So today’s the 18th anniversary of the release of Sonic the Hedgehog for the Mega Drive/Genesis. It seems fitting, therefore, that I have some thoughts on one of the more recent Sonic games (which I bought after I traded in a bunch of Wii games) – Sonic Unleashed for PS3.

I find the core platforming mechanics (at least those in the daytime stages) to be much improved over Sonic 2006 – for one, Sonic Team has finally realised that modern gamepads have more than two buttons on them, and therefore all your face buttons are now used for non-overlapping actions. Not having to start the level from scratch because the game thought you wanted to do a bounce attack instead of a light dash even though you were in mid-air right next to a line of rings is definitely an improvement. On top of that, the game also shows you when your homing attack will actually hit something, as opposed to previous games where it was pretty much luck of the draw.

The daytime stages also draw more from Sonic Adventure 2 than Sonic 2006 – no more lifebars on enemies, and a much bigger emphasis on having to know the ‘best’ route through a stage in order to get an S-rank. However, it also takes a significant feature from Sonic Rush – the boost system. Knowing when to boost can sometimes be important (for instance, boosting off a ramp can help you reach alternate routes or items that are higher up), but otherwise it doesn’t really add to the game much. Much like in Rush, there isn’t any reason why you wouldn’t want to be holding down boost all the time (the only exception is when you need to drift).

Fortunately, there are at least some stages where the game at least tries to make it harder for you to hold down boost, either by tossing numerous obstacles like spike traps and gaps that need to be maneuvred in quick succession, or by limiting the amount of rings present in a stage so that your boost capability is limited. These stages are usually found through town missions – while these mostly consisted of idiotic, mundane tasks in Sonic 2006, in Unleashed they typically whisk you off into a modified version of one of the daytime stages – versions that have usually been modified to be somewhat harder, containing more obstacles or featuring stringent time limits. Overall, the daytime stages are a pretty fun romp, and definitely the most fun I’ve had with a 3D Sonic since SA2.

That said, I still think the nighttime stages have no business being in this game. They’re a drag on the entire experience, and are not anywhere near as entertaining as the daytime stages. The platforming is very pedestrian, with nothing really special about it (and also features some weird control bugs), and the combat mainly consists of mindlessly mashing the same buttons over and over. There’s no real lock-on system, so flailing madly is pretty much the best strategy in most situations. There’s a block button and tons of combos, but there are one or two combos that overpower basically everything else in your arsenal, and you almost never need to block as there are very few things that can do significant amounts of damage to you. There are fewer nighttime stages than daytime stages, but they make up for the lack of number by being annoyingly long. Their length, combined with their utter blandness, only serves to make me wonder why these levels exist. Would it not have been better to include more obstacle-based platforming areas in the daytime stages?

Other changes that have been added to the game include an experience and level up system, although this only really matters for the nighttime stages – daytime Sonic has only two attributes, which control his top speed and the length of his boost meter, and leveling them up didn’t affect my experience of the game much. The Werehog has many more attributes, although the only really important ones are the ones that control attack power and learning new moves. If the Werehog weren’t in this game, there would be even less reason for this system to exist than there is now.

The visuals and audio are definitely an upgrade from Sonic 2006, featuring things like dynamic shadows, proper bump mapping and a very detailed set of stages for you to run around in. The draw distance is impressive, with very little of the pop-in that plagued Sonic Teams’s earlier current-generation console effort. The PS3 version of Unleashed does have some odd framerate issues – while the framerate isn’t locked to 30fps like the 360 version’s is, it experiences ridiculous amounts of slowdown in some of the hub areas and Werehog stages, as well as some of the more effect-intensive stages like Adabat.

Overall, Unleashed feels like two steps forward and one step back, really. The daytime stages are entertaining and occasionally challenging (an attribute that is rare in Sonic games these days) but the whole package would really be better off for the exclusion of the nighttime stages. The effort spent on developing them would have been better spent on improving the daytime stages – I\’d have loved to see some of the alternate routes from the Wii version make an appearance here, for instance.

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