E3 Hands-On: Sonic Unleashed

It’s been a long, long time since we’ve seen a game starring Sonic the Hedgehog worth picking up. As I think back, Sonic & Knuckles seems to be the last title in the series that really got it right, though a case can also be made for Sonic Adventure. Still, even that game came back in the days of the Dreamcast, so it’s been quite a while since our anthropomorphic speedster friend made a title worth caring about. Sega is hoping the tide has finally turned with their latest offering, Sonic Unleashed.

This year at E3, we got to see the new title (scheduled for a November release) in action, and it does indeed seem as though a lot of the magic has come back. Levels are divided into day and night stages, with each featuring a specific sort of gameplay. Daytime levels are all about speed and platforming, while nighttime focuses on combat.

Digging into the first daytime level, it was clear that the development team understands what made Sonic fun in the first place all those years ago: pure speed. Flying across the screen at a breakneck pace, knowing that you would need catlike reflexes to make the next jump or take out an upcoming enemy was what made the series so exhilarating back in its heyday. The sensation is back, and now, thanks to the power of the latest generation of consoles, it’s even faster. The game uses the new Hedgehog engine which has been in development since 2005, specifically for Unleashed. The developers claim that Sonic can reach speeds of up to 300 mph in some levels, making him into little more than a blurry blue bullet, just how we like it.

Peppered into these stages are precision platforming segments, which were also hallmarks of the series years ago. In one level, we saw a giant rotating set of platforms that had to be traversed in a particular manner, as you would expect in any title such as this. At certain points, Sonic would jump from one platform, bounce through a string of enemies and then land on the other side, again evoking feelings of nostalgia.

Of course, other Sonic games have tried this speed-thrills approach, but most were hamstrung by awful controls. This time, Sega has decided to keep things simple, only adjusting controls for very specific and helpful additions. The addition of a “quick step” button is most welcome, as now Sonic can alter his course ever so slightly on the fly, allowing you to pick up rings and avoid obstacles without careening off the track or into an enemy. I don’t now why it took so long for this concept to come to pass, but now that it’s here, I couldn’t be happier.

While the daytime levels are all about running fast and traversing speed tracks, the night levels slow things down and introduce a steady diet of combat. As the story goes, the arrival of Dr. Robotnick (thankfully no one called him “Eggman”) and the upsetting of the Chaos Emeralds has left Sonic with a particularly nasty case of lycanthropy. Now, whenever the moon comes out, he is turned into “Sonic the Werehog,” and trades his speed shoes for a super-powerful physique and stretchy arms.

Whereas combat in the day levels consist of no more than one or two enemies at a time, normally strategically placed to allow you to hit them and bounce to the next platform so as to keep your speed up, night combat is all about hordes of enemies swarming all over you. Of course, Sonic is more than up to the challenge, and his beefed-up bod can handle most foes with a fairly simple swat.

Regardless of whether it’s day or night, the stages all look absolutely beautiful, with locales inspired by places like Mykonos and China. In the Mykonos level, we saw lush foliage and beautiful vistas, while China featured lots of unique architecture and some fanciful dragons. The game will also include levels inspired by Europe and Africa, and we’ll have to hang tight and see if any more surprises pop up between now and launch.

Right now, the biggest question about Sonic Unleashed is how fans will react to the new fighting levels. Will it be viewed as a fully fleshed out concept that helps keep gameplay fresh? Or will it be yet another failed gimmick that fans decry as an example of how far this franchise has fallen from glory? Only a few months left until we find out, but it’s hard to root against a character whose red shoes and penchant for ring collecting were able to capture the minds of an entire generation of gamers.

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