Tag Archive: SEGA HD


Platforms: Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony PlayStation 3
Developer: Sonic Team – Publisher: SEGA
Genre: Action/Adventure/Platformer
ESRB Rating: “E10+” for Everyone Ages 10 and Up

Over the past year or two I’ve grown up in a number of ways, some of which might qualify as life-changing epiphanies or world-shattering realizations that completely change the way I look at the world. The one that’s relevant to this review is utterly inconsequential: I realized that I was too damn defensive about games that I’m determined from the off to enjoy.

I think, actually, that a lot of gamers share this problem, and many of those that don’t fall into the opposite side of the ballpark: the side that focuses too much on a game’s flaws without acknowledging enough of what was good about it. It’s a textbook glass-half-empty, glass-half-full psychology, I think, but as someone who would quite like to review videogames professionally (and, if possible, by way of actual profession), the revelation that I am simply too forgiving just made me want to head-desk. I didn’t, of course, not being a fan of bumps to the head. But you get the picture.

When SEGA first released Sonic Unleashed (poetry unintended), I was obsessing over it on the SEGA forums. Like many fans of the time, I was, in my own way, still reeling from the massive wad of fail that SEGA had seen fit to dub Sonic the Hedgehog back in 2006. My own particular way of doing this might be identified by an adept psychologist as the root of all that is the Sonic Cycle: I was so fixated on the next game in the series being good that I was determined to see it as such. So, I villainized professional reviewers who derided the game (mind you, the IGN and GameSpot reviews are still embarrassingly bad at what they do, but my reasons for saying that now aren’t so biased). I churned out an overlong, overwordy review in defense of the game. To my credit, I acknowledged a number of its key flaws. But the tone of it was unmistakable: “I want this game to be good, so I’m saying that it’s good!”

…Which is exactly why I’m reviewing the game for a second time just now. Consider the above monologue a retraction of sorts.

But don’t misunderstand: I am not, per se, throwing my lot in with the likes of Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw or IGN’s Hilary Goldstein. Quality isn’t so black-and-white that any game that isn’t “great” automatically gets filed away in the “fail” folder. Sonic Unleashed is, I realize, a sublimely average game that looks pretty and is only remarkable in any way because the Day Stage gameplay is unique to the franchise. Sonic is the only character to have played quite this way, so it’s impossible to say that “you can get this kind of gameplay from another game, only done better” — which is, I’m sure most would agree, the main reason why “average” games aren’t often worth playing.

The most obvious problems with this game are still the most obvious points that I brought up in my previous review: the Werehog stages that dominate the majority of gametime, and the gods-damned medals. The Werehog itself (let’s not waste time nitpicking the etymology of the word “Werehog” as if doing so is somehow clever or witty, ’kay?) is a bread-and-butter God of War clone, and the issue I mentioned above does indeed apply. You can get the same gameplay, done infinitely better, from other games (God of War, Dante’s Inferno, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, and probably a number of others as well). It’s not quite what I’d call “bad,” it’s just wholly unremarkable and in no way unique enough to make up for it. Is it any surprise that players who had already been exposed to modern beat-‘em-ups lost interest so quickly?

The medals are a more fundamental issue, a classic case of collectible-based stage progression gone horribly wrong. You need to collect a specific number of Sun Medals and Moon Medals to unlock each successive stage in the game, and by the end of the game the requirements are unreasonably high. These medals are scattered throughout the stages, often in clever hiding places, and the majority of them are in the Werehog stages (which makes sense; the high-octane speed stages don’t exactly present the most optimal stage setup for exploration). The upshot is that you spend more time playing stages you’ve already finished than actually progressing to new content. Tedious design like this artificially lengthens playtime, and when playtime is lengthened in such a way, it inevitably leads to player frustration. This is unforgivably bad game design, and is the only flaw in this game that I honestly can’t find any valid defense for.

One complaint that often comes up when people talk about Sonic Unleashed is the hub-world, but I think this is more people projecting a lingering hatred of 2006’s Soleanna onto the world of Unleashed. This game’s hub world is both utterly unremarkable—completely average in every single way—and unobtrusive enough that it doesn’t matter whether it exists or not. I did defend this in my original review, but having played through the game again recently, I realize that for every ounce of charm this hub contains, it holds equal portions of “There is simply no reason you should give a crap.” You walk around quaint little town sections and talk to people. You walk around little stage-portal hubs and enter stages. There are a few collectibles sprinkled hither and thither, but not enough to eat up more than a few minutes of your time. Townsfolk sometimes give you missions to accomplish, some of which are good, most of which are pointless, none of which are worth complaining about, all of which are entirely optional. The hubs do the game no real credit, but neither do they do it any harm. They’re just… there. They exist, therefore they exist. And that’s all that the great sage and eminent orange soda addict, Solaris Paradox, has to say on the subject.

So, then, the real attraction here is those day stages I mentioned, right? I like ‘em, but having played them to death and gotten over the novelty, all I can say is that they make for a nice rush, but lack the spice of life. You know… that little aspect called “variety.” The most interesting thing that ever happens during a Day Stage is the ice level’s “Surprise! You’re in a bobsled!” segments, which are fun, brief, and the only spark of life that Sonic Unleashed has on offer in terms of stage design. (The designers must have realized this, because the bobsled returns for an encore in the game’s punishingly-difficult final stage.)

Each stage is, in essence, a slightly-more-challenging version of the previous: you run really, really fast, boost through tons of stuff, side-step a lot, occasionally drift through a turn (Sonic does play somewhat like a racecar in this regard), grind on too many rails, and spend a lot of time watching Sonic run through loops and corkscrews and other manner of “Yeowza, that’s awesome!” set-pieces, usually with the aid of more dash-pads than any Sonic the Hedgehog level should ever have, want, or need.  It’s a peculiar combination of gameplay and non-gameplay — if I had to peg the style introduced in Sonic Unleashed with any one key flaw, it would be an overemphasize on cinematics and an underemphasis on actual gameplay. The stages are flashy, linear, and, ultimately, too simplistic for their own good.

The Day Stages offer the “let’s try our darnedest to reel in the old-school crowd” gimmick of switching back-and-forth between a behind-the-back perspective and a 2D-sidescroller perspective. While this is a neat gimmick in theory, I don’t think Unleashed used it to its proper potential (Sonic Colors did so more admirably, but still has a ways to go). I’m talking, of course, of what makes Sonic work so well in 2D. You see, I have no aversion to speed-centric stage design in a 3D perspective. If anything, being able to see what’s in front of Sonic opens up new avenues for the designers to throw more and more complex stage designs at the player without slowing the pace of the level to do so. The 2D sections, however, are very much akin to Sonic Rush on the Nintendo DS; you boost, you occasionally use memorization to jump into a shortcut, score ring, or some such, and mostly you just see Sonic run. What works for Sonic in 2D is what worked for Sonic back in his 2D days: speed, physics, and platforming. Unleashed’s 2D segments contain far too much of one, not enough of another, and totally screw the pooch on the one in-between.

Optional and downloadable stages offer some of the variety that the main-story levels lack, but usually at the cost of making obvious some flaw in the gameplay that rarely, if ever, poses a problem in the main game (because it sticks to what the style actually does well). An optional level might offer an abundance of 3D platforming; this only succeeds in making Sonic’s less-than-optimal directional control more of a hindrance. An optional stage might offer a lot of 2D platforming; this only succeeds in exposing how jerky and uncontrollable his jumps are. An optional stage might involve a lot of 2D speed-jumping and reflex reaction; this only exposes how little time the 2D segments give you to react to things at all.

There are other issues I could go on about — I’m a particular fan of raging about how annoying the abundance of “quick-time events” are in this game (there’s a really drawn-out minigame that the player is forced to endure twice, which is nothing more or less than one long QTE), or how cheap the instant-kill QTEs, which litter optional levels and late-game story stages, can be. There’s the game’s over-reliance on bottomless pits, and alternately, water-running segments, which are bottomless pits that you can run over if you’re moving fast enough. There’s the story, which is actually decent, contrary to what you might have heard. There’s Chip, the game’s spritely one-off sidekick character (whether you find him charming, annoying, or simply “meh” like I do is a matter of personal taste).

The bottom line, however, is that what I saw in Sonic Unleashed when it came out was a game that is infinitely better than Sonic the Hedgehog 2006. What I see now is a game that is a massive step forward from ’06, but still a long ways from where the series needs to be to interest anyone who isn’t already a fan of Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s a game with potential but not enough worthwhile content, and with far too much other content that buries the underlying experience in a fog of mediocrity. It is, in short, what most of the non-cringeworthy naysay-reviews identified it as when it first came out.

I was just too much of a fanboy to notice at the time.

Ah, well, it’s like the song goes, right? “Live and learn…”

The above article was originally posted to SEGA HD on August 9, 2011.

In my Sonic Unleashed retrospective review, I droned on for a bit about how over the last few years, I grew up and started to see things differently — started to see how my previous views on some things were either too simplistic or, in this case, far too holier-than-thou… which is ironic, as I’m an atheist.

One-and-a-half of those reading this may remember an old rant video, which I made back when I was into that sort of thing on YouTube, a rant that raged about over-the-top sex appeal in videogames. I find myself in the awkward position of declaring yet another retraction, for the second article in a row… I am, honestly, no longer even slightly bugged by this aspect of videogames. No, seriously. I really couldn’t care less. I bet you clicked on this article expecting some scholarly dissertation on how game companies are whoring themselves out by exploiting the lowest common denominator with their hyper-emphasis on cleavage, fetish gear, and Team Ninja jiggle physics.

Surprise! This article swings for the other team.

“But Solaris, O great sage and eminent orange soda junkie,” I hear you cry, “what in the holy name of cowpatties does this have to do with SEGA?”

Bayonetta, wise guy. Now sit down and shut up.

I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea, though—I haven’t just given up and joined the droolers who only bought SoulCalibur IV because of how spectacularly Ivy’s top vomits on the laws of physics. Believe it or not, I actually do have a valid intellectual reason for this change of heart: at some point, I asked myself why this kind of thing is somehow bad, and I couldn’t come up with an answer. At least, not an answer that I couldn’t think of a good defense against.

There are, as a rule of thumb, three kinds of people who lash out at sex appeal in games. There are the prudes, who tend to exist outside of the gaming community more often than within it (example: Fox News… ‘nuff said). There are those—whether male or female themselves—who focus less on the sex appeal itself than what they perceive as a negative impact on women in our society… in other words, those channeling feminist ideals into their views on gaming. Then there are people like, well… me: people who at some point and for some reason decided that “standards” were more important than the logic behind the standards.

I don’t mean to boil things down to such basic ideas, though. Most people, I find, have some more complex mixture of ideas behind their views, and this is no exception. I was mostly Exhibit C, but I was also a bit of Exhibit B and, for a time when I was even younger and less world-wise than I am now (which is hard to imagine, actually), I was quite a bit of Exhibit A.

Oh, but now I need to bust out the ol’ fire extinguisher, because I get the feeling my little three-kinds-of-people speech just now offended all three of those types of people. In truth, the only people I intend to insult are the prudes. And that’s just me being spiteful because I can. I don’t mean to suggest that feminism or standards are, in and of themselves, bad things—I simply feel that in this case (both with regards to gaming and other forms of media), they are being mis-applied.

“But Solaris, O great sage and eminent Coca-Cola smoker,” you sigh, shaking your head in disappointment. “Do you really intend to suggest that the oversexifying of female characters does not have a negative impact on women in our society?”

Well, uh… yeah, actually. But this is going to take some explaining. You see, readers, I know the usual arguments well enough: overemphasizing this view of “sexy” puts too much pressure on women to conform to a certain standard, overemphasizing the idea of women as sex objects has a negative impact on how much respect men have for them as people, et cetera and so on and all that jazz. My problem is that none of these issues are actually about the sex appeal itself: they’re about the people who view it. It is perfectly possible for free-thinking men and women to play, watch, and enjoy these same “oversexified” media without any of the feared social problems occurring, and do you know why? Because all of these things are completely dependent on the maturity, intelligence, and worldviews of the person experiencing the media.

So, what, do we ban Rocky Road ice cream because a sizable chunk of our population never learned the definition of the word “moderation?” No. And I see no more reason to demonize sex appeal because a significant portion of our society is, for some reason or another, not mature enough for that “M” rating (or even the “T” one). Both maladies are curable via the same remedy: fix the brain behind the eyes, dammit. Instead of working to censor or demonize media that can potentially aggravate an existing problem with society, why not focus on mitigating the problem itself? I mean, I know it’s harder to have those oh-so-embarrassing heart-to-hearts with your kid when they hit puberty, but this is the root of a lot of societal issues. In this case as well as others, people are placing the blame on media rather than the people responsible for taking the ideas media presents and putting it into a mature and intelligent context.

An example of a mature and intelligent context? “The female form is a lovely thing. It is pleasing to look at. I enjoy looking at pleasing things. Is this particular portrayal unrealistic? YES, IT’S UNREALISTIC.” And that is all it takes to place sex appeal in a context that keeps one’s perception of the real world and society intact. And it’s almost identical to the line of reasoning that any vaguely intelligent person follows to determine that the wand-waving prestidigitation of the Harry Potter series is a case of fictional fun time and, ahem, not something you should be trying at home. It’s a very basic fact-and-fiction mentality that anyone should be capable of. Even if the subject matter isn’t as fanciful, making such logic a societal norm can’t be that hard!

“Alrighty, Solaris, O awesome sage and eminent Orange Sodaholics Anonymous flunkie,” you say. “You’ve said your bit about that, but what was that about my standards being bull?

…To which I say, that’s not what I said. Standards are a good thing, because quality is a good thing. The only reason anyone ever makes a quality product is because people want a quality product, and that’s standards in seedshell.  Giving up standards means giving up quality. But in this case, I have one simple problem with the way people view sex appeal in terms of standards: people tend to operate under the assumption that sex appeal is, in and of itself, an aspect of lesser quality. In fact, sex appeal is a victim of circumstance — it is entirely possible for a genuinely great game, such as Bayonetta, to verily explode with oversexification, while games that are complete and utter crap (Exhibit B in this case would be X-Blades, tho’ you’re free to insert any poorly-designed oogle-fest you like) are just as amorous. Sex appeal isn’t an aspect of lesser quality; it just happens to be easy to exploit regardless of quality.

It’s not unlike a licensed game based on a really good movie. Maybe the game is good. If so, more power to Electronic Arts; they managed not to suck this time! Maybe the game is bad, though. Is this the fault of Harry Potter? No. Is the blame then on licensed games in general? No. It’s because EA decided they were going to fail at life that day. Blaming Harry Potter for the failure of a licensed game that happens to include him would be silly. Following that logic, blaming overexcited jiggle physics and oversized mammaries for the bad game design that accompanies them is a classic case of missing the point. Don’t hate the sex appeal for how exploitable it is — hate the games that exploit it. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

There’s another side of the “standards” issue that boils my bladder, though, and mostly it boils it because I once thought this way myself. This side involves the idea that people who indulge in sex appeal or prioritize it in any way are lacking in standards. This is so snobbish that I can’t help but shake my head in dismay even thinking about it. “Standards” are about quality, not about the subject matter that entertains a person. Someone who enjoys television more than reading doesn’t necessarily lack taste. Someone who would rather listen to rock music than classical music doesn’t lack taste. Someone who would rather play a videogame than watch a movie doesn’t lack taste. Why, then, is someone who includes sex appeal in their list of gaming preferences automatically doing so in poor taste? It’s not a matter of “taste” or “standards” — it’s a matter of seeing something that isn’t for you and looking at it as “beneath” you.

There is a related point that should be addressed, here: much of this is aggravated by the perception that the people who buy games (or movies, or whatever) for the eye candy are immature or vulgar. Actually, it’s reversed: immature and vulgar people tend to gravitate toward this sort of thing. Once again, sex appeal itself is a misunderstood victim of circumstance.

Even having said all this, there is one point I made back in the day that I still at least partly defend: the portrayal of women as characters. I no longer feel any annoyance at the way women look in my games, but the way they act is another matter entirely. This isn’t even about sex appeal, though; Devil May Cry 4’s Kyrie would still be a squeaky little damsel in distress even if she wasn’t positively overflowing into her own dress. The problem with oversexified characters that are written poorly isn’t that they’re oversexified, it’s that they’re written poorly. Can sex appeal be used in interesting ways? Of course it can! The exaggerated “we’re pushing the envelope and laughing our own pants off as we do it” nature of Bayonetta even qualifies as some proof of that, and that’s before we even touch on using it as a theme all its own, the way Atlus does in the recently-released Catherine.

The funny thing is, I get the sense that a lot of people who badmouth sex appeal in gaming are actually thinking along the same lines as this article, and just wording it poorly. I think the difference is important enough that we — as the gaming community, and as a society in general — need to acknowledge it clearly. And not just for the sake of not being snobs about the games we play, either. I think that placing more emphasis on this distinction may just have a positive impact on the way society thinks in general.

I mean, will someone please think of the children? And not assume they’re all brain-dead morons incapable of independent thought? I think that would be a decent starting point for fixing almost every problem our society has, actually…

The above article was originally posted to SEGA HD on August 9, 2011.