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The World Adventure: Re-evaluating Sonic Unleashed – Part 1

Discussions about one’s favorite video games have always been rather unnerving for me to participate in. This is not just because I’m something of an introvert by default at times – though there is, of course, an element of that. It’s chiefly due to the fact that, taste-wise? Well, I’m rather… odd. At least, in regular social circles. While those around me are perfectly content to throw out ‘Call of Duty #765’ or ‘FIFA Clone 18.0’ as the standard boilerplate answers, and receive immediate nods of approval from the others – I tend to find myself in a bit of a sticky wicket.

What do I say? Do I admit that I’m mostly into retro games, and platformers at that? The ancient hardware and arcade cabinets are where I’m more at home than with the modern sleekness of, say, the PS5? That I’d far sooner team up with Mario than any Halo character if I were ever to charge into a battlefield? Hell, do I tell ‘em that I write about these things for a (sort-of) living, with a particular penchant for SEGA?

One look at my play history or backlog would lead anyone to believe I’d just stepped out of a time portal from the 1990s. Of course, I’ve gotten less insecure about this gradually, and all these qualities are precisely what have landed me here, penning this feature for you, dear reader. So these days, I mostly lay it all out in the open for my peers and just endure the lighthearted snorts of derision.

I mean, I only have 247 hours logged in LEGO Dimensions! What do you think I am, some sort of nerd?

However, things go from mildly uncomfortable to positively collar-tugging when a particular follow-up question is raised. “So what are some of your favorite 3D platforming games?” One by one, others give their fairly safe responses: Mario 64, Spyro, Ratchet and Clank come up a lot, as does – somewhat erroneously – The Legend of Zelda. And then, when all eyes swivel expectantly towards me, I realize I can delay it no longer. With a reserved gulp, I answer: “Sonic Unleashed.”

I know, I know. I’m sure you can imagine some of the reactions I’ve gotten to that little chestnut over the years; likely because you just exhibited some of them yourselves. “What, the one where Sonic turns into a werewolf?” “That game sucks, just like ‘06.” “The night levels blew, Sonic Colors did right by just being day stages.” “One of the worst 3D Sonic games.” These are all lines that I’ve been subjected to at various stages, and granted, for the longest time they were representative of the consensus. Note, though, that I say ‘for the longest time’. It seems that finally, thanks to a bit of a critical reappraisal within the fanbase, me and several other staunch Unleashed defenders are on the way to being vindicated. Hard-won victories are the best kind, y’know?

In this two-part feature, we’ll be taking a look at the history of what I consider to be one of the most misunderstood outings in the Sonic catalog, as well as a reassessment of some of its very best aspects in a modern light.

A hero in need of rescue

Let’s begin with some context. Sonic – to assault the long-deceased equine – was in a pretty rough spot in the mid-2000s. What should have been a new spark of life in the franchise in the form of Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 instead became, thanks to development crunches and a non-negotiable Christmas release window, one of the greatest laughingstocks ever to grace the industry. To this day, the internet has refused to allow the poor hedgehog to forget it. I’m sure you’ve all seen the jokes:

“Ha, remember when Sonic kissed a princess?”

“Lol, remember when you could stand on a crate and fly into the sky?”

“Lmao, how about the level where that mach speed section made me clip through a wall?”

All very funny, all very original – the first 70 times or so.

So, I don’t think I need to dwell much on that. The point is, Sonic’s reputation – which had already received a blow from the needlessly edgy Shadow the Hedgehog, and was not helped in any way by the subsequent Sonic and the Secret Rings and its abominable control scheme in 2007 – was in a Station Square dumpster.

To be honest, if this is is an undoctored screengrab from your cartoon mascot platformer, you’re kind of asking for it.

The Sonic Cycle is born

It’s around this time that the concept of the ‘Sonic Cycle’ was coined, a memetic infographic which has dogged the more earnest members of the fandom for over a decade. Basically, the Cycle posits that a new Sonic game announcement always follows the same sequence of events.

First, promising screenshots or gameplay details leak regarding the next title, leading gamers to believe that this will be the one to bring the Blue Blur back on track.

Then, more facts about the game emerge – typically the reveal of a new gimmick, such as Black Knight’s swordplay or Forces’ avatar creation – which shake this faith a little.

Finally, the game is released, and is critically lambasted – whether deserved or not – dashing fans’ hopes and returning everything to as it was the start of the Cycle, ready for the next installment to come staggering along.

I can’t lie, I’d be pretty pumped too if I was still experiencing Crisis City PTSD.

As disingenuous as I’d argue the citation of this formula can often be in online discourse (especially since I like to point out there have been about as many Sonic games that have not followed this sequence), it’s undeniable that Sonic Unleashed fit it perfectly, though. The first content to surface online for the title was a series of gorgeous-looking stills from the day stages, which see you blasting through expansive, jaw-dropping locales from across the globe. I’m going to try and keep my enthusiasm for the visuals restrained until we actually get to that part of the feature. Instantly, the internet was abuzz. Just one gander at Sonic screeching round a loop in Windmill Isle was all it took – soon, thought fans, the GOAT 3D adventure would be here, and ’06 could fade away into distant memory. Stage 1 was in full swing.

The Sonic Cycle continues

Alas, Stage 2 was not far behind. When SEGA revealed the game proper via an alarming CGI trailer and some promotional stills, showing off the Werehog and day/night mechanic, a thousand questions flooded everyone’s thoughts. ‘What are they playing at? Why is Sonic some buff furry wolf thing now? Why does it look like God of War all of a sudden? Have they lost the plot? And what in God’s name is a Werehog?!’ Some of these were answered with a follow-up demo at E3, which allowed journalists to clap eyes and sticky controllers on the game for the first time.

Considering how the entire arc of Sonic in this game is that he’s not evil as the Werehog because his heart is so good and pure, this is literally the worst manner they could have chosen to introduce him to fans.

Punters were given free reign over a day stage and (a rudimentary, early version of) a night level, and it was at this point that it clicked what SEGA were trying to do here. Prior 3D Sonics had been marred by complaints concerning an overabundance of playable characters and game modes, with Heroes especially copping a lot of flack for its sixteen (!!) cast members and numerous, almost identical, campaigns. Unleashed, it seemed, was the company’s attempt to have its cake and eat it: you’re still getting different game modes, but only two, and by technicality the only playable character is Sonic. Discounting, of course, the fact that he looks like a roided out Muppet reject.

Reactions to this demo were mixed-to-positive. The blistering day stage earned unabashed praise, and was basically categorized as a godsend in the wake of the trashfire that was 06. The night level, on the other hand, baffled most. It wasn’t broken in the way that some previous adventures had been, nor was there anything especially wrong with the gameplay. It was just an average, garden-variety action platformer with a heavy slant towards button-mashy combat, and many critics couldn’t see the logic in introducing this to a franchise which so badly needed a clear, consistent vision. Still, these off-putting impressions notwithstanding, the overall package represented a damn fine improvement over 06, and all that remained was to see if any of the concerns could be ironed out in time for launch.

Fixing that godawful UI was probably priority number flippin’ 1.

Incidentally, the E3 presentation promised a few elements that never made it into the final product; the most interesting being the supposed inclusion of Knuckles and Shadow in the storyline, neither of whom actually appear. Likewise, the narrative significance of Sonic turning into the Werehog was suggested to have far more import than was ultimately the case. Who knows? Perhaps higher-ups took one look at the Solaris nonsense and ordered 75 percent of the script to be shredded.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also raise the same point as every other fan on the planet here: the term ‘werehog’ is actually not grammatically sound. The word ‘werewolf’ is derived from the Old English ‘werwulf’, which literally translates to ‘man-wolf’. Hence, all you get from ‘werehog’ is ‘man-hog’; and unless there’s something SEGA ain’t telling us, Sonic sure as heck isn’t part human.

Unleashed onto the scene

Syntax issues aside, it was time for Stage 3. Sonic Unleashed released, following many agonizing months of development from Sonic Team, which they’d capped off with a no-holds-barred wrap party. The champers and the chili dog sauce flowed, and rightly so, for the developers had earned it. Reports from those who attended the party claimed that the team were absolutely over the moon with what they’d managed to achieve; that it was considered the most ambitious project in the studio’s history; and that they all collectively couldn’t wait to see what people thought of it. After all, it had a new engine (the proprietary Hedgehog Engine), top-shelf production design, the highest budget yet afforded to a Sonic game, and a fresh direction tone-wise. What wasn’t to like? I think you can see where this is going.

A TV commercial that accompanied the launch of Sonic Unleashed bore the tagline, ‘the difference is night and day.’ Nothing could have been more prophetic, nor deliciously ironic as ammunition for reviewers of the time. Commercially, the game was a smash, raking in figures of more than two million across all platforms. That’s always practically a given, though. Parents see Sonic, they’ll buy ‘im for little Timmy. Sure beats getting him hooked on Grand Theft Auto.

They also made one featuring this random kid turning into a crazed werewolf; which, again, misses the point entirely.

Critical reception was, as is traditional for the series, split right down the middle. On one hand, the sumptuous graphics and lighting provided by the Hedgehog Engine were lauded, as were the day stages, which introduced the Boost mechanic from Sonic Rush into a 3D environment. This would set the template for the majority of Sonic’s offerings in the 2010s, including Colors, Generations and Forces. Praise was also directed to the soundtrack (and hoo boy, trust me when I say we will be discussing the soundtrack), in all its sweeping orchestral majesty, and to the overall swerve away from the grimdark pretensions of preceding titles.

Marza Animation, I kneel. Much like Dr. Eggman here.

On the other hand, the worries surrounding the Werehog from E3 were, despite some tweaks to movement and combat, borne out in the finished product. Critics branded his stages ‘a slog’ and a ‘knock-off’ of other action games, and declared his platforming ‘lethargic and plodding’. The poor performance and stability – which, in fairness, was due to the poor old 360 and PS3 almost melting into slag from being asked to render those beautiful landscapes – were also highlighted.

Hopping on the hog-wagon

Fans have, however, come to observe that a great amount of this Unleashed criticism was perhaps exaggerated. You have to bear in mind the context in which many of these reviews were published. At the time, coming off of the one-two punch of 06 and Secret Rings, bashing Sonic was very much ‘the done thing’ in the industry. Ridiculing what many perceived to be an aging ’90s mascot out of his depth on modern consoles was the way you got clicks. Consequently, this gave rise to a number of analyses which, to be frank, were absurd, dismissive and nitpicky. Trust me when I tell you that if I’m saying you’re being nitpicky, it means something.

The example which is most commonly held up in the online community for folks to chuck virtual tomatoes at is an infamous video review posted by IGN. It is quite possibly one of the most ridiculous appraisals of a game ever submitted in a professional capacity. And I’m counting ‘too much water’, as well as that time the narrator stopped to pick food from his teeth in Gamespot’s Kirby’s Epic Yarn review, in that hallowed pantheon.

I’m not kidding. For the curious, it happens riiight around this part.

In it, the critic fails miserably at playing the game in an even remotely competent manner, and almost seems to be purposely sabotaging the footage to make his traffic-generating point. Such mendacity in the video includes, but is not limited to: jumping over clearly marked boost ramps; blatantly fiddling with the controller during automated sections to try and get the game to break in a manner which would make even Arin Hanson blush; failing to realize you are meant to hold the Boost button rather than mashing it; proclaiming that the plot is ‘awful (…) but it’s not really worth elaborating why’; and going out of his way to avoid boost pads, all while complaining about a lack of speed in certain sections. This is to say nothing of the ridiculous sweeping statements he makes – ‘there must be someone at SEGA who hates the hedgehog with all his might, hence these terrible games’ – and the general reek of unprofessionalism throughout.

The crowning moment of egregiousness comes at the very end, where the game is assigned its score: 4.5 out of 10. Lower than 06. Now, I’m not one to ever, ever say that somebody’s opinion, professional or otherwise, is wrong. I am a proud defender of journalistic integrity. But I think that might be the most objectively inaccurate ranking ever given to a video game. I am dead bloody serious.

The fandom has never quite permitted the folks at IGN to live this down, going so far as to produce parody videos of its atrocious gameplay, which you can have a guffaw at below.

It’s so nice to see the Sonic fanbase actually in agreement about something for once.

All I’ll say is, they sure allowed their writers to chuck their weight about a lot more back in ’08. Methinks these days he’d have been out on his bum the day after – but, of course, it’s not really worth elaborating why.

An undeserved black sheep

All told, Sonic Unleashed represented another critical letdown for SEGA, which stung especially hard as they’d given this one their all. In the years since its release, it’s been given more or less the silent treatment by the company, being axed from store shelves in the great Metacritic Sonic Cull of 2010. During that bloodbath, any Sonic game with a lower-than-average score on said review aggregation site was officially delisted, meaning retailers could no longer stock new copies. These days, the only way to purchase Unleashed, along with all the other unlucky victims, is second-hand (or digitally, but we don’t talk about digital). The only acknowledgement it’s really gotten in recent years has been the odd bit of merch and a surprise cameo appearance by the Werehog in Sonic Runners. In many respects, this was a sad end to what was a definite passion project for Sonic Team, and which really deserved to be the saving grace for the franchise.

I’m still not entirely convinced they didn’t rope in Pixar. Real secret, like.

It’s such a shame, too, as I happen to think it’s ruddy brilliant. I have no hesitation in declaring it my favorite 3D Sonic game; and if, brave adventurer who’s kept up with me this far, you’ll stick around for part two of this feature, you’ll find out why. Next time, now that we’re all caught up with Unleashed’s emotionally-scarring backstory, we’ll look at its four best aspects that demonstrate why it’s worth your time – and how it’s enjoyed a second life courtesy of an endlessly forgiving fanbase.

See you then.

Bobby Mills

Motor-mouthed Brit with a decades long - well, two decades, at least - passion for gaming. Writer, filmmaker, avid lover of birthdays. Still remembers the glory days of ONM. May it rest in peace.
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