Sega's spiky mascot didn't exactly impress with his last outing--the eponymously titled Sonic The Hedgehog--but early indicators for the upcoming Sonic Unleashed look to be significantly more positive. Now just weeks away from release, we managed to grab some hands-on time with the Xbox 360 version of the new game, which included wrangling with some of the bosses Sonic will be going head-to-head against.
For the uninitiated, Sonic Unleashed isn't going to be purely about speed. Unleashed will feature two distinct gameplay styles--daytime levels will be your classic Sonic speed runs, while nighttime levels will be more akin to a beat-'em-up brawler (with Sonic transforming into a creature called a werehog). We're not completely sure how this relates to the game's story, but we do know that the evil Eggman is back and has somehow got hold of the Chaos Emeralds. Eggman uses the emeralds to fire up a superweapon, which splits the Earth into many different pieces, and it’s up to Sonic to get the planet back together.
We played through three different daytime levels during our hands-on session--a section set in Greece, which was the subject of our previous previews (now called Apotos in the game), the European city-inspired Spagonia, and the China-themed Chun-nan. Apotos is all sunshine and Mediterranean housing, while Spagonia features cobbled streets and plenty of tables on sidewalk restaurants to run through. Chun-nan, on the other hand, starts off with Sonic running along the top of what looks like the Great Wall of China before heading down into a low valley flanked by high mountain walls. If we're a little light on the descriptive phrases for these levels, it’s because Sonic moves through these areas so quickly that most of it becomes a blur--which is nothing but good news for Sonic fans. That trademark Sonic sense of unbelievable speed is well and truly back in Unleashed, with some cool motion blur effects adding to the feeling of inertia. Best still, the frame rate drops we saw in earlier builds look to be gone, with the new Hedgehog Engine holding steady during our game session.
And in even more good news for fans of the series, playing through these three daytime levels reminded us most of Sonic's 2D 16-bit days, where speed had to be balanced out with fast reflexes and knowledge of the best paths to take through levels. In the early Apotos level, getting and maintaining top speed was quite easy. But that task grew more difficult in Spagonia and Chun-nan, where quick runs could be stymied by a mistimed jump, environmental dangers, such as spikes or moving platforms, and not reacting quickly enough to oncoming obstacles. Sonic has several moves at his disposal to keep the speed up, including quick sidesteps to the left or right (done by using your controller's shoulder buttons) to rapidly move out of the way. The hedgehog also has a homing roll attack, which he can use to kill opponents without breaking stride. Finally, Sonic has his own version of NOS in Unleashed--pressing B will give him a temporary speed boost, with this ability being recharged by collecting more gold rings in a level. You'll also have to now deal with quick-time button press events (which are seemingly all the rage in games today). You successfully input the right button combination when these events pop up, and Sonic will take a different route that may yield more coins or fewer enemies. If you fail, you'll have to take the less optimum path.
Things are markedly different when Sonic turns into a werehog during the night levels, with all the speed of daytime replaced by a God of War-lite action brawler where Sonic uses his fists to take on opponents. The night Apotos level is the first you'll come across in Unleashed and serves as training where you'll be exposed to the werehog's various attacks. The Y and X buttons can be used to string together various combo attacks; A is for jump, while B is to grab enemies. You can also perform special finishing moves on certain opponents--pressing the B button whilst close to a wounded enemy will trigger yet another quick-time button press event, which when successfully inputted, will result in the werehog doing a flashy final hit on his hapless foe. The Apotos night level was mainly populated by lumbering and easily disposed of foes, which looked a little like evil versions of the Disney character Stitch. But by the time we got to the night Chun-nan level, much harder foes (including a fiery floating wizard that was more than reminiscent of Orko from He-Man) were on hand to give Sonic a decent challenge.
To close off our game play session, we decided to take on some of the bosses Sonic can expect to tangle with when Unleashed releases later this month. Firstly, we took on the end boss of the night time Apotos level, a large shadowy figure armed with a large club that could send large shockwaves along the ground. Battling this creature turned out to be pretty easy (once we got rid of the dozens of minions surrounding our lone werehog, that is). Much more challenging was the daytime level boss we tackled, a wasplike ship called Egg Beetle piloted by Eggman himself. This boss battle takes place on what looks like a treetop highway in the African-themed Mazuri level and sees Sonic having to chase after the Egg Beetle whilst simultaneously avoiding his various attacks. The Egg Beetle liked to fly in front of our perky little hedgehog, firing out large spiked balls and fireballs directly in his path. You'll have to use Sonic's boost ability in order to catch up to the Beetle and quickly perform a homing attack to do damage. Eventually, the boss shifts his attack pattern, with the screen moving to a 2D view where Sonic has to avoid missiles being fired at him from above. This boss battle was definitely tense, testing out our skills and reaction time (just as a good Sonic game should).
Based on what we've seen so far, Sonic Unleashed looks like it'll contain plenty of what made Sonic great in the first place, at least as far as the daytime levels are concerned. We'll have to wait until we get the full game in our hands, however, before we make a call on just how well the slower, brawling nighttime levels fit into the entire package. Sonic Unleashed is due out on the 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, and Wii at the end of November. Check back soon for our full review.