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Second Opinion: Why “Unleashed” Is The Best 3D Sonic Game

In Defense Of The Werehog.

This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of. This is a series about games EVERYONE has heard of. Games that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of whether they’ve played them or not. Games whose actual qualities have been buried in a narrative, whether good or bad. Games that everyone always makes the exact same comments about. Games that are in desperate need of…a Second Opinion.

I’m “Doctor” I Coleman. I have a PhD in interactive trips to hell. I give unpopular Second Opinions to games where everyone thinks the case is closed, but when Kirbonic Pikmin on YouTube suggested that I defend Sonic Unleashed, even I balked. But sometimes doing a show like this means confronting your own biases about games, so here we go: I can hardly believe we’re doing this, but it’s time to give Sonic Unleashed a Second Opinion.

It’s no secret that modern Sonic games…well, they’re not good, are they? 2D platforming and 3D platforming are wildly different from each other, and require a very different approach – that’s why Super Mario 3D World feels like it has very little in common with New Super Mario Bros U, even though they’re both good games. Sonic is especially difficult to translate, because fast-paced loop-de-loop runner gameplay is awesome in 2D but nauseating in 3D.

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It also doesn’t help that Team Sonic can’t just leave well enough alone. They could have been churning out guaranteed money-makers by following the same classic formula for years (again, the example of Mario comes to mind.) Alternately, they could have just focused on translating the Sonic experience to 3D and then sticking with that. But they always gotta add in weird stuff, don’t they? Stuff like centering the game around an edgy side character with a gun. Or a weird fascination with sports tape. Or forcing the player to act out a romance between a hedgehog and a human.

A lot of people consider Sonic Unleashed the turning point for the franchise. Sure, there’d been bad games in the series before – even games that are pretty much universally agreed to be worse. But the fact that Sega would follow up a string of disappointing releases with a game where Sonic turns into a…sigh…Werehog? That was it. It was over. Those previous failures hadn’t been flukes – this was Sonic now, and it seemed like there would never be a proper 3D entry into the franchise. And, yes, fans, I’ll get this out of the way – yes, Sonic Generations was pretty good, though it had more flaws than its fans care to admit and it was mostly just good because of the sections that brought back the 2D stuff, not because it was a revelation in 3D space. Also: Colors was overrated, Lost World was crap, and the Sonic Boom games are extra-crap with a side of crapslaw. The TV show’s good, though.

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Anyway. The point is that there’s already a good 3D Sonic game, or at leas tthe blueprint for how a good one should be made. Now don’t get me wrong – calling Sonic Unleashed “flawed” is an exercise in understatement. The Werehog was stupid. The concept is stupid, it looks stupid, the name is stupid (because technically it should be “Hedgewolf”), and the parts of the game where you have to play as the thing are what holds the whole experience back.

See, half the game takes place at night, as the Werehog, and they’re these horrible action platforming sections. Unleashed came out at a time where every videogame wanted to be God of War, and there were a lot of wannabe clones that didn’t work, but none worked less than this game. Not only is the combat incredibly slow and plodding (which is exactly what you don’t want a Sonic game to be) but it wasn’t even competently executed. Why does jumping between columns take two button presses? Why are there framerate issues in these sections that don’t exist anywhere else? If you were playing on Xbox the controls were famously buggy, and if you were playing on Wii (as I did for this article), the game was a stark reminder of why gimmicky motion controls should all burn in hell forever.

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I completely understand why the game got the reception it did. As a games reviewer myself, if I got a game that was half broken, I wouldn’t be able to give it a positive score no matter how good the other half was. But reviews are based around evaluating the merit of a game as a product. Now that that’s no longer an issue, we can see Sonic Unleashed for what it really is: the game that all other 3D Sonic games should have taken inspiration from. Because, yes, the Werehog stuff was half the game. But the other half of the game wasn’t just good, it was the best this series has been since Sonic the Hedgehog 3, and I genuinely mean that.

I mean, look at the footage in that video above. That isn’t some professional speedrun or something. That’s the first level of the game. It’s fast, it’s exciting, and it feels like Sonic. And while it looks like it would take some kind of incredible skill to pull off, it’s actually really intuitive. Why? Well, there’s no easy answer – it’s just really good, really smart level design. Notice how, unlike a lot of other 3D Sonic games, it doesn’t really put obstacles in your path. There’s things you have to react to, sure, and you’re given plenty of time to react to them, but there’s nothing in your way that’s going to hit you and bring the game to a screeching halt, because while that might have worked in 2D, it’s a lot harder to anticipate and deal with those things in 3D, especially when backing up to try again requires a complete camera rotation.

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And speaking of 2D, Sonic Unleashed doesn’t feel nearly as ashamed of its past as, say, Shadow the Hedgehog does. It knows that some things work better in 2D, so long stretches of these daylight sections will switch perspective for more traditional gameplay. But then it switches back to do things in 3D that the old games couldn’t do, like this spinning wheel stuff, or things that are made better by a sense of spatial presence. Sure, that falling section probably could have been done in 2D, or at least something similar, but how much cooler is it to feel like you’re actually falling? And the movement between perspectives is so seamless that when I was playing I genuinely didn’t think of it as “2D sections and 3D sections.” I just thought about what a good time I was having.

It’s exciting! It feels like there’s surprises around every corner! And it speaks to an understanding of platformers and of the Sonic franchise that, frankly, we don’t see from Sonic Team anymore. Even Sonic Generations thought that the best way to combine 2D and 3D gameplay was to sequester them in completely different levels, which served only to show how much better base Sonic gameplay with no innovation is in two dimensions.

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Back to those changes in perspective. There’s a point in an early level where you swivel around and start falling towards the city where I’m pretty sure my jaw literally dropped. And that’s because of something else Sonic Unleashed does really well – atmosphere. Yes, I know how ridiculous it is to make that comment about a Sonic game. But I still stand by it. Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 is often held up, correctly, as a quintessential example of bad worldbuilding. It doesn’t make sense for these cartoony animal characters to exist in a world with realistic human beings, especially one that…might be fantasy? Might be modern-day? Even at the time when the graphics were slightly less dated-looking than they are now, it was jarring and ugly, because it wasn’t consistent.

Unleashed’s graphics, on the other hand, still look great, barring some visual artifacting in cutscenes. They actually thought about how to make a cohesive Sonic world, designing something that fit the cartoony style of the characters instead of trying to force those cartoon characters to exist in a realistic gritty environment. Look, I know most of us don’t like the idea of humans existing at all in the Sonic universe, but if they’re going to exist, this is the best way to do it.

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Say what you will about Team Sonic and Sega and all the stupid decisions they made regarding this game, but I refuse to hear a bad word said about the art team. In fact, the lead character designer for Sonic Unleashed, Shinkichi Tanahashi, even said that he thought the final design of the Werehog looked “silly.” If you look at his original designs for the beast here, you can see that it wasn’t even originally going to be wolf-based, just a beefier, more combat-focused version of the character. Now to you, these designs might still seem a little silly or have a little too much of that 90s edginess, but for my money these all have a lot more character and feel like they fit more in the Sonic universe than the stupid garbage design they eventually used. It’s clear that there were talented people with really good ideas working on this project, and that those ideas weren’t always allowed to shine.

Back to the good stuff, though, another reason that I actually like and care about the world where Sonic Unleashed takes place is because I actually care about the story of Sonic Unleashed. Again, I know that some people don’t like the idea of the games having story or cutscenes at all, but if they’re going to try to tell a more interesting narrative, this is the way to do it.

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I mean, just look at the opening cutscene. Don’t tell me that a very-clearly-Star-Wars-inspired shot of Dr. Robotnik’s space fleet isn’t, on some level, kinda awesome. And you know what else is great about that scene? Sonic doesn’t talk. When we think about cutscenes in Sonic games, we think about these long, drawn-out affairs with overwrought dialogue about the fate of the universe and uguggh. It’s worldbuilding by text dump. But this? You could know nothing about the series and understand this. Robotnik is evil, he’s dangerous, and he builds these huge elaborate armies, but Sonic tears through them like they’re nothing. It sets up what the game’s about and who the major players are and gives you something really visually interesting to watch. When you watch Sonic 06’s opening cutscene, all you’re thinking is “I wish this cutscene would end.” When you watch Sonic Unleashed’s opening cutscene, you’re thinking “Holy crap! That’s awesome! I want to be that guy! I want to run around destroying robots at mach speed.”

Sure, there’s shortly after we get into the business with the Werehog and it all falls apart, but y’know what? It actually kiiiiiinda works from a storytelling perspective. Because Sonic’s goals in the story actually align with the player’s goals in the game. You want to be the guy you saw at the very beginning, the butt-kicking hero who saves the day. You don’t want to be this wolf guy. And that sets up the adventure you’re going to go on – you want to turn Sonic back to the person you wanted to play in the opening cutscene. Now, I think there’s probably ways to bring Sonic down that were less ridiculous than introducing a “were-hog,” and I certainly think that they shouldn’t have tacked on the lousy gameplay associated with the character, but in general concept? This actually could have worked.

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You see, the game’s writers understood something that’s very, very important: everything about Sonic the Hedgehog is stupid. He’s a neon blue bobblehead that looks nothing like his supposed species and runs at 3000 miles an hour. His best friend is named “Miles Per Hour” and his arch-nemesis is a goofy redheaded egg. He’s best when he’s a chili-dog-scarfing parody of himself, not spouting off some faux-Shakespearean dialogue to a bargain bin Final Fantasy character. Sonic Unleashed gets this, which is why it doesn’t take itself too seriously, scrapping most (I said most!) of the stupidly complex mythological stuff in favor of things like a minute-long rant about the perfect sandwich. That scene is a genuine delight. And it means that later on, when the game does take a gentle turn for the darker, it was a million times more effective than any of the edginess in Shadow the Hedgehog. To be fair, that game also made me laugh, but uh…more in a “laugh-at” sort of situation.

Sonic Unleashed also pares down its cast a lot, something that the series desperately needed. Your returning cast is Sonic, Tails, Amy, and Eggman, and the only other two characters of any real importance are Chip, who I find basically inoffensive and who gets a lot better as the game goes on, and Professor Pickle, who I genuinely unironically adore. Because there’s a smaller cast of characters and the more annoying series staples are gone, the game can have more of those funny, low-key character moments, and it makes for a story that is genuinely engaging and interesting even if it does center around quite possibly the worst premise any game has ever had.

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I understand why Sonic Unleashed got the hate it did. Like I said – before I got the request to do this video, I would have been right there bashing it with everyone else. And yet, I can’t help but feel a certain amount of sadness that Sonic Unleashed’s legacy will always be that of a failure. Because the game did so poorly and was so universally loathed, Sonic Team continued their pattern of reinventing the wheel with every release, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. And there was no need to reinvent the wheel. The wheel was right there!

Sonic Unleashed is, and I say this with all sincerity, the greatest 3D Sonic has ever been. Its gameplay was fluid, fast, and exciting, grounded in the series’ roots but with a strong understanding of how adding a third dimension could augment that gameplay and make it even better. The graphics and music still hold up today and created a fantastic sense of atmosphere, helped by a character-driven story that may not be winning any Pulitzers any time soon, but was the perfect mix of adventure and silliness that made the Sonic franchise so popular.

Someone at Sega knew what they were doing, and it’s nothing short of criminal that their work has to share the same disc with some guy’s weird furry OC.

I. Coleman
I Coleman believes that videogames are the most important, most fascinating, and most potentially world-changing entertainment medium today. When not saying dorky, embarrassing crap like that, I is a game designer, science fiction author, and former reviews editor for the now-defunct GamerSyndrome.com with years of experience writing for and about games.
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