E3 08: Sega unleashes the beast in Sonic Unleashed

Ah, Sonic. It’s the game that you used to love, and then began to hate, got your hopes up for, and maybe even gave up on. It’s all very sad, really. It’s sad for the Sonic fan, and probably just as bad for Sega’s pocketbook.

That’s why Sega is trying to overhaul the whole three-dimension Sonic formula with Sonic Unleashed. The game wasn’t quite ready for hands-on yet, but Sega did give us a thorough run-through, showing off the new “unleashed” night time game play for the first time.

Graphically, this time around, things look a bit better than they have in recent Sonic games. Sega says that this is due to a new graphical engine, the Hedgehog Engine, that they’ve developed at Sega Japan. They tell us that this new engine has the ability to stream textures and geography very quickly. This was apparent in our demo; I’ve never seen a videogame with such a sense of speed.

This time around, rings don’t only serve as hit points. Now Sonic also builds up a ring energy gauge, and you use this energy to use the new power, Sonic Boost. Think of this power as a sort of nitro boost. Speed goes from just fast to totally crazy when boosting. Sega says that Sonic moves at a “virtual 300 miles per hour.” I don’t know how they could measure that, but it was fast regardless.

Hit the jump for more on Sonic Unleashed.

There’s a new “2.5-D” perspective for Sonic Unleashed. Sega says that this marks a kind of return to Sonic’s roots. Without actually playing Unleashed, we can’t confirm that this is actually a “return,” but the level design did remind me of the classic 2-D Genesis titles in sections. Sega says that they’re aiming for “the best of both worlds,” which means that they’ll use either 3-D or 2-D depending on what works best for the situation. From what we saw, the game manages to change between the two on the fly.

For Sonic Unleashed, it seems that Sonic was captured by Dr. Eggman. The Chaos Emeralds were used on Sonic to form a chaotic transformation. Unfortunately for Sonic, his speed is stripped away, and he ends up turning into a Sonic Werewolf. 

Super strength and reach replace speed during the night time, when Sonic changes into werewolf form. The gameplay is similar that of action performers, with Sonic using his claws (think Wolverine) and stretchy arms to beat down enemies and obstacles. Forget running and loops; Sonic is full-on fighting now. Multiple button presses initiated combos which made me think of Devil May Cry… with a hedgehog. Stretchy arms are also used for platforming, like reaching for higher ground or ledges. 

Finally, they show us a new China-inspired level and speed mechanic. Quick Step allows Sonic to keep running forward. You don’t have to steer, but you can nudge him left or right with the left and right bumpers. As you’ll see in the screenshots, this Chinese level is beautiful and visually polished, with some of the pathways designed to look like dragons. The gameplay seemed closer to that of the later Sonic 3-D games, with launch pads and targeted enemy hopping. 

While chatting with other games writers, we found that opinions greatly varied. Some felt that Unleashed is a step in the right direction, while others feel they’re making the same mistakes still. All agreed that none of us can be sure without a hands-on session. I’ll remain hopeful that one of my favorite franchises is finally getting back to its roots. Don’t mess it up, Sega.

Dale North