Thursday, December 8, 2011

Ragequit - Sonic Unleashed

I'm sure we've all heard the horror stories of Sonic games past Sonic Adventures 2 (or the original SA, depending on your tastes) on the Dreamcast, excluding Sonic Generations, but most of us have yet to truly step into one of those games if purely because of the stories and rumors about them.  When presented with the ability to jump in head-first to one of these games free-of-charge and running in my cousin's XBox 360, I took the opportunity, if just to see what truth lay in the words whispered in disgust.  As you might be able to tell, I have to unfortunately agree with the bulk of them, or at least the ones that say that Sonic Unleashed is not really a good game.  It is a serviceable game with flashes of brilliance, and by no means is it completely bad, but it just doesn't make it past the threshold into 'good'.

I'm sure you've heard of the premise already, but for the pretense of explaining it, I'll figure that you don't or have forgotten it by now.  While I didn't catch quite all of it, I caught enough of it to know what was going on, at least, and as with all the Ragequit posts, don't take everything I say at face value since I have obviously let my feelings on the game color my opinion of it as a piece of work.  The barebones of it is that at the start of the game, the planet semi-explodes and Sonic is a werehog for reasons that are completely unexplained.  Along with that, Sonic meets a little rodent thing that can't remember anything himself, so the two decide to join together on a quest to figure out their own personal mysteries.  Along this journey, they run across a professor and somehow they all realize that putting the chaos emeralds into altars scattered around the world will pull it back together and thus a quest is born.

Apparently Sonic starts the game with the emeralds already, as at no point in the game was I, or my cousin, forced to gather then, unsurprisingly and it was only after boss fights that they came into play as every boss, of course, marked an area where an altar was.  By all means, however, know that this is mostly all I gleamed from my hours upon hours of playing Unleashed, so know that the story is...unobtrusive to say the least.  'Barely present' is the better term, and even when it's right in your face, 'slipshod' is a good word to describe it as it's poorly executed and it was clear that nobody really wanted a story in the game, yet there it is.  Half an effort is worse than no effort folks, and it's about time we all learned that.  There are other 'hooks' I could touch on, but doing so would...more or less be a spoiler and even for this type of post, I would hate to do that.

The gameplay is, surprisingly, the least offensive part of the game, yet it is also what holds the game back from being good, obviously, as the story is so barely-there it hardly counts.  In here is where the flashes of brilliance occur and they're not quite as few and far in between as some would suggest, but they certainly don't carry the overall experience either.  The gameplay is divided between Regular Sonic (during the day) running from Point A to Point B ala classic style in 3-D and sidescrolling style with several options for branching paths here and there depending on how awesome you do (which, by proxy, makes you feel more awesome playing it) and WereSonic (during the night, obviously) maneuvering about similar areas in what is well-spotted by several other critics as a God of War clone that is fairly clumsy but unoffensive.  The werehog stages are most definitely weaker by comparison but, again, they're not outright bad until you get into the later levels where the game starts hurling bullshit at you in large piles.

Really, that's true for both halves of the game anyway, but it's a little more taxing in the Werehog stages, since the 'bullshit' in the Regular Sonic stages can generally be mastered or skipped altogether if you find a different route.  Not true in Werehog levels since they have a very clear and defined path and even if you have to go completely backwards for twenty minutes to unlock a switch back halfway through the level that you've already been at purely to open a new door, the path is so straight it makes complaints about Final Fantasy XIII look tame.  As far as the types of set pieces there are in GoW and GoW-styled games, I'm sure we've all grown to fear and loathe the balance beam areas, but at least they've never been 'poorly' designed.  Not so in Sonic Unleashed as, not only do they introduce (far too early) spikes on the edges of balance beam sections (meaning if you stray, you fall to your death), but they also introduce spiked beams that crumble when you start to walk on them, thus requiring speed in sections that are not built for them.  It is, again, in a single word 'bullshit'.

Through the whole game, an upgrading system is prevalent, but easily ignorable that has, again, two halves to it for both of the versions of our protagonist.  Upgradeable for Sonic is his speed and the ring energy (boost) gauge only, whereas WereSonic has access to "Combat" which teaches you new moves, Strength which governs how hard they hit, Life which is obvious, Unleash which governs how much energy you can store up for unleash (basically every power-up trigger mode ever), and...something else, I can't quite remember Shield which we didn't upgrade at all since it only affected blocking and blocking was not going to get you far.  They're all arbitrarily necessary to level up several times to be any good at the game, yet you'll find that you mostly get the experience necessary for them in the werehog stages since you only get them from defeating enemies and the werehog stages are where 95% of the enemy encounters will be.  Again, something that was clearly not thought-out well enough beforehand.

For a while, a good while even, I was having fun with the game and was quite surprised that it was as poorly received as it was.  Again, I never claimed the game to be 'good', but I never said it was 'bad' either, but I was quite leaning towards the latter option when we got towards the end of the game.  The above mentioned spike beams were about en masse, hit detection for Werehog's moves was starting to become poorer and poorer (as was his ability to take damage, since it kept scaling up and up in ways that shield would not have prevented) and for Regular Sonic's side, required randomized jump pads (hit the corresponding button to jump) and quicktime events of three to five rapid and random buttons started to pop up mid-level which meant magically training up your reflexes or being stuck for the remainder of your lives until a Game Over meant you had to play the whole stage over again.

Quicktime events become a running theme, of course, and towards the start and then not again until the end, there is a certain type of level that may as well be a rhythm game, since it was certainly nothing else.  Without giving too much away, it was a defense mission that would bring up the buttons of the controller that you had to press in a small window or take damage.  Enough damage, obviously, means you die and have to start over from the last checkpoint.  Or it would, except there are no checkpoints in these levels which means if you get to the end and die to one of the 10-string button combos, you get to look forward to fighting your way back to it and trying again.  Once again, I had to call 'bullshit' which was time number two.

Then we finally got to what I can only assume was the last level.  I won't give it away, but suffice to say it was thematically set to be the last level or at least the penultimate level, which was like a wave of relief to us.  The fun and excitement the game had brought for a day had already faded at this point and we were left with a dull, uninspired and constantly infuriating shell of the game we assumed was present in the final stages.  It was in this level that the game threw its final curveball at us which was all at once great and terrible.  Throughout the game, you've been presented Hourglasses in the hub worlds that you can strike to switch between day and night which would allow access to the other half of the levels that you could play.  It seemed a little odd, since the hub worlds themselves were entirely too small for it to matter, but we figured it was a convenience thing, so as to prevent having to go into the village (past a loading screen) and shift day/night there (causing another loading screen) only to then go back into the hub (for the third and final loading screen).  We were wrong.

The game had been preparing us to know of these hourglasses because they were present within the final level itself.  Don't ask me how it works, since the stage seemed to be in a constant state of darkness of night, but you start it as Sonic and then part-way through find an hourglass that turns it to night (without a loading screen somehow) to play the next section as Weresonic.  It is a good idea on the very surface, to finally blend those two distinct styles into the final level and appropriate as well, but once again, the execution is Sega-Quality, which means they just don't know what the hell to do with it.  Switching once and then back is understandable, and even switching to weresonic again is 'okay'.  However when I switch back to Sonic only to imagine one last section as Weresonic, that's where I draw the line.  There is a such thing as overstaying one's welcome after all.

And that was as far as we made it.  That stage was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back, as after one final death that brought around a Game Over during the third time you played as Regular Sonic in the same level, we both realized quite at the same time, awash with dread, that if we were to conquer the game, we'd have to play the entirety of the stage once again.  It was not a trial we were prepared to, so much as it seemed an exercise in futility, so we turned to one of a different color:  Modern Warfare 3.  I won't pretend that I was too 'indignant' to turn down a chance to play the title, nor will I suggest that I would've played anything so long as it wasn't Sonic Unleashed at that point, but I will say that it was quite a bit more enjoyable.  Which is disappointing, since every Sonic game that has been poorly received (likely for good reason) could have been so much better, as could have Unleashed.  But it was, unfortunately, as bad as you might've heard, if my breakdown is any indication.

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