The following is an opinion article. You are allowed to disagree.
As a huge fan of the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise, I can’t truly say that I have an absolute, single favourite game in the franchise, since I love quite a number of them. However, I have always had a soft spot for Sonic Unleashed (Xbox 360/PS3 version). It’s the one Sonic game I always find myself championing because everyone seems so divided on it, unlike some of my other favourites like Sonic 3 & Knuckles or Sonic Generations, which are pretty much universally loved by Sonic fans and even by people outside of the fandom. This is one of my favourite games in general and I feel it is sorely underrated, so I wanted to give it some appreciation in this article. I also feel like it’s an appropriate time to discuss this game, because in my opinion, Sonic Unleashed is the Sonic game I feel like Sonic Team needs to take the most inspiration from for Sonic’s next major, main series installment. A game like Unleashed could help the franchise be viewed in a positive light again after what happened since Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, which was a game comparable to the infamous Sonic the Hedgehog (2006). I’ll get into that at the end of the article, but for now, let me focus on Sonic Unleashed itself.
All aboard the Unleashed hype train!
More than anything, I can’t recall getting as excited for any other Sonic game, as I did for Sonic Unleashed. Something about the way they presented the game in promotional material really struck a chord with me. From the initial teaser trailer, to the incredibly exciting “Endless Possibilities” trailer. Not to mention the reveal of the game’s opening cutscene (which is still one of the best pieces of cinematic Sonic action to ever be devised), and the “Night of the Werehog” short film. Everything they did while promoting this game got me more and more excited to play it – no, to experience it.
That’s just a sample of the things SEGA did to push marketing for the game, but at the time, it was really the first time a Sonic game had seen such heavy marketing since around Sonic Adventure 2. Sonic Unleashed was a game I felt constantly exposed to, which says a lot coming from someone who lives in Ireland, a country where not many games outside of FIFA and Call of Duty see much in the way of posters and advertising. This was a game people could easily get excited for; even my classmates in school at the time talked about it in a positive light, which was incredibly astounding to me, considering I sometimes got a bit of slagging for liking Sonic (mostly in good fun, though).
By day, a high speed action platformer…
Image Source: SEGA of America Flickr Account
The main gameplay of Sonic Unleashed is split into two halves – the day stages and the night stages. The day stages are where you play as Sonic the Hedgehog, where you’ll zip through stages at blindingly fast speeds, plow through enemies by ramming into them, and take on various platforming challenges. The game seamlessly switches between a 3D, behind-the-back viewpoint, and a side-scrolling 2D viewpoint. You have a wide array of abilities you can use, many of them being new to this game, like the Sonic Boost, the Quick Step, Drifting, Stomping, and Sliding, just to name a few.
This style of Sonic gameplay is the best received 3D Sonic gameplay in the franchise (more on that later), and for good reason. Along with the controls being quite intuitive and simplistic despite having many moves, the game gives you such a thrilling sense of speed even if you’re a casual or novice player who isn’t very good at speedrunning. It helps that the levels have a lot of routes to take, so usually, when you fail to make a jump, you don’t fall to a bottomless pit, and instead fall to a route that’s slower, but might actually have some hidden goodies in it. That’s not to say the game is without challenge and that obstacles and pits don’t exist. The bonus stages are particularly brutal in challenge and will test your reflexes and understanding of the game’s mechanics, with lots of clever platforming puzzles. Sonic also has momentum and a sense of weight, so like the classic games, you can use slopes and uneven terrain to your advantage to go faster or make higher jumps.
…By night, a brawlin’ adventure
The other half of the game comes in the form of the night stages. When the sun goes down, Sonic transforms into Sonic the Werehog, a more aggressive looking, but also 100% more fluffy version of Sonic. In this form, Sonic loses his trademark ability to run at supersonic speeds, but in exchange, gains brute strength and the ability to stretch his arms. These stages are all about beating up enemies, exploring these locations in their calm nighttime state, and pulling off a lot of acrobatic platforming.
These stages are often the biggest point of contention about the game. The main argument against them is that they “don’t fit in a Sonic game”. In a way, that is sort of true. In terms of gameplay, it’s not much like a regular Sonic game, since you aren’t running at supersonic speeds. However, I feel writing them off based on the fact “they don’t fit” is not giving them the attention they deserve. At that point, you are not even being critical of the levels themselves, but are saying they are bad based on the fact you prefer the daytime levels. I prefer the daytime levels too myself, but I also enjoy the nighttime levels because I didn’t think about them in terms of “oh, they’re just getting in the way of me playing the daytime levels”. Instead, I enjoyed them for what they were – nice pace breakers from the daytime levels that served to add more meat to the game. And I judged it as the kind of gameplay it was attempting to be (beat-em-up platformer), instead of “as a Sonic game”.
The nighttime levels in Sonic Unleashed are a terrible Sonic game, but that’s because they are not trying to be. That’s what the day stages are for. They are trying to be a beat-em-up platformer. And in that respect, while it’s by no means perfect, I still think it is a solid and fun beat-em-up platformer, that would be really great with some fine-tuning. The game it mainly takes inspiration from is the God of War franchise, basically being a family friendly version of that gameplay style. You have a lot of moves and combos at your disposal, and can even make up your own custom combos if you’re creative and understand your moves. Different moves have different properties, like opening up juggle opportunities, breaking enemy guards, and stunning enemies. You can even use your stretchy arms to grapple between enemies, and pick them up if you weaken them. You can also activate finisher attacks when an enemy has at least half their health left, and they are easier in accordance with how low the enemy’s health is. There’s also a lot of platforming, secrets to find, and many different kinds of intelligent enemies to fight who will frequently work together while fighting you. You can have situations where some bigger enemies huddle around you, smaller ones huddle around them, and then you have enemies sniping you from a distance even still. It can get pretty hectic and engaging and there are all sorts of ways to deal with the different enemy formations. And to be perfectly frank, I found it more enjoyable than most games in the God of War franchise. While I love the first God of War game for the same reasons I like the nighttime stages in Sonic Unleashed (i.e for having fun and engaging combat, mixed with platforming and exploration), later games in that franchise started to dumb down the fighting and removed a lot of the platforming and exploration, to the point I actually have more fun with this “kiddy” version of God of War and find it more challenging than most games in that franchise. Sonic in his Werehog form also has a lot of hidden depth to his abilities that can make traversing stages go by faster, such as how holding the jump button while grabbing onto a ledge causes him to vault off the ledge and curl into a ball, which is useful for creating your own shortcuts. It’s even got a sense of momentum to it, sending you farther the lower you grabbed the ledge from, or sending you in the exact opposite direction you grabbed from if you are doing it from a small pole embedded into a wall. This is a nice callback to the classic pinball physics Sonic has in the older Sonic games. You can also use some of your combat moves to create makeshift shortcuts, like the “X, X, A” combo in the air (those are Xbox 360 controls). You can actually skip most enemy encounters too if you don’t feel like fighting every one of them. You only have to fight them if a barrier is preventing you from progressing.
Overall, I feel the nighttime stages have way too much going for them to simply be written off due to “getting in the way” of playing the day stages. They’re not perfect, and if you really don’t like beat-em-ups in general, then the nighttime stages in Sonic Unleashed won’t change your mind. But I think most people would like them more if they played around with the mechanics more and just learned how the Werehog functions. Like I said earlier, he has a lot of secret abilities and his moves have hidden properties sometimes, and you will only discover them through experimentation.
A Cultural, “World Adventure”
Another big aspect of Sonic Unleashed is the hub worlds. These are split into two sections – Towns and Entrance Stages. The Towns are where you will find many townspeople to talk to who might even have missions for you, shops with items, and some secret collectibles. The Entrance Stages contain the entrance to the main action stages for both daytime and nighttime, as well as their own secret collectibles. These two areas give the game a feel similar to that of the original Sonic Adventure, where you had a world to explore in between action stages. However, it’s a lot more streamlined here and the different areas are accessed through a world map rather than being a big, connected world like a Zelda game or something. There is also an experience system for upgrading Sonic’s capabilities in both forms, and this is earned by defeating enemies or by eating food bought from shops.
However, what really makes these hub worlds special to me, is how well they represent different real world locations and cultures. All of the different “continents” in Sonic Unleashed (except for the final one), are based on some kind of real world location. For example, the first location is Apotos, which is based on the Greek island of Mykonos.
The developers paid a ton of attention to detail when making these locations in the game look as much like the real-life counterparts as possible, with some of their own artistic flair. As well as the game locations themselves looking so much like real locations, the people you can interact with in the towns are incredibly varied and reflect the real-life cultures they are based on. From an elder who happens to be a medical genius in Chun-nan (China), to side quests involving arranging a marriage for a girl in Mazuri (a tribal Africa inspired location), to a former supermodel who has since put on a lot of weight after settling down with her kids in Spagonia and works in her husband’s shoe shop (basically “Europeland” – being a hybrid of elements from Italy, France, and England). The cast of characters you can meet in the different continents all have stories to tell relating to the kind of culture they are surrounded by. They also have varied personalities in general, as well as varied body types, and everyone is represented in a positive way. For example, there is a university student in Spagonia who is very shy and struggles to talk to others. She’s also quite obviously overweight, but nobody ever references that fact. Which is really refreshing, because most games and shows for kids tend to focus on a one-dimensional trait, like a character being fat, and that defines the character. However, Sonic Unleashed manages to avoid doing this even with it’s NPC characters, the vast majority of which you never have to talk to either. It goes to show how much heart went into the game, and needless to say, it carries over to the main cast of characters like Sonic, Chip, and Professor Pickle too.
Overall, I’d say Sonic Unleashed does a great job of making me want to see the world. Between the pretty environments, the colourful, multi-cultural characters, and even the food (you can buy a lot of tasty looking food from the shops in the game, and eat it for EXP or feed it to Chip for his witty commentary and becoming closer with him), there’s a ton of love put into this game for culture enthusiasts.
A technical marvel ahead of it’s time
One thing I really appreciate more than anything, was just how much effort the game had put into it. Sonic games were normally rushed out to meet the Christmas deadline every year, which was how Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) ended up the way it did. However, Sonic Unleashed is by far the most ambitious Sonic game ever created in my opinion, and Sonic Team was clearly serious about making sure this was a great game. The Hedgehog Engine (which handles the game’s graphics) began development in 2005, with development on Sonic Unleashed itself beginning in 2006. Since the game released on November 18, 2008, this means that, combined with the dev time of the game’s engine and the game itself, Sonic Unleashed took three years to develop. The Hedgehog Engine was one of the first game engines that used true Global Illumination, and Sonic Unleashed is one of the first games to ever use Global Illumination as a result. Global Illumination (or GIA for short) is a lighting process where light comes from a light source, and dynamically bounces off any object it touches that is programmed to do so. This kind of lighting system in 3D environments is used to create environments that are lit up in a way that very closely resembles real life, since light bounces off objects in real life, even walls and people. The GIA in Sonic Unleashed is built to work with characters, including Sonic. Getting this to work properly with such an animated character who moves very fast is a huge accomplishment and is proof of the Hedgehog Engine’s power.
Image Source: NeoGAF Thread
As well as this, Sonic Team posted a lot of development process material, on both the official Sonic Unleashed website for the West and on a developer blog on the game’s Japanese website. While these two resources have unfortunately been taken down, sites like Sonic Retro have compiled much of the info. Sonic Team also attended GDC 2009 and showed off the Hedgehog Engine in great detail, including a demonstration depicting a level from Sonic and the Black Knight (a Wii game) in Sonic Unleashed’s engine, demonstrating just how much of a difference the Hedgehog Engine could make even to stage geometry with a much lower level of detail than an average Xbox 360/PS3 game.
Image Source: Sonic Retro Thread
The Legacy of Sonic Unleashed
While Sonic Unleashed never received a direct sequel, it is one of the most influential games in the franchise. It set a new quality standard for the Sonic franchise in almost every aspect, from the graphics, to the orchestral music, the hugely improved English voice acting, and even the writing and characterisation.
Most obviously though, the gameplay formula used for the daytime stages in Sonic Unleashed, went on to be used in Sonic Colours, and in the “Modern Sonic” stages in Sonic Generations. In those games, Sonic has the same base abilities and Sonic controls fairly similarly, albeit with some changes and improvements in future games compared to Sonic Unleashed. As well as this, the Hedgehog Engine is used once again in Sonic Generations and in Sonic Lost World. However, it’s shaders and general fidelity are toned down compared to Sonic Unleashed, in order to improve performance on consoles. Sonic Generations still contains the shaders of Sonic Unleashed in it’s code though (along with other remnants of Sonic Unleashed’s code), and modders have been able to utilise them to improve the graphical fidelity of Sonic Generations on the PC. The main difference between the shaders in both games is that Sonic Unleashed’s shaders has directional shadows and light shafts, while Sonic Generations does not.
Speaking of Sonic Generations, it naturally has references to Sonic Unleashed, due to being a celebratory game about Sonic’s history. The Sonic Generations stage “Rooftop Run”, is based on the Sonic Unleashed stage of the same name (Rooftop Run is the name of the action stages in Spagonia). Some enemies that debuted in Sonic Unleashed, mainly the Egg Fighters, make an appearance in this stage too. It also has both a Classic and Modern style remix to go along with it. Sonic Generations also has a feature where you can unlock Sonic music and play any of it in the background of any stage or boss fight, and there are a number of tracks from Sonic Unleashed included as part of this. The game also has a hidden statue room where you enter in codes to earn statues, and it has a number of statues of characters and enemies from Sonic Unleashed.
Characters from Sonic Unleashed also make some re-appearances in the franchise. The most notable of which is SA-55, who’d return as “Orbot” from Sonic Colours onward. While he was not named in-game in Sonic Unleashed, Ian Flynn of Archie Comics has stated that the original version of Orbot in Sonic Unleashed was named SA-55 in Sonic Unleashed’s internal game script. Orbot has now become a mainstay henchman for Dr. Eggman, and has a partner, Cubot. They even appear in the Sonic Boom universe as regular characters. Sonic’s Werehog form and Chip also appear in Sonic Runners, as a playable character and a “buddy” character respectively. Archie Comics also have adaptations based on Sonic Unleashed in their Sonic comics, and have integrated it’s characters into their version of the Sonic universe and mythos. Professor Pickle (a fan favourite character from Sonic Unleashed) and even various minor NPCs from Sonic Unleashed make an appearance. For example, depicted below is Lucia, a resident from Spagonia in Sonic Unleashed. She had a fairly in-depth line of quests in the Xbox 360/PS3 version involving her family and her mother’s birthday, and also served as the guardian of one of the Gaia Keys in the Wii/PS2 version of the game. Both of these concepts were adapted into the Archie Comics adaptation of the character.
Rooftop Run’s music also features in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U on the Windy Hill Zone stage. Although the track is credited as being from Sonic Unleashed, the specific version of the song used is actually the Modern Sonic stage remix from Sonic Generations.
Sonic Unleashed also saw a fair bit of merchandise, mostly figures and plushies of Sonic the Werehog, some of which you can still find on sites like Amazon.
And while this isn’t official, I feel like it’s worth mentioning. There is a very impressive mod for Sonic Generations on the PC known as the Unleashed Project.
This mod saw it’s 1.0 release some time ago, and contains all of Sonic Unleashed’s main daytime stages, ported into Sonic Generations PC, with level design adjustments where necessary. It also added Red Star Ring collectibles, and you can play with better performance and visuals due to the power of PC (if you have good enough specs), and you can play with the extra features Sonic Generations has such as customisable skills and even Classic Sonic! The mod is also gearing up for a 2.0 release this year, with the aim of adding the extra Acts and DLC Acts of each daytime stage. It also has a logo designed by Artsy Omni, whom readers of Source Gaming might be familiar with for his work on the Smashified series.
Super Hyper Sonic Unleashed Turbo HD ReMIX & Knuckles
As much as I like Sonic Unleashed, I do think it has a few issues that could be ironed out. Since most of them are to do with the performance of the game, I think the game could be easily fixed up simply by being on more powerful hardware, which is why I would like a remaster on PS4/Xbox One/PC. I think it’s one of the Sonic games that would most benefit from a remaster. This way, the game could have a more consistent 60 FPS frame rate (the PS3 version does somewhat achieve this but some levels suffer major frame rate drops), and more responsive controls as a result. Textures and lighting could probably be improved even further than they already were.
As well as this, a few small tweaks could really improve the game and make it appealing to more people. For example, the game has a progression system where you need to have collected a certain amount of Sun and Moon Medals in order to access certain levels. While I never personally had an issue with this (I’m a naturally explorative player when I first play a game), a lot of players say they always find they have to backtrack because they didn’t have enough medals to enter a certain level in the story. So I think they could remove this system from the game and just make levels unlock as you progress naturally. And instead, the Sun & Moon Medals could be used to unlock extras like concept art and other media. There are already collectibles for this in the game (floating artbooks and video tapes, etc), but they could probably remove some of these from the levels and just tie them to Sun and Moon medals instead. The Wii/PS2 version of Sonic Unleashed actually had this, where Sun & Moon medals unlocked these optional puzzle rooms where you switched between Sonic’s two forms to solve puzzles, and you find concept art, videos, and music in them. So a remaster of the Xbox 360/PS3 version could probably implement this concept into that version of the game.
As well as that, a remaster could include all of the game’s DLC stages on the disc, which is a lot of extra content for people who never bought them. The game could also make small tweaks to how Sonic controls. For example, Sonic Generations introduced a number of changes to how Sonic controlled and they were generally for the better. The biggest case being that in Sonic Unleashed, the Jump Dash/Homing Attack were mapped to the same button as the Boost/Air Boost button. This led to situations where you might intend to Homing Attack, but instead you would Air Boost, and it also meant that once you got the Air Boost upgrade, you could no longer use the Jump Dash unless your Boost gauge was empty. Sonic Generations fixed this by putting the Jump Dash/Homing Attack onto the Jump button, so you simply had to Jump and press Jump again to perform these maneuvers. So a remaster of Sonic Unleashed, could implement this change. As for the Werehog, while I’m generally fine with how he controls, I think he could be made a little less tank-like and loose, and a bit more tight and snappy in terms of his platforming controls. This would make certain platforming sections easier to navigate. Also, people tend to complain about him being slow. While I think he runs fast enough as is for the kind of gameplay it is, I wouldn’t mind him being a bit faster, and that might fix a complaint some people have. Additionally, there a few levels in both the daytime and nighttime stages where I feel they weren’t quite fully polished, with a couple of level design elements not always working how they should. While these moments are rare, I would like to see them fixed.
As much as I like the Unleashed Project, I feel it’s not a replacement for the real Sonic Unleashed, because the nighttime levels and the hub worlds are just as valuable as the daytime stages to me. So I would love an official remaster of Sonic Unleashed to iron out the game’s issues, just like what Nintendo have done with The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD.
While Sonic Unleashed may not be the most universally-praised Sonic game, it had a ton going for it and I definitely think many people can enjoy it, just maybe not people who want the most pure and simple Sonic experience out there. With a bit of fine tuning for a remastered release, I think more people would realise how much of a classic and how ambitious this game really was, standing as one of the best Sonic games ever.
However, I do hope the big Sonic game for Sonic’s 25th Anniversary that we will be seeing at the party in San Diego is just as ambitious and has as much care and passion put into it as Sonic Unleashed had. Something like Sonic’s equivalent to what The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is doing for the Zelda franchise right now. Considering how long it’s been since the release of Sonic Lost World and how they are willing to keep working on it into 2017, I have fairly high hopes I might get another experience as exciting and ambitious as what Sonic Unleashed was for me back when it was coming out.
About the author:
ChikoLad/sonicbrawler182 will continue playing Sonic Unleashed after having bought a new PS3 copy to play the game and refresh his memory for this article. If you want find him, he works on Smash Wii U mods as of late and uploads them to his GameBanana account. He also has aYouTube account where he occasionally uploads different kinds of random videos. If you want to chat, look for him on Twitter andSmashboards. And lastly, if you are attending Summer of Sonic 2016 in London on August 6th, then be sure to let him know if you wanna meet up and say hi!”
Mains: Yoshi (64), Game and Watch (Melee), Wario (Brawl), Wario/Pac-Man (Smash for 3DS/Wii U)