back during a Zone, with a timescale similar to that of Ocarina of Time's Hyrule Field, you'd have to imagine Sonic lived on a planet that rotated really fast. Like, impossibly fast. Some game conventions are fine, but such a stretch of the imagination would take me out of the experience.

Why do people want to see a passage of time in the first place? Because they want to see the Zone change, see the contrast between the two times, and for the technical spectacle of it all. Well, to achieve all of this, all you really need is a sunset or sunrise - both of which can happen in less than thirty minutes, or about the amount of time you would spend in a goodly sized Zone (3 acts split into 10 minutes each, maybe). Sonic games have always had Zones set during sunset or sunrise, such as Spring Yard or Scrap Brain, so in addition to Day Zones and Night Zones, you'd have a third category - Dawn/Dusk Zones.

This is the method I want to employ for my project (I've already started programming the sun movement and lighting conditions). Some Zones, such as Green Hill or Marble, will be during the day, with no significant changes. But Sunset Park (and others I can't yet divulge) will show off the passage of time engine.

Additionally, once you've played the Zones in story mode, you can come back to them at any time. Depending on the game's real-time clock, the Zone will change. So it is possible to play any Zone at any time, and even during transitions, but you never have to make the concession to a compressed time-scale.

Just imagine running through a Zone at night, and as the sky brightens, the music gets more upbeat. Then, as you speed through loops and work your way to the upper route, where the background stretches out magnificently before you, the sun rises and the Zone explodes into life.
#2. Comment posted by pokecapn on Monday, 22nd December 2008, 1:30am
You seem to have had a lot more luck with the werehog's platforming than I did. A lot of times the targeting reticule appeared and vanished before I could react or never showed up and I'd fall to my doom. It made me really fear the serious platforming sections, but I felt it was the game's fault rather than my own.

The werehog sections in the final world were a level of frustrating that made me come out disliking the stage, but otherwise, I think this review is right on the money with me and other Sonic fans like me.
#3. Comment posted by Sonic booomhog on Monday, 6th April 2009, 8:56am
Good review. I think the werehog stages could be better (What is up with the music?) but are still enjoyable. Day stages=AWESOME.

I agree with your review.
#4. Comment posted by Hyper_Sonic on Monday, 11th July 2011, 8:09am
Yea, day stages ARE Awesome, But the night stages could do with some, err, I mean A LOT of work. :D
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