E3 2008: Sonic Unleashed Impressions
Like many older gamers I was a fan of the golden age of Sonic the Hedgehog. I still have fond memories of a certain New Years Eve party when I was younger and the challenge was issued amongst the rather inebriated guests to partake in a competition of skill.. namely to see who could get the furthest in Sonic the Hedgehog on the Genesis. I’d never been particularly good at the game, though I’d spent a lot of hours playing it but as the host I was obligated to try the best. Long story short, I got further in Sonic that night than any other time since and I credit that to my loose reflexes compensating for the game’s innate sense of speed.
Years have passed and Sonic’s seen better days. The last two games – Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic and the Secret of the Rings were mediocre titles that lacked the certain charm and style of the earliest games, or event the excellent early 3D games.
Sega wants another shot at changing the impression that Sonic is old hat. Last year’s Mario & Sonic titles sold well but they were not true Sonic games. The announcement of Sonic Unleashed however caught the attention of Sonic fans and the limited screens and footage hinted that maybe Sega had finally found the right mix to recreate the Blue Hedgehog for the new consoles.
Earlier today at E3 I had the chance to sit through the media presentation and demonstration for the game and it left me with a number of uneasy feelings. Patrick Riley, who is the US producer for the title walked us through two sample levels and introduced the key shift in gameplay for this installment.
The new title is running on a totally new game engine that was custom designed to take advantage of the current hardware advances. He revealed that even Sonic the Hedgehog had been limited because it was effectively using the same engine as Sonic Adventures, its core capabilities were designed with the Dreamcast in mind and updated, but it was by no means efficient on the new platforms.
Visually, even in the rough form they showed here, Sonic Unleashed is striking. The crisp characters and vibrant colors fit the tone and the ability to add special effects to Sonic’s actions makes the game “feel” fast. When Sonic runs the screen adopts a sort of blurred speed vision. The effect was reminiscent of the Turbo effects in Burnout and really sold the sense of speed that has long been missing from 3D Sonic titles.
Not content to simply bring the speed back, Sonic Unleashed also introduces a speed meter that is powered by the rings Sonic collects on his jaunts. The meter reflects the overall velocity of the character and when fully charged allows Sonic to run across water and other liquids as if they were solid ground.
There was a concerted effort to address camera concerns as well. Fans of the old side perspective will be happy to see the game adopts this viewpoint as the level design necessitates and then moves back and forth freely to the over-the-shoulder view. The change in perspective was fairly seamless but there were moments in the demo when it was clear the camera might not always be on your side.
The biggest revelation for the title concerns the story of the title. It seems the evil Dr. Robotnik has yet another dastardly plan for Sonic, and as the game begins the Hedgehog is captured and subjected to an experiment that leaves him forever altered. Robotnik’s ploy strips Sonic of his speed powers and reduces him to a more brutish form at night – leading to a divided gameplay style: traditional Sonic at day, “WereHog” gameplay at night.
The night time levels, featuring a brutish “Hulk-like” fuzzy blue-gray Sonic looked and felt far more like a traditional action-platformer than a frenetic race through levels. There are action puzzle elements and other changes that will have to be played to be accepted I think. While its nice they are trying to mix up the gameplay and it comes from the core story I’m not sold it was necessary. I think I’d have preferred just a regular good time Sonic game.
The last big revelation of the demo was the reveal that the Wii and PS2 version’s content was not the same as the 360 and PS3. They rationalized that the older consoles’ limitations would gimp the design of the new title so Sega chose to split development and grant two dev teams with a story structure and let them design to fit the platforms. Not necessarilly a bad idea, but a risky proposition should things not work out for one or the other.
I think Sonic Unleashed bears some watching as it gets closer to its November launch. There is potential here, but we’ve been burned before with hope for a great new Sonic title.